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“Happiness at Work”…Yes, Really–Q&A with Author, Srikumar S. Rao

When I was given the opportunity to interview Srikumar S.

When I was given the opportunity to interview Srikumar S. Rao, Ph.D., author of the new book, Happiness at Work, I jumped for a couple of reasons.  First,  I’d been hearing about the “Creativity and Personal Mastery” class he taught at Columbia Business School (my alma mater) for years.  It was legendary.  And I wanted to meet the man behind the legend.  Second, I believe the approach to work and life outlined in his book is critical if we are to ride the inevitable career twists and turns of today’s volatile, ever-changing global economy.   

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A bit of a back story will help you understand the questions I asked Professor Rao (Please feel free to skip down to the interview!). 

I entered Columbia Business School in 1993, after seven years as a banker in New York City.   At the end of my banking career, I was a specialist in lending to closely-held middle market companies and large not-for-profits (e.g. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was one of my accounts).  And I managed the day-to-day responsibilities of a team of bankers. 

By every external metric, I was “successful,” but I wanted to become a work+life flexibility strategy consultant.  Why?  As a manager, I realized it was bad business not to help the account officers who had the relationships with the clients flexibly manage their work+life challenges.  The account officer usually left the bank and the account became vulnerable because our money was as green as the bank’s down the street.  It was the relationship that mattered and needed to be sustained. 

I had a vision that work+life flexibility was going to become a business imperative for all employers in the coming years.  I wanted to be a part of it, and I knew an MBA from a top school would give me the credibility to make change happen.  Remember, this was the early 1990’s.

When I started at Columbia, I knew no one in the work+life field, which was just starting to grow.  By the time I graduated two years later, I’d managed to get an internship and an initial consulting project with the one place I wanted to work, Families and Work Institute.  But, I earned less than I did when I left banking, I didn’t have any managerial responsibility, and no one had any idea what work+life strategy consulting was, “What? (confused look)” 

Using those same external metrics, was I a success or a failure?  At the time, I’m sure many thought I wasn’t just a failure, but a crazy failure!  I, on the other hand, felt like I’d hit the lottery.  

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I persevered by intuitively embracing many of the philosophies Dr. Rao shares in his book.  I only wish he and the students who took his class had been at Columbia when I was there.  It would have been nice to have fellow travelers on my unconventional journey. (I may actually take his class now that he offers it outside of MBA programs just so I can join the alumni association!) 

Seventeen years later, I can’t believe I get paid to do this job everyday.  If I can achieve my unique work+life fit vision, (trust me) anyone can.

Srikumar S. Rao’s Happiness at Work helps guide the way.  Dr. Rao generously spent time with me recently discussing his philosophy.  Highlights of our conversation are below.  For more information about Happiness at Work and Srikumar S. Rao, visit www.areyoureadytosucceed.com.

Happiness at Work guides the way for everyone…Interview with Dr. Srikumar S. Rao

CY: Professor Rao, when I read your new book, Happiness at Work, I was both overjoyed and surprised. 

Overjoyed because I believe the approach you outline is critical for a sense of well-being in today’s economic reality in which there are no guarantees and change is inevitable. 

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But I was surprised because the core principles of the Happiness at Work philosophy run counter to the standard profile of the typical top MBA student I’ve encountered both while at school and after (although, there are exceptions for sure).  For example here’s a quick side-by-side comparison to illustrate my point:

Happiness at Work Philosophy

Standard MBA Profile

It’s about the process, not the outcome.  Focus on the action you can take.   Outcome is all that matters—good grade, high profile job, big paycheck.
Paradox—by insisting on your way, you decrease the chance of getting what you want. Risk and aggressiveness are rewarded.
You are playing a role, but you are not the role. My job, my prestigious MBA, my wealth define me.
It’s not about the money (in fact, if it is, you are in trouble).  It’s about the why and what you are doing.  It’s all about the money, even if I don’t love what I am doing.
The models you operate within are not reality. Prestigious MBA, well-paying job, comfortable life is reality.  And I am angry when it’s challenged. 

My question is why do you think the MBA students who took your class, many of whom fall within some range of that standard profile, resonated so intensely to what you were teaching?  

SR: Before taking the class, they’d never heard anyone encourage them to get a deep sense of meaning from what they wanted to do professionally.  Many of the students have had the same background.  Some have already worked for McKinsey or Goldman Sachs, the brass ring of what many go to business school to achieve, and hated it because they were treated badly.  They face the sharp dichotomy between what they think the want and what they’d really like to do.

The class gave students the courage to consider doing something different. To question their basic assumptions—what do I want to pursue beyond a paycheck?  The course legitimized those questions and provided the support of a group that was doing the same thing. 

(Srikumar S. Rao’s TED Talk (video)—”Plug into your hard-wired happiness”)

CY: How did you observe those who participated in your class change their behavior and goals?

SR: Before you can follow your own drummer, you have to hear the drummer.  After taking my class, many students pursued entrepreneurial ventures.  But others did go into some kind of traditional corporate setting, but they did it with much less stress and attachment than their colleagues. 

For example, one of my students went into traditional investment banking after graduation.  He called me recently after he was laid off to tell me that because of the class he was having a much easier time with the transition than his colleagues, “You know, I never really liked working there.  This could be a wonderful opportunity.”  He had a completely different reaction to the same circumstance.   

CY:  How will the curriculum of top MBA programs have to adapt and integrate more of the principles espoused in the Happiness in Work philosophy?  

SR: Today, our top business schools are not educational institutions as much as they are indoctrination institutions.  They don’t encourage students to question basic assumptions we’ve bought into for years such as consumption is good, or giving people more choices will increase their well-being.  Does it really?  Is advertising good for society?  Maybe it’s not.  As it stands now, MBA programs don’t challenge these core assumptions even though there is good research refuting many of them.

Business schools need to address students on a human being level, not as cogs in the machine to supply fresh talent to big companies.  On some level, MBA programs are aware that what they are doing isn’t enough, but the institutions are stuffed with people who buy in to the old paradigm and who are publishing research that is essentially meaningless in today’s economy. 

This is one of the reasons I am moving outside of business schools and am now offering my courses independently and inside of companies.  I found that executives who had been in the field got what I’m saying with the Happiness at Work approach.  If I can impact an executive and his or her team, I can help to change the culture of an organization. 

CY: What is your vision of what a career will look like in the future if it’s not based on the highly-competitive, high-risk/high reward model?

SR:  In terms of what a career should look like, unfortunately Cali, we are far from it.  What it should look like is that we derive a deep sense of meaning from the work we do.  And we, as individuals, must be responsible for our careers with the goal of reaching our highest potential.  The job of a manager is to tap into that energy that’s already there.  (Srikumar S. Rao’s “The Shape of Leadership to Come” London Business School’s Business Strategy Review Journal—Spring, 2008)

In terms of companies, they must stand for something bigger.  They must be dedicated to something larger than financial results.  I reject the Milton Friedman belief that a company’s sole responsibility is to the shareholders.  What we have right now is not capitalism.  Hedge funds don’t create value, they extract value.  (Srikumar S. Rao’s “Is Your Company Ready to Succeed?” London Business School’s Business Strategy Review Journal—Spring, 2010)

CY:   What’s it going to take to make that future vision reality? 

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SR: Unfortunately, I think it is going to take a really major crisis.  The most recent financial crisis was difficult but it didn’t last long enough and wasn’t strong enough to truly change the financial playing field.  I’m afraid we are seeing the beginning stages of another crisis.  This time maybe it will finally lead to real change. 

CY:  Unfortunately, too often we need pain to force change.  I prefer to encourage change with a compelling vision of the future like the one you lay out so clearly in Happiness at Work

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today and talk about the Happiness at Work philosophy. I am living proof that questioning your assumptions and changing your mindset related to work can help you not just survive, but thrive in your career regardless of the economic reality.  I hope your book inspires others to follow their unique path. 

For more:

(Full disclosure: I was given a free copy of Dr. Rao’s book prior to our interview; however, I’d also purchased a copy of the book prior to receiving the free copy.)

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