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Difference Maker

A business course that puts personal growth on the bottom line

Something of a rock star among business school teachers Srikumar Rao offers a class that gives his students broader perspectives on their lives.

By Paul Van SlambrouckCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 2010

Srikumar Rao speaks to a gathering of former students at the Glen Cove (N.Y.) Mansion on Long Island. They all took his ‘Creativity and Personal Mastery’ course.

Taylor Weidman/The Christian Science Monitor


Sunnyvale, Calif.

As Greg Johnson was dealing with a serious illness in his family, the thought came to him, light as a feather, that along with his grief and worry, he was feeling bolstered by something powerful, but unexpected.

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Gratitude for all that this family member had taught him. Gratitude for the love and support expressed by close friends and colleagues.

Then another realization dawned. That gratitude had grown up in an unlikely place. It had a lot to do with a class he had recently taken that allowed him to look at his life in a fresh way.

The class, called "Creativity and Personal Mastery," is taught by Srikumar Rao. It's been known to change lives, as Mr. Johnson and many others can attest.

Though dealing with the family illness has been tough, Johnson says, "The idea of being grateful for so much is just coming naturally." Speaking of Dr. Rao's class, which Johnson took last year, he adds: "It's changed my approach to my job and my life."

That Rao's course leaves a deep impression on students is fitting, since it was a student who changed Rao's own life. The college professor was trudging along in the early 1990s doing unsatisfying academic work at a not-famous university and was, as Rao concedes, "really feeling sorry for myself."

One day a student came up to ask him a question. With his usual candor, Rao says he thought at the time, "What a stupid student."

Subsequently, Rao learned that the student was holding down two jobs, as well as attending classes. His disdain turned to compassion.

"I thought, 'I should be grateful,' and realized it was my job to see if I could truly excite her and the other students," he recalls.

In the wink of an eye, a professor was reborn. Rao has gone on to have extraordinary success developing and teaching the class, which his students just call CPM.

Rao became something of a rock star in the world of MBA programs, taking his course to Columbia Business School in New York in 1999, and subsequently to the London Business School in England and the Haas Business School at the University of California, Berkeley. In each place, the course made waves and generated extraordinary testimonials.

Last year, Rao moved his class into the private sector, with no full-time affiliation with a university. His students today are often already established in corporate America, at a point in their careers when Rao figures his approach might have maximum impact.

The class is about forging new attitudes and ways of thinking, embracing new "mental models," he says, and ultimately reaping rewards of greater happiness in both work and personal lives.

In Johnson's case, one of those lessons began when Rao presented a segment on gratitude. Johnson recalls hearing that everybody has a choice of how they react to events. There are always things worthy of gratitude, no matter how seemingly dire the situation.

Discussion and small-group exercises followed – a standard method in the class, which usually numbers about 30 people. The students were asked to identify two or three things each night for which they were grateful.