It is not very often in the life of management students that by virtue of where you study, what you study and when you study, a hugely eminent business personality around you becomes the subject of study!

For us at XLRI between 1982 and 1984, Russi Mody was almost like a core three credit course. Since Mody was the subject of our study, it neither needed to be taught by a professor nor did it necessitate our going to the library.

The fact that we were tucked away in a remote corner of the country like Jamshedpur and felt hugely disadvantaged compared to the TISS in Mumbai was more than compensated by the presence of Tata Steel and Russi Mody.

Russi would visit our campus unannounced and within minutes, like bees to honey all of us would gather at the small auditorium to listen to him.

He would be direct, practical and, of course, hugely witty. His spontaneity, unique viewpoints and the candour with which he spoke used to inspire us hugely. But this was just the lighter side of his personality. It was not until our first industrial visit that we realised the power and influence of Mody, who was the Director, Personnel, since 1953 and who eventually become Managing Director.

At a time in the nation when industrial unrest was quite high, the peace, productivity and community-based living and working at Tata Steel (then TISCO) was already a subject of several case studies. His transparent style of engaging with workmen in a darbar style, listening to their concerns and holding his managers accountable to resolve the genuine ones was already legendary. Employee relations was a very important part of our two-year programme and thanks to Mody, we were able to easily understand how the subject actually worked in reality.

Our visit to a village of Bihar as a part of our project to understand the realities of rural Bihar helped us witness another facet of Russi’s vision in action — the Tata Steel Rural Development Society — an initiative to improve the economic and social conditions of the villages. Those days it was not called CSR; it was just the TISCO way of doing things. In fact, Russi was upholding Jamshetji’s value of reaching out and building the society being the purpose of business.

Very rarely does one person offer such instructional and inspirational value to a bunch of students. We were so fortunate to be there to see the man and his huge body of work, live!

Ganesh Chella runs HR consultancy Totus and Senthil Kumar is with Gardener Consulting.

(This article was published on May 20, 2014)