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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Srikumar Rao

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-08

Srikumar Rao says that his academic course in management and leadership development is the only one that he's aware of with its own alumni association.

"Those who take my course don't end their interest when the semester is done," Mr. Rao, who teaches at Long Island University, Columbia University, and London Business School, said yesterday. "They become continuous students. I conceived this course as having a beginning but no end."

Hundreds of students count themselves as his alumni, not only at London Business School but also at Columbia Business School and, before that, Long Island University. A short while ago, they had a reunion in London where, Mr. Rao - a resident of both London and Commack, Long Island - said, there were surprises galore.

"One surprise was the degree to which their self-confidence had risen," Mr. Rao, who himself exudes boundless assertiveness, said. "Another was how many of my students had achieved their professional and personal objectives. They had changed as persons, becoming more in tune with themselves and their feelings. Their family life had become more intimate. And professionally they had advanced."

Then the professor suddenly chuckled.

"But, really, I wouldn't say that I was truly surprised by those things," he said. "The course is intended to make success happen."

Titled "Creativity and Personal Mastery," the course has long been one of the most popular offerings at the three academic institutions with which he's affiliated.

Mr. Rao has synthesized his teachings into a new book, "Are You Ready To Succeed? Unconventional Strategies for Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life" (Hyperion).
"I wanted the title to be provocative, and my publishers chose it deliberately," Mr. Rao said. "Success is something that you have to work toward."

But isn't that what vast volumes of self-help books also say?

"This isn't a self-help book," Mr. Rao said. "It's a work book. It isn't a panacea for one's ills. I believe that your life - both personal and professional - is far more within your control than you think. It's indeed possible to craft an ideal life."

While his ideas developed from his academic work at Columbia University - where he obtained a doctorate in marketing - and at St. Stephen's College in New Delhi - where he studied quantitative physics - Mr. Rao said that his intellectual source was the wealth of mystical writings that he has devoured.

"Swami stuff?" the reporter said, not without a salt-shake measure of skepticism.

The professor wasn't about to be derailed.

"Mysticism isn't only from the East," he said. "I've also read a lot of mystical writing originating in the West."

His formal education was relatively conventional, and it was typical of a smart young person hailing from a middle-class family that moved from city to city in India, with Burma thrown in. In addition to the prestigious St. Stephen's College in New Delhi, Mr. Rao attended the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, where he obtained an MBA.

While he said that he wasn't exactly certain about a career at that point, the world of academe became increasingly attractive.

It wasn't until he was at Columbia Business School working on his Ph.D., however, that Mr. Rao realized the futility of academic pursuits.

"I became extremely concerned that the writing by many faculty members was pretty pointless," Mr. Rao said. "They undertook an immense amount of intellectual labor - and it had very dubious value."

Why so?

"Because a great of academic research simply isn't applicable to the real world of business," he said. "Professors and their researchers would say, 'Here's the applicability. But they were almost always greatly stretching it."

"I decided not to be part of that culture," Mr. Rao continued. "So I went into the private sector."

It proved to be a shrewd move. He gained extensive business experience with blue chip corporations such as Warner Communications, where, as a special assistant to the president, Mr. Rao helped create a management information system for devising advertising strategies for movies.

As associate director for marketing research services for Data Resources, his operational responsibilities included supervising current projects, liaising with corporate clients, and prospecting for new business.

Mr. Rao also served as a senior consultant to the Continental Group in mergers and acquisitions. He helped target medium-sized companies - whose sales ranged between $50 million and $250 million - as potential takeover candidates.

He consulted with RCA, Reuters, Citicorp, GTE, Pan Am and Diner's Club. He was a seminar leader with the American Management Association in the area of information technology. He taught in the corporate programs of companies such as Verizon, Northrop-Grumman, Symbol Technologies and General Instruments, as well as in the executive programs of Columbia Business School.

"I eventually decided that I had accumulated enough acumen to be able to return to academe and teach," Mr. Rao said. In short order, he was named the Louis and Johanna Vorzimer Professor of Marketing at the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University, and an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School. He also became marketing adviser to Mensa, the society of geniuses.

"It doesn't take genius to make critical changes in your life," Mr. Rao said. "But it takes determination and application."

"Those qualities are needed for everyone - from student to CEO," he said. "Many CEO's, for example, tend to live in a dream world of their own. They hear only those things that the people around them think they want to hear. I help CEO's develop better relations with their staff and board members. Empathy enables them to command greater loyalty and engagement. This often results in a better bottom line.

"I also help them to evaluate their lives in order to derive more satisfaction not only from their work but also the family. I'm interested in making them more effective managers, and also much more fulfilled as individuals," Mr. Rao said.

But isn't what he advocates something that most hard-headed CEO's might dismiss as a touchy-feely New Age prescription?

Mr. Rao cited the testimony of a student, Brandon Peale of Los Angeles, who had this to say about the professor's course:

"Prior to taking the course, I was an obnoxious, mechanistic, sociopathic prince of capitalism. I viewed wealth as a means to exert dominance over others, as well as a vehicle to procure hedonic bliss. I found a happy home for this way of thinking in the world of investment banking, venture capital and startups.

"I drank, drugged, womanized, and broke the law; I created a world in which those without a similar plunderer-type mentality were weak and destined to be dominated. At the beginning of the course, I had been fired twice, totaling four cars, been arrested in five states and inflicted emotional harm on countless females. I didn't read; I thought introspection was for meek, those incapable of enjoying the finer things in life. In short, I was miserable - a gerbil on wheel of chemical and emotional highs, a slave to the influence of my fellow 'pirate' peers. You could say I was ready for a change."

Mr. Rao reflected on Mr. Peale's words.

"Today, he's a transformed man," he said. "My students start to realize that life is a construct. It is possible to change one's reality, to make it much more in tune with who they truly are."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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