In this series, we celebrate the truly impressive leaders who recently joined Kellogg’s Executive MBA Program. Today, we’re excited to introduce (from left): Praveen Singalla (Founder & CEO, Diaconia), Jordan Hanson (General Counsel, Southfield Corporation) and Mayank Sharma (Director of Product Management, Verizon Connect).
What are you most proud of in your professional journey? How did it shape who you are as a leader?
PRAVEEN: My proudest moments looking back has always been collaborating with my team in the trenches to overcome a particular problem and deliver the utmost value to our clients. It shaped me to be a better leader as it helped me understand the emotional roller coaster the team goes through balancing family, work and aspirations to make a difference. Those experiences helped me understand the significance of ‘leading from behind’ as taught by one of my all-time favorite Leaders, Nelson Mandela.
JORDAN: I am very proud of my transition from commercial litigation to running a business. When I look in the mirror today, I’m just as comfortable saying I am a strong businessperson as I am saying I’m a strong attorney; I could not have said that when I left legal practice in 2016. While I cherish my legal background, it wasn’t easy to pivot from essentially being a Monday-morning quarterback, who mostly worked alone, to proverbially throwing the ball and trusting others to catch it. My legal background provided me unique tools and work experience that not many in business possess, but litigation tends to be a solo act and I knew that it takes more than one person for a company to reach its true potential. Our company has seven subsidiaries across multiple states and, over time, I had to learn how to not only effectively lead a team but also how to be a great teammate. We are an acquisition-oriented company, and while I am proud of the personal and professional growth I’ve experienced thus far, I know Kellogg will help me continue to evolve into the leader I know I can be one day.
MAYANK: I am most proud of products I have built throughout my career and impact they have had on our customers, their businesses and their lives — starting with education products with Intel, providing individual digital access to students from the poorest communities across the world. I realized that technology and access is a great equalizer in this world and can be a source of so much opportunity and hope to so many people. As a leader building these products, I have learned to never forget that end goal above and beyond all the business metrics. My recent work in IOT telematics and safety products with Verizon has saved numerous lives and again, provided better opportunities for businesses to grow and serve their own customers and communities. I have realized a strong purpose and a north star is so crucial to create true value in this world, especially where there are so many options and so much noise, a strong value proposition cuts through that noise and attracts others to join your own tribe.
As an incredibly accomplished and very busy professional, why was now the right time to get your MBA?
PRAVEEN: A wise woman (my wife) gave me this advice: “Success is not a destination, it is a Journey with many note-worthy milestones to be enjoyed with and for people you care about.” I am humbled and blessed to have crossed many successful milestones in my corporate career working for various organizations (small, mid-size and as large as IBM). And one key milestone that has been on my mind for the last decade was going back to school. Especially with my plans of starting my own company, I realized the importance of surrounding myself with extraordinarily successful individuals and learn from their experiences. The only place where I could accomplish that was at a reputable and top-ranked business school.
JORDAN: I never believed there would be an easy time to tackle this program; you can always find excuses. I have three kids under six years old and a puppy at home. So, in many ways, the timing couldn’t be crazier. However, I honestly could not find an excuse to delay the decision once Covid began. The world changed almost instantly in March 2020 and the best companies in the future will be those ready, willing and able to tackle whatever the post-Covid world brings.
MAYANK: First, I felt now is a good time and truly felt that I wanted to be ready to manage and grow businesses as our world emerges from the global pandemic. The recovery from the pandemic will present many opportunities and challenges and require leaders with high EQ, low ego and high impact in their businesses and communities. Secondly, I am both excited and apprehensive about the future that AI and automation opens up for us. The next 20 years (if not just the next five) are going to be transformational in how AI evolves and it is equally important to equip leaders with strong values plus decisive and visionary leadership. I believe a strong MBA gives me these skills.
Why was Kellogg the right school?
PRAVEEN: For me, the spirit of Kellogg (“Low Ego, High Impact”) is not just a marketing hack; I got to experience what that meant at my very first Kellogg Alumni dinner event in DC, throughout the admissions process and now, with my wonderful cohort 127. It is just unbelievable to see words coming to life. If I had to summarize in one word what Kellogg is to students, industry and the community, it would be ‘GENUINE’. I am blessed, humbled and grateful to be part of the worldwide Kellogg family. In fact, I actually have two Kellogg EMBA alumni as part of my new business, all because of joining Kellogg.
JORDAN: Kellogg’s unmatched network and faculty, coupled with its amazing culture and the peer group it attracts, will have me ready.
MAYANK: Kellogg and its mantra to grow leaders with high impact and low ego was a major attraction for me. I am keen to build and fine tune my leadership and strategy skills and there is no better place to do that than at Kellogg and do it in a way that aligns with my own values of humility, teamwork and encouraging diversity of thought and perspective. Kellogg, with its strong emphasis on teamwork and collaboration, also represents an ideal and catalytic environment for me to thrive and grow. I appreciate that Kellogg embraces cross-disciplinary education, and this aligns well with my own multi-disciplinary education and experience, as well as with my desire to continue to round out my intellectual perspective on business.
If you’ve made a recent pivot in your career, can you share what drove you to make this pivot? Any advice for those looking to make a pivot or significant change in their career?
PRAVEEN: I decided to start my own management and technology consulting firm (Diaconia) right in the middle of the pandemic. It was a significant pivot to remove myself from the comfort of a stable job and embark on this adventure of being an entrepreneur. The pandemic opened my eyes to things that really matter, especially given the uncertainty of our very existence on this earth. It forced me to reevaluate my priorities, my future plans and what I wanted to accomplish. My parents dedicated their life as teachers serving under-privileged kids and I always had my heart set on finding ways to build an organization that reflects one of my core values, “empower to serve.” My advice: 1) Take time to evaluate if your career aspirations are in alignment with what brings joy to your soul; 2) devise a plan of transition, so your family is taken care of and ready to support your change; and 3) reach out to those well-wishers and mentors who are truly invested in your success and get their commitment to support you.
MAYANK: I have had several, smaller pivots throughout my careers — like taking on new assignments and new projects that I didn’t know how they would pan out. My driving motivation is always the opportunity to do something new, exciting and challenging. One advice that has stood with me is to first, be brave; take the leap, jump in headfirst and give it all you’ve got and strive to make your pivot successful. It starts with you. Second, believe that it will be ok, even if you can’t see it just yet. If you believe that it will be ok, the universe conspires to make it so. Don’t worry about how the future will turn out, focus on the present and things will take care of themselves. Lastly, don’t second-guess or doubt yourself and your decisions; see your path through. This doesn’t mean that you are not flexible to change. Rather, it means that if you truly believe in a path, then you owe it to yourself to see it through.
COVID-19 has changed how we learn, engage and grow. What have you learned or gained – that you might not have otherwise – during this time?
PRAVEEN: History has taught us time and again, that unprecedented events trigger the beginning of a new era. This pandemic was no different. Before the pandemic, there was a routine and a playbook for everything. But once it hit, everything that I thought I knew and could apply from the past was just obsolete. Of course, there are things I still do, but the focus and the approach have changed significantly. This pandemic experience has pushed me to respect and cherish the gift of life, the power of relationships and the undeniable call to step forward and make a difference with whatever I have and wherever I am with my career and personal journey.
My new approach to life, which has been reinforced through Kellogg, is the following: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” — Mahatma Gandhi
JORDAN: Business and personal life become intertwined when you spend a year working from home. I think we are all finding that’s generally the situation throughout the country and world today. Oddly enough, I feel closer with people at work and in my cohort at Kellogg because of our remote meetings. Life happens in the background in the form of kids, spouses, pets and the million other things that happen in our personal settings. Despite all this, and perhaps it’s just luck, I find I have experienced and witnessed respect and even empathy amongst my peers. We acknowledge our shared challenges, smile at the situation and carry on.
MAYANK: COVID-19 has highlighted the power of empathy — towards my friends, family colleagues and myself. It has forced me to introspect, stop and take a look at myself, my own leadership style, how I show up and how I engage in this world. The past 12 months gave me an opportunity to think, reflect and strategize on how I want the rest of my career and life to shape up in a way that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. The silver lining for Covid for me is that it has reinforced the power of mindfulness and introspection more than ever.
Why did you choose your campus?
PRAVEEN: I chose Miami for two reasons: the AWESOME weather and I didn’t want to be traveling too often. Miami’s once-a-month format allowed me to spend more time with my family, rather than being out every other week.
JORDAN: I live in suburban Chicago, it’s a privilege to have one of the best programs in the world in your backyard.
MAYANK: I chose Evanston for two primary reasons. First, it’s the home campus for NU, home to the hub and the Allen center and I wanted to build a network in the broader NU community. Also, the every-two-weeks format felt like it would keep me on my toes and keep the momentum of classwork at a manageable pace.
What is your #1 application advice for students looking to apply to Kellogg?
PRAVEEN: Take as much time you need to talk to as many you can from Kellogg (current students, alumni, the admissions staff). The insight and advice is just unparalleled and invaluable. Nothing can beat that. You are special and unique in your own way. Focus on conveying just that by being yourself.
JORDAN: A school’s culture is important, and it is reflected in the students it accepts. These individuals will be your peers for two years and, in many ways, will be one of your best resources upon graduation. Talk to as many alumni as you can and ask to sit in on classes. Observe and soak in everything you can from that class, but not insomuch as what the teacher says, but in how the students engage with each other. What you’ll see will reflect that school’s culture, and whether that culture speaks to you will help determine whether that program is the right fit for you. I knew I belonged at Kellogg.
MAYANK: Be as authentic as possible, don’t try to guess what the admissions team wants to hear and tell them your story. This requires you to dig deep: who you truly are, your values, desires, aspirations and what you want to achieve. Say that in as simple of terms as possible. I dare say the loftier the goals the better, but certainly have goals you can clearly articulate