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Management programmes help senior executive hone leadership potential

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-05-2017 Shreyasi Singh

Sanjeev Aggarwal can write tomes on business. In 2000, he co-founded Daksh, a business process outsourcing (BPO) firm that technology company IBM acquired in 2004. By the time he left Daksh two years later, it had 20,000 employees. The company is often considered the early flag-bearer of the Indian BPO industry.

Over the last 11 years, he has been an active investor. Helion Advisors, the firm he co-founded in 2006, has been one of the most active venture investment firms and has stakes across a spectrum of industries: online travel, app-based aggregators and online retail. He has been on the boards of companies such as MakeMyTrip, Azure Power and Big Basket.

Yet Aggarwal, who says that the science and art of business is both work and hobby for him, doesn’t think he’s done learning yet.

In early 2016, he enrolled in the executive education and leadership course at Harvard Business School (HBS) in the US, called the Owner/President Management Programme (OPM).

“I was curious about what was considered state-of-the-art in business education. Working as I have for 32 years, I wanted more intellectual stimulation as well as a chance to not be so action-driven. Most of all, I wanted to see if an old horse could learn new tricks,” he says.

The programme is tailored for top executives and entrepreneurs who have substantial equity holdings in the companies they actively manage and lead. OPM is divided into three units that span 24 months over three calendar years. Each three-week unit, spent at the Harvard University campus, examines the essentials of building and running a successful business and addresses these core modules—analysis and pursuing opportunities, leading growth and transformation and planning future transitions—through a combined approach of faculty instruction and case-study work. Its staggered structure, the programme claims, is focused on turning knowledge into action, and eases the transition from the workplace to HBS, and back to office.

The learning curve

Rishikesha Krishnan, director of the Indian Institute of Management, Indore, says he doesn’t want to be cynical but the reality is that many of the people who enrol in programmes such as these are focused on two aspects: building a network, and getting the bragging rights of being an alumnus of an Ivy League college.

Krishnan does add though that entrepreneurs, or those who work with an entrepreneurial mindset, do have a greater commitment to self-renewal and are more likely to be attracted to a programme that offers a new lens for personal growth.

Aggarwal, however, says his motivation was “to learn as a 30-year-old entrepreneur”. The opportunity for peer interactions with a truly diverse, global group, and engaging with leading professors, has been immensely rejuvenating. The programme also introduced him to new frameworks, and how to convert experiences into new structures.

At 57, Aggarwal is one of the oldest of the 150 delegates in his cohort (a global and diverse mix of entrepreneurs and senior leaders from countries such as Lithuania, Ecuador and Australia). Age isn’t a barrier though, he says, as long as you have inherent curiosity. He’s completed only the first module, and is getting ready to go to Boston for the second in September.

Bijay Agarwal, 51, founder of the Bengaluru-based Salarpuria Sattva Group, has more than three decades of work experience. His company, founded in 1986 in Kolkata, expanded to Bengaluru in the early 1990s. Today, it builds large-scale commercial and residential projects. Last year, the company claimed that it had delivered 24 million sq. ft to buyers.

He is in the same programme at HBS and joined the 2013 cohort. Curiosity drove him too, he says. Apart from the immersive experience of a university campus, the learnings, he says, have been tangible and practical.

Most of all, it forced introspection and fostered ambition. It changed the way he thinks about how he runs his business. “You recognize that there is so much more you can do, whether it was to work on my own leadership skills or to improve our HR practices,” explains Agarwal.

The biggest benefit, though, has been a steadfast focus on being better prepared. On doing his homework better. “Now, before going in for any negotiations, or any meeting or conversation, I spend at least an hour thinking about what I want to achieve from this discussion,” Agarwal says. He encourages his entire senior management team to follow this practice.

Aggarwal confesses he can’t pinpoint learnings as acutely: “By virtue of having worked for so long, my thinking was possibly more seasoned. I did tend to get a lot quite intuitively, so the learning has been incremental.”

Sanjeev Aggarwal.

A glimpse into the future?

The specifics aside, the experiences of senior professionals such as Aggarwal and Agarwal do raise an interesting question: What can executive education do for those at the very pinnacle of their careers?

In their case, the desire for self-growth was the pull.

For now, they might be more the exception than the rule. But is the cult of self-improvement that management literature encourages high-potential people to submit to likely to be the norm for others as well?

Mohinish Sinha, partner, human capital, at consultancy firm Deloitte India, believes that many senior people do want to, and indeed have to, craft second or third careers—as mentors, experts and consultants. Soon enough, executive education for those with many years of experience will not remain a nice-to-have personal exploration. It will become critical.

“Courses that help them translate and synthesize their past experiences into insights and learning for the future, as well as courses that prepare them to operate in the newer world, will become important,” Sinha adds.

More urgently, if the current pessimism about job creation globally, pegged to automation and entire industries disappearing on account of new technologies, doesn’t abate, many senior professionals might find themselves in a bind, says Krishnan.

“Senior people might have to orient themselves academically in other directions with this growing uncertainty. Actually, more often now, one does see very experienced people reaching out in different directions to figure this out,” says Krishnan.

In those scenarios, can executive education help senior professionals adapt better to a rapidly shifting world of business affected by policy change, technology disruptions and consumer shifts? Will it actually become necessary for a generation that will work longer than generations before them have?

Pramath Raj Sinha, founding dean of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, says one of the crucial advantages of courses such as these is how much you can learn from each other. They also help you discover the blind spots that develop when you have reached your cruising point, which is where many senior people might be. Usually, they are not pushed enough to challenge their instinct, or their logic.

“External inputs and the lived experiences of others can broaden your vision immensely. It can break through the paradox of you-don’t-know-what-you-don’t-know,” he says.

The results can be transformational. “We know of entrepreneurs who set up newer businesses, and very successful senior executives who succeeded in new assignments after undergoing programmes such as these. In short, you can teach an old horse new tricks,” says Deloitte’s Sinha.

Obviously, it isn’t that simple. Typically, these courses are expensive (OPM, for example, is priced at approximately Rs60 lakh over three units), aimed as they are at people who are at the peak of their professional careers. Yet, not every company will find it feasible to send its entire cadre of senior people for such programmes. Large companies do have an “over-experience” problem, whether in manufacturing, information technology or public sector units (PSUs).

“In PSUs, for example, there are a lot of people in their 50s who are unlikely to get anywhere to the top. For those organizations, it’s a difficult call to decide to send senior executives for executive education. Will they imbibe, will they learn, will they adopt new practices is the question those companies are asking,” says Krishnan.

Adding skills

Courses for senior executives

ISB-Kellogg Global Advanced Management Programme

■Target audience: Those with at least 15 years of experience who are in positions of decision making and strategic responsibility. Likely job titles: chief executive officer (CEO), chief financial officer (CFO), chief operating officer (COO), president, managing director and vice-president.

■ Course focus: Transformational leadership, winning the global war for talent, creating global brands, cross-cultural management and building customer-centric organizations.

■ Structure: Phase 1 (a week at the ISB, Hyderabad);Phase 2 (a week at the Kellogg School of Management, US).

■ Price: Phase 1 is Rs8 lakh.

■ Next batch: 18-25 November (ISB) + 21-26 January (Kellogg).

Interpersonal Dynamics For High-performance Executives, Stanford Graduate School of Business

■ Target audience: Executives and general managers with at least seven years of experience—from any industry and any functional area.

■ Course focus: Aimed at delivering a personalized learning experience, with the goal of creating more productive professional relationships.

■ Structure: Six days on campus at Stanford.

■ Price: Rs9.6 lakh.

■ Next batch: 24-29 June

Owner/President Management, Harvard Business School

■ Target audience: Those who serve as CEOs, COOs and managing directors of companies with annual sales of more than $10 million (around Rs65 crore). Candidates must be involved in running the business and must hold a significant equity stake in their firms.

■ Course focus: To assess a participant’s strengths and weaknesses, and transform their company and career.

■ Structure: Three units of three weeks each, spread over 24 months.

■ Price: Rs27.2 lakh (unit 1 only).

■ Next batch: 13-31 May.

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