The Search for Self

: The Creativity and Personal Mastery leadership development program focuses on self-discovery rather than traditional business skills.

By Amy Wu

Like many people, Prudential LLC Manager Nicolo Carpaneda has a few blind spots. Prior to 2011, his No. 1 blind spot, he reveals, was he often talked a lot—perhaps too much—during meetings.

“At work, I am a social person, so I used to go to meetings and frequently fill empty space with chatter,” says Carpaneda, who is based in London and a member of Prudential’s Momentum Leadership Program, a select in-house talent training and development program. “I wanted to be liked by others.”

Then in 2011, he enrolled in a course called Creativity and Personal Mastery (CPM), which was made available through the Momentum Program. Carpaneda says CPM helped him change his behavior, enabling him to grow both professionally and personally.

“Many times, you don’t see your blind spot, and CPM helps you think and ask, ‘What am I feeling at the moment?’” Carpaneda says. “The big change from this experience is it gives you a degree of awareness of your mental processes and how you behave…and you become more effective in life and at work. You feel empowered.”

Searching for the key to successful talent and leadership development, organizations around the world are turning to training programs that might seem a bit off the beaten path—programs such as CPM that focus on self-discovery rather than traditional business skills.

Originating as a business school course, CPM was created in 1994 by Srikumar S. Rao, who serves the multifaceted role of professor, coach, facilitator, and, at times, therapist. CPM grew out of a need “to work on myself,” says Rao, who developed the course while he was an executive at companies such as Warner Communications, Continental Group, and McGraw-Hill. He holds a Ph.D. in marketing from Columbia Business School, a degree in physics from St. Stephen’s College at Delhi University, and an MBA from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

To create the curriculum and what he calls “mental models,” “I have drawn from practically all the major wisdom traditions,” Rao explains. “My job is not to tell people things. Instead, I say, ‘Your life is not working right now, so why don’t you try this and make changes?’” he says.

After first teaching the course at the C.W. Post campus at Long Island University (LIU), Rao moved the course to top business schools, including Columbia University; Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern; London Business School; and the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “I think it is unique content, inspiring and important for many of our students who are right brained. He brings content that allows them to think and get them on the right path,” says Adam Berman, executive director, Emerging Initiatives at Berkeley, who founded and heads the Leadership Development Series and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. “He gets people to ask important questions.”

In 2006, Rao launched The Creativity and Personal Mastery Institute (CPM Institute) as a registered company in New York, and holds the CPM course in New York, San Francisco, and London. This year, it is expected to launch in Prague and Berlin. While the cost can vary for corporations, for the New York CPM course, for example, the tuition is $6,987 per person, not including the $1,600 for the hotel and meals for the three weekends at an offsite location.

Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and Oprah

CPM’s 68-page syllabus is packed with quotations from the Bhagavad Gita, B.C. Forbes, Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, Chuang Tzu, Thoreau, and Ecclesiastes, among others. CPM’s main goals include teaching participants techniques that will help them in the creative process that can be applied in the business world, to help them discover their purpose in life, to show participants how they can mobilize resources to reach their goals most efficiently, and to enable participants to find and achieve life balance.

In Rao’s words, “The thesis of this program is simple. Life is short and uncertain. It is like a drop of water skittering around on a lotus leaf. You never know when it will drop off the edge and disappear…Stop right now and evaluate your life.”

The program’s core lies in participant exercises such as self-journaling, keeping track of one’s “mental chatter,” “treating every single person you meet as if it were his or her last day on Earth,” and transforming thinking from being “me centered” to “other centered.”

A popular exercise focuses on appreciation and gratitude. “If you got fired, you need to think you’re better off than 99 percent of the population. We tend to focus on the things wrong in our lives and ignore the others, so we need to flip that around,” Rao explains. Many of the philosophies are included in Rao’s books “Are You Ready to Succeed?” and “Happiness at Work.”

Rao constantly adds to the course and often makes changes depending on the feedback from participants even before they start the course. He also conducts half- and full-day workshops.

CPM tends to attract people who are searching for meaning or something new professionally or personally. There is an extensive application process and, once admitted, a significant amount of preparation, including required reading of books such as “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; “Creativity in Business” by Michael L. Ray; and “A Search in Secret India” by Paul Brunton.

More than 90 percent of those who participate are professionals, including successful entrepreneurs and members of the C-suite. Participants’ ages range from late 20s through the 60s, with the average age being late 30s to late 40s.

Myth or Motivator?

To be sure, the course has had its share of skeptics. Given the multitude of self-help books, inspirational speakers, and leadership courses in this information age, CPM might seem like one of many choices on the vast menu.

“It sounded quite cultish, cheesy, and fluffy, so I put it aside,” admits Jeik Sohn, a Singapore-based manager at an investment company, who first heard about the course when he was studying for his MBA at London Business School. But Sohn signed up for CPM in 2011, when it was offered at his company and he was going through a rough patch with his girlfriend of seven years.

“The thing that caught my attention most was the kind of questions Professor Rao posed to the readers in his introductory document,” says Sohn, 31. “These were the things I had been pondering in my spare time. Am I happy with where I am? What motivates me? Do I know myself well? Can I become more productive and creative at work? How can I deal with stress?”

His opinion of CPM has taken a 180-degree turn. “It makes you a healthier person in the perspective of personal relationships,” says Sohn. “Once you know yourself and the way you think, that affects the way you treat people, and once you have that more introspective core, you can have better relationships with people at home and at work.”

Prudential Pilot

Relationships played a role in bringing CPM to Prudential. London-based Prudential Director of Talent Management Thomas Atterstam took Rao’s course at Columbia University Business School and pitched the program to his then-boss, Laurence Barrett (who left Prudential in January to run his own consulting business). Prudential’s challenge has been building a pipeline of senior leaders. “What we had been trying to do over the last five years is to be comfortable and confident that we have high-quality leadership and a high-quality pipeline—essentially growing our own leaders. We wanted to make sure that over the next 10 to 15 years, we have enough people to have a confident succession bank,” says Barrett. “Approximately two-thirds of our hires are probably very good internal hires. To maintain that, we need several programs and processes for succession planning and we need development activities and networks.”

After Rao’s successful speech at Prudential, the company decided to give CPM a pilot run in 2011 under its Momentum Leadership Program with some 21 participants. At Prudential, CPM’s syllabus specifically addresses leadership. Rao explains that the program focuses on helping the managers discover their purpose in life. “When you are moved by deep inner conviction is when you have the greatest opportunity to sway others; in short, to become a ‘leader,’” he says.

In the larger scheme of things, CPM is only one of a number of leadership development programs at Prudential. “This is one bit of spice in the whole meal, and that’s why it’s effective. To build a leadership pipeline, you need several features, and CPM is one of those programs that help people to start thinking in different ways,” says Barrett, a veteran training program creator. In his six years at Prudential, he created the Leadership Development Program (LDP) designed specifically for senior executives, and he also created Momentum. Barrett says part of the beauty of CPM is that it is scalable and designed for managers of all levels.

Barrett says the program was a success based on interviews with participants and with their line managers. The feedback was positive, with line managers noting the staffers were more positive and productive. Prudential says the program can’t be measured in conventional ways such as the Kirkpatrick model of evaluation or return on investment, but its impact already has been seen and felt. “In most cases, people have noticed a positiveness…it’s like different flavors in terms of being more open, more positive, more curious, more present, seeming to be less stressed, and sometimes asking ‘if’ questions,” says Atterstam.

Those who participated in CPM’s pilot at Prudential said the course was powerful. Bethan Hughes, 29, joined the course after she heard Rao speak at Momentum’s development week in Hong Kong. “I was intrigued,” she says. “I looked at his Website and printed out the syllabus to read on the flight over there. It struck me how many of the parables or words of wisdom were so simple, and yet again and again, I haven’t truly understood how they translate to my life,” says Hughes. CPM exercises such as the appreciation and gratitude exercise allowed her to look at life and her job differently. “It opened my eyes to what I have all around me rather than in front of me in the future, from how I look at my job to appreciating the golden and russet colors of the trees in autumn and the loving support from family and friends,” she says.

Since taking the course, her relationship with her manager has improved, and she is less frustrated over decisions made by her supervisors or at the corporate level.

Prudential manager Carpaneda says that since taking the course, he talks more purposefully at meetings after CPM’s exercise on “mental chatter” made him aware of his blind spots. “I felt uncomfortable in the past when I didn’t say anything at a meeting. The point is I never considered the other alternative,” Carpaneda says. “I now am much more comfortable listening. In the past, I was never able to grasp the issue; now I am a bit more patient.”

The program has been such a success that CPM is returning to Prudential for a second run, with Atterstam assisting Rao in teaching the course. Says Atterstam, “Dr. Rao’s program builds up the positive Psychological Capital of our future executives. This makes them much more effective leaders as they are much better at creating followership. The program also greatly builds resilience and increases the capacity of seeing opportunities where others perceive adversity.”

The CPM Network

Part of the attraction of CPM is the friendships it has created. There is an active alumni club at Columbia and on Facebook, which have served as a sounding board, networking hub, and unofficial marketing arm for CPM. John Byrne, the former editor-in-chief of Business Week and author of the recent book, “World Changers: 25 Entrepreneurs Who Changed Business as We Knew It,” and his wife, Kate, former publisher of Fast Company, took the course in 2011 and started hosting monthly dinners at their San Francisco home to continue the CPM conversations.

In Singapore, Sohn says the course served as a sounding board and a safe haven, where he and fellow classmates could openly share challenges they were facing—whether it be office politics or problems with relationships. That network remains strong.

CPM alumni Josh Klenoff started and ran his own executive coaching firm for seven years after taking the course at Columbia Business School; he now is a wealth manager at J.P. Morgan Chase, where he shares the lessons he learned from CPM with his clients. “One COO was thinking about retiring after the liquidation of his company,” he relates. “I shared with him the notion that there is no such thing as retirement. You always have your life’s work engaging you. I got him to think about what is valuable for him.” As a result, Klenoff’s client decided he loves seeing companies grow up and decided to pursue another venture.

Ultimately, he discovered, it’s all about the road to self-discovery.

What Is CPM?

CPM is an intense experience designed to profoundly change your life. It is based on the following principles:

  1. You can live a joyful, intensely fulfilling life and should resolutely settle for nothing less.
  2. Your mental chatter leads you astray, but you can direct it and make it a friend.
  3. Your mental models also can blindside you. The problem is not that you have mental models. The problem is that you don’t recognize that you have mental models.
  4. To live a fulfilled life, you have to become part of a cause that is bigger than you and one that brings a greater good to a greater community.
  5. Don’t be a “feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” Your default emotional tenor should be appreciation and gratitude.
  6. It is a benevolent universe you live in, one that wants to help you and gives you everything you need at precisely the time you need it. You just have to recognize this, acknowledge it, and celebrate it.
  7. You can create a life where unexpected good fortune—miracles!—is a regular occurrence. This is far better than living in a universe where coincidences happen occasionally.
  8. The world you think you live in is a construct. It is not “the” reality. It is “a” reality. You can deconstruct parts of it that are not working and construct an “alternative” reality.
  9. By all means, work toward a goal, but stop fretting about outcomes. They are beyond your control anyway. Invest in the process, not the outcome.
  10. You are always playing a role whether or not you recognize it. The Bard had it right, “All the world’s a stage.” Play your role with gusto.
  11. Laughter trumps everything. Read one Wodehouse novel a week, and you will be amazed at how red the roses become and what fragrance comes from sewers.
  12. It is your job to be of service—this is a corollary of No. 4. Help others for the sake of doing so.
  13. Don’t ever hand over the keys to your well-being and happiness to anyone.
  14. There are many “problems” you will run into that you simply will not be able to “solve.” You will have to grow your way out of them and become “bigger” than the problem.
  15. “Mindfulness” is your vehicle for retaining your stability when you are hit by tidal waves. Be aware that you are the actor, not the character.

Once you know yourself and the way you think, that affects the way you treat people, and once you have that more introspective core, you can have better relationships with people at home and at work.

For more information about CPM, visit http://www.cpminstitute.com.

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