Leader Talk: Interview with Dil Sidhu, Associate Dean, Columbia Business School

It was an opportune moment for us. Time and again we have emphasized on strong linkages that’s concomitant to industry-academia partnerships. Thus, Dil Sidhu’s visit provided an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding. In our midst and addressing the NASSCOM leaders afterwards, he agreed – most generously – to share insights on a range of topics.    

  • The relevance of MBA as a qualification in today’s environment. Highlighting some of the issues specific to this age.

The value of an MBA qualification is just as strong and hasn’t waned at all – to set the record straight. As a rigorous training program for business professionals, it has few parallels. Notwithstanding a certain sameness seen in the yesteryears, today, the need for accreditation has increased vastly, and B-schools have to necessarily adhere to it to stay relevant. It’s seen as a major ask towards maintaining academic excellence and be taken seriously.

Besides sustaining academic rigour, schools today are deeply engaged in managing careers and supporting entrepreneurship as well. The top-tier schools lay great emphasis on soft skills (the power of persuasion for instance), including the need to foray into social sectors. Inasmuch, the not-for-profit organizations are making their mark and attracting very competent people, in process. The need to address social issues is more pronounced than it was earlier, and easily gravitating towards increased stakeholder support.  

Dil Sidhu completed his MBA in 1995. At that time, the emphasis on hard skills was unmistakable. It was a generation which swore by concepts such as RoI, NPV, strategy et al. Today, talks also veers around ‘collaboration’ and is driven by a new generation of leaders who have a very different understanding of business. Not least because of the constant need to manage global workforces. This is not to imply that the focus on hard skills is on the decline, but that soft skills are given equal importance as well. Always having to maintain that curious balance – akin to walking a tightrope – is arguably a new-age challenge which professional managers grapple with at all times.

Today, it is not at all uncommon to be active in a global marketplace which is not constrained by geographic boundaries. Global politics and its volatility have birthed a VUCA environment where nothing is constant – not even the pace of change! Two decades back, the ship wasn’t being rocked as often. Often touted as the “new normal” effective leadership is about rallying around diverse teams which are spread across different time zones to negotiate change, hitherto unprecedented. A siloed approach almost certainly spells the death-knell today, and teams have to be constantly reflective, as progress is made.     


  • His thoughts on MOOCs. Will it ever replace the traditional model?

It is unlikely that MOOCs will ever replace the traditional mode of teaching. Humans are social creatures and the need to constantly interact with one another is an overpowering one which is best afforded in a classroom environment (in the long run). The proponents of online education may strongly disagree but it must be borne in mind that the process of learning has a huge emotional component to it. Constant human interaction is a surer way to ensure that this need is met and sustained. Studying in classroom environment has great benefits and not being able to do so is a missed opportunity.  

In an online mode, as learners are spread across different time zones, coming face-to-face can be challenging. Moreover, studying online, over time, calls for a great deal of discipline and personal sacrifice. Without an external push, sustaining this routine may be a source of great challenge for many learners. Having said that, the online mode certainly has its avowed & proven benefits too and it is increasingly nudging its way into the learners’ calendars.


  • The top 2 – 3 things that’s different at Columbia, and helps to create its USP?

Content, faculty and the approach to research are often regarded as the cornerstones at Columbia. Assiduously and over time, strong linkages have been established between theory and practice. He asserted that great empirical research cannot happen in isolation. Moreover, being in New York has its positives too, adding immeasurably to the sheer number of connects established which has only enhanced learning opportunities.

The focus on neuroscience is quite strong at Columbia Business School which is what makes it remarkable too. Cutting-edge research is undertaken to study how the brain works and ways in which it responds to stimuli. New teaching methods are adopted in accordance which enables the institution to stay ahead.   

  • He is a self-confessed “Life Student”. His thoughts on re-skilling.

Having earned three Master’s degrees, is a case in point which underscores the philosophy of continuous learning. He encourages people to think afresh all the time and reflect on the possibilities of replacement that all of us are threatened with in varying degrees. “What is it that can replace me tomorrow”, he ruminates? Not one to rest on past laurels, he is currently undergoing a course in advertising which will help him to pitch 30-second commercials.   

While dwelling on the subject of learning, he emphasized on “unlearning” too. Marketing for instance, has been re-defined by the advent of digital technologies. Leaders today are often at high risk because of an unforeseeable future and have to be constantly prepared for radical shifts. There are too many examples of those who chose not to pay heed to early market warnings, and spiral down the road to oblivion eventually. To put it simply, it’s about knowing what’s next.

  • The power of AI – distilling myth from reality.

A popular belief today, “AI being the new electricity”, doesn’t elicit a disproportionate amount of enthusiasm from him. Instead, he draws yet another interesting parallel with electricity. Billions of people, even today, do not have access to it and with AI it will not be much different, he avers. The global acceptance of AI will be diverse and developed economies will be taking lead in its adoption. Perhaps we must not rush into drawing parallels with electricity, at least not yet. Its proliferation will also impact the way government scripts policies for the future. Some serious thoughts are needed about jobs which will be replaced by AI. Governments will have to think and act very differently on re-skilling and creating employment for the future, he says with a touch of alarm.

Yet, there’ll be businesses which will simply not be able to afford AI applications because of ultra-thin margins that they enjoy (suffer?). These models will be tasked with solving other challenges instead. In many parts of the developed world, there’s a growing aversion towards the app economy and the need to be logged on all the time. Being connected 24/7 robs humans of the time to think. When we forecast for the future we have to take contrarian ideas into account too, and not always be carried away by the promise of technology. 

  • 3 pivots for the future and Leadership Mantra.


  1. None of us is smarter than all of us. The days of single-handedly leading change may soon be relegated to history, if it hasn’t been already. This is the age of collaboration and significant progress can only be achieved when we learn to work with one another.
  2. Knowledge is power. But this knowledge cannot be acquired in isolation. Being social is a critical condition for its dissemination. Otherwise it is meaningless.
  3. We have to embrace lifelong learning. We learn from the time we are born so why do we need to stop doing so after a certain point in time? Vastly improved medical services will lead to prolonged lives and careers. It isn’t very difficult to spot people today who are playing out their second careers after the age of 50. This trend will soon catch on. For most people, going back to learning will not be such a big shock after all.

Share This Post

Leave a Reply