Rajeev Chopra was always too busy to go back to school. Since he finished his MBA at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business in New Orleans nearly 25 years ago, a fast-lane corporate career has taken him through several multinationals.
So when it was suggested that the managing director and chief executive of Philips Electronics India should sign up for an executive training course, he was a little taken aback. The 49-year-old, who joined the company nearly a decade ago as a senior director before taking up his current post in 2010, was worried about being away from work for several weeks to return to business school for an advanced management programme.
“The company encourages you to keep updating yourself,” says Chopra. “Honestly, if Philips had not encouraged me I would have thought twice about taking five weeks off. It’s not easy to take five weeks off unless you have an employer who is encouraging you to do that. I can think of many companies that would say no.”
Chopra, who has 25 years of experience in the consumer, electronics and information technology sectors, having worked at multinationals such as Reckitt Benckiser, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Cisco Systems, had other concerns as well. “I had questions in my mind about whether I’d be able to adjust to living on campus, doing homework,” he says.
Once convinced, though, that going back to business school would be a life-changing experience, he focused on looking for the best course. “There were many recommended courses; most were at European universities. But I went through the various programmes and chose Wharton.”
Chopra picked the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania because it offered what he was looking for: thought-provoking courses led by star lecturers. “I wanted to get up to speed with the current areas of thinking in my [field],” he says. “We’ve all read many books in our lives, but what is the current thinking?
“A lot of the people whose textbooks I had read were faculty members at Wharton,” he says. “It’s nice to read their work and have them in your classroom.”
In particular, Ram Charan, the noted management author of Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty and Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, was the big name that led Chopra to pick Wharton over its competitors.
Once Chopra had selected the school and put in place a team to take care of day-to-day business at Philips during his absence, he was able to focus almost entirely on the course. “The most difficult thing was getting over the jet lag. I didn’t feel strange at all going back to school once I arrived,” he says. “Everything was taken care of.”
Having five-star service on the ground at the school made the learning experience much richer, he says. It was not like going back to college and having to wash your own clothes and cook for yourself.
“That’s a big plus,” says Chopra. “You don’t have to run around looking to organise things. If you wanted baseball tickets or a train ticket over the weekend you just had to drop in a word and it was organised for you.”
This meant the five-week course was the only thing Chopra and about 40 classmates had to focus on. Part of the course was a revision of basic finance, which many of those attending the programme were fairly familiar with, although most welcomed the refresher.
The speed of the classes was impressive, however, says Chopra. “Every day felt more like a week … it was incredibly intense: we started at 9am and finished at 7pm, then we often had reading to do overnight.”
Half of the course was based on lectures, while the remaining part was focused on role play and working with other executive students. “You finished class and then would get into a group with which you got a chance to interact, creating real-life situations that you could find yourself in at work.”
Studying alongside other executives, many operating in sectors varying from banking to heavy industry, enriched Chopra’s overall experience. “Spending time interacting, you keep picking up from your classmates,” he says.
The high point of his experience back in school was spending class time with Charan. “We had a session with Ram Charan that helped you think in a different way about things. I realised I needed to build skills in different areas. He spoke about having to anticipate things and how things are going to pan out.”
Back in India, Chopra has been putting into practice much of what he learnt at Wharton, and he also spends time sharing his new knowledge with younger managers at Philips.
“I try to apply some of the techniques I learnt on the course. We had a session on scenario planning,” he says. “I’ve applied that a few times. The perspectives you gain, you tend to apply directly or indirectly. In planning you try to figure how things will evolve in two or three years.”
One of the less obvious things Chopra learnt during his time at Wharton was creating time to read. “Ram Charan spoke about how to catch up with your reading,” he says. Charan explained how he speed-read the Financial Times, selecting and absorbing just what he needed. “It helps to read more. I used to read a lot, but somewhere 10 years ago that habit went,” says Chopra. “One of the outcomes of Wharton is that this habit has returned. When we were done I came back with 30-40 course books. Over the past year I’ve been reading a lot.”
The overall experience was rewarding for the Philips executive. “I found 80-85 per cent of the course had great relevance,” he says. “The 15 per cent that didn’t is probably because it was in areas that didn’t interest me all that much.
“It’s difficult if you’re tailoring a course to cater to a cross-section of people. If you have 80-90 per cent of the programme that’s good for you, the job is done,” says Chopra.
The executive training course is not only about learning but is also a very good networking opportunity, he says. After meeting some 40 senior executives from around the world, including four Indians and 10 from Europe, half a dozen from Latin America and the rest from North America, Chopra has built a global network of contacts.
Remaining in touch has been a challenge, however. Wharton organises regular get-togethers in different regions of the world that allow former students to stay connected. “There’s one this summer in Jakarta, for example – I am trying to work out if I can go. It’s a networking opportunity for those who have been through similar stuff,” says Chopra.
Social media services have also helped to keep the learning and networking process alive since the course. “I am in touch with some of them through email,” he says. “Some of them came to India. It’s all become easier courtesy of LinkedIn. We’ve set up a LinkedIn group with about 40 of us in it.”
So what would Chopra’s advice be to senior executives who share his initial concerns about taking time out from demanding roles?
“I would strongly encourage other executives to do this course. Once you get there you realise that it’s not such a big deal getting away. I managed pretty well – also thanks to my team in India, which gave me the space to focus on my coursework.”