How to harness your full MBA potential

Caroline Haydon discovers an ambitious programme that seeks to solve your personal problems - and world hunger
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The Independent Online

It's the last class of the course, so the breakfast provided on a rota basis by one of the students is a little more lavish than usual - two birthday cakes, coffee and more cakes and sweetmeats bought by the professor.

Welcome to Professor Srikumar Rao's Creativity and Personal Mastery Course (CPM), which has made a considerable name for itself both here and in its first home in the US. Brought to London Business School (LBS) after lobbying by three students who'd formed a strong attachment to the transatlantic version, CPM is now in its second semester in London. While classes aren't yet the sell-out they are in Columbia, word is spreading. The relaxed and interactive formula of which the breakfasts are only a part have proved highly popular.

So today's class resounds with laughter as small groups tasked with "solving" personal and (no one could accuse Rao of thinking small) global problems act out their ideas. Rao's view is that it helps when thinking about "the heavy stuff" to do so light-heartedly, and students rise to the challenge with skits on running a rat race which is not your own, and on how one person can start making a difference.

The downsides of the business world aren't shirked - in fact they are emphasised. This is about how to overcome them. And one skit is an attempt at starting to think of creative solutions to world hunger, not usually on the business syllabus.

Although it is the last class, students don't rush away, but swap experiences, this time about networking. In another departure from the business school norm grades aren't the big deal here - Rao will give them, but stresses they're not what the course is about. His lessons should, he says, last for life, becoming an integral part of business and personal affairs. "Keep doing it till it becomes part of who you are" is the mantra.

So what exactly is CPM? According to the syllabus, it is about creativity, the human mind and its immense potential, and how that can be harnessed to achieve ends students might desire. But only if those ends are worth achieving. Personal values, ethics and integrity get top billing. Rao's aim is in fact rather subversive - to start changing the "toxic" environment he sees as prevalent in many major corporations.

"Enron couldn't have happened if anyone was applying CPM," he says. "In CPM you are always authentic - you don't do anything that is not 'you'. At Enron they were playing games with themselves and the public.

"You should acknowledge that every human being wants to feel good about themselves and be fulfilled. So let's create an environment where they can do that. It's not the function of leaders to motivate - they should instead find out what's demotivating people and get rid of it."

Students sign up for an intense bout of reading from a list that stretches the meaning of the word eclectic, taking in "life-changing books" from major writers of all the world's major religions, as well as brain mapping, quantum physics, and the odd PG Wodehouse - Rao's rates humour highly.

Not all students keen to forward high-flying careers and maximise investment in time and money will choose an elective with Wodehouse on the reading list - but a lot do. CPM is one of the highest-rated courses at both institutions and a straw poll of students attending the LBS class found a handful who said their expectations had been exceeded. Students rated it as mind-changing, with a common theme that it was good meeting like-minded people. Rao says CPM is the only course he knows with its own alumni association, and students are urged to keep in touch or attend weekend retreats.

He does, of course, expect his classes to be sceptical at the outset. Rao says it is something he welcomes if the scepticism is open minded. But it seems as if his emphasis on detoxifying the business environment, on values, and on work-life balance strikes a timely chord. Quelling or learning to use the "mind chatter" that clogs thinking is an important tool, as are lateral approaches to vital skills such as networking.

Rao worked in corporate America after earning his doctorate in marketing, but says he disliked his jobs, instead heading back into academia at Long Island University, where he launched CPM in 1994.

Are the business schools where he is now adjunct professor nervous about such unconventional teaching, or about the fact that he might produce similarly disaffected students? Rao says wryly he would find it difficult to know, as people would be unlikely to tell him directly. In fact, he says, there has been some opposition at Columbia but not at LBS, where there has been such curiosity about how his methods could be used internally that he has been asked to address the entire staff. For the moment, the breakfasts look set to continue - on both sides of the Atlantic.

'CPM does help. It changes your mindset so you view the world through a different lens'

The decision to take Srikumar Rao's course was an intuitive one, says Rosalind Wilson, who signed up a year ago as part of her executive MBA studies at London Business School. Now a team leader at F. Hoffman-La Roche in Switzerland, Wilson is clear about the advantages it's given her.

I knew this was right for me - it had neon signs written all over it saying "this is what you are about". Now if there is one thing from my studies I use every day I would say it is CPM.

I'm a scientist and I have a pragmatic approach - if something helps me I will do it. And this does help. It changes your mindset so you view the world through a different lens. We all see the world through filters of which we may or may not be aware. CPM opens your eyes to this. It asks if you realise you are applying these filters and whether they are helping. It also allows you to choose others. When people talk about the course being life-changing they're not kidding.

The course has helped me to be an effective and confident leader, comfortable with providing a supportive environment for those in the team. Being a leader can be demanding and frustrating and my ability to cope with the pressure of the job is enhanced by CPM.