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.
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"We were told to really think about it, let it really resonate, not just tick them off," Johnson says. Each student was to pay close attention the next day to "how this changes you, and how you experience other people, and how they experience you," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Others have felt similar stirrings in their lives. "It definitely has changed my definition of success," says Randall Shuken, a top executive at MasterCard Worldwide. Mr. Shuken took the three-month course last spring and found it a welcome immersion in deeper ideas about career, service, personal goals, and even identity.
"It allows you a moment to stop and not let events and expectations control you," he says.
Rao himself has a corporate background. He worked in the executive ranks of Warner Communications and Data Resources before moving full time into teaching.
Over a dinner of Indian food one evening, he talked about his own motivations. "Most large companies are toxic places, and it's my vision to make them less so."
The course syllabus demonstrates the breadth and depth of the ideas Rao explores in his class. Readings range from Kahlil Gibran to George Bernard Shaw to the Bible to legendary college basketball coach John Wooden.
Patrick Barwise was instrumental in bringing Rao's class to the London Business School in 2005. At the time, Dr. Barwise chaired the school's marketing department. The assessments he received about Rao's class were "exceptionally high," he said in a recent e-mail exchange.
A self-proclaimed skeptic of self-help programs, Barwise became convinced that "this wasn't snake oil." After seeing the class in action for four years, he says, "the course met my high expectations."
Rao, author of "Happiness at Work," as well as an earlier book, "Are You Ready to Succeed?" wants students to become aware of the "mental models" that habitually frame the way they think about almost everything.
He explores the "if, then" model, as in, "If I had more money, then I would be happier"; or "If my boss were nicer, I would enjoy my work." That model is flawed, he says, because it always puts some external condition – the "if" – in control of the outcome.
Students praise the class for devoting ample time to exercises and tools they can use. Rao's course even has its own alumni association, so "graduates" can seek out others for support. "He actually gets students to challenge the status quo, to look differently at career, job decisions, and life in general," says Adam Berman, who heads the New Leadership Development Series at Berkeley's business school. Mr. Berman asks Rao to speak at Berkeley. Students leave with "a new way to define success and failure," he says.
If Rao's concepts sound simple, Johnson says, that is because basic truths often are. "My biggest takeaway from the class is that all the most important things in life are simple," he says. "But they are not necessarily easy."