Getting to Know Huggy Rao

Learn how this organizational sociologist is constantly cooking up new ideas to inspire curiosity and generosity — for himself and others — in the kitchen and the classroom.

June 05, 2023

Huggy Rao

Ask Huggy what he’s cooking for dinner and more than likely your mouth will start watering. Then your mind will start racing as he spins a tale of the dish’s ingredients and inspiration. His passion for cooking and hunger for knowledge are infectious. As he says, “Every day I have to learn a bunch of new things. Otherwise it’s not a useful day.”

Scaling Up Excellence

It’s no wonder Professor Rao begins his Scaling Up Excellence class (which is also the name of his best-selling business book co-written with fellow Stanford professor Robert J. Sutton) by asking participants a surprising question: What’s your favorite dish to cook? It’s a metaphor that immediately engages his audience and demonstrates his curiosity about their lives. “Your job as a teacher is to turn on as many lights as you can. You don’t need to be the lighthouse in the class.”

Curiosity and Generosity

Huggy believes classrooms and companies should be incubators for curiosity and generosity — curiosity about what others are thinking and generosity to share ideas. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

Everywhere you go you have to be curious.
Huggy Rao

In executive education programs he shares principles and evidenced-based tools, empowering leaders to create their own recipes for success. Research is also front and center, but it shows up in the form of stories. “Research is Stanford’s signature strength. So, I probably make references to at least 10 experiments and 10 papers in every lecture,” he says. “But I tell a story about the findings and get participants to think and say why they think it happened.”

Born Hayagreeva aka Huggy

Huggy got his nickname early in life and it stuck. Born in India to a math teacher mother and businessman father, he recalls intense dinner table conversations about ideas in Time magazine and National Geographic, literary classics read aloud by his father, and early morning math sessions. His mother woke him at 4 a.m. to get in extra calculus problems, souring him on a career in math … and in teaching, for that matter. Despite it all, he pursued a PhD in organizational behavior and began a lifelong journey of research and teaching.

Rotten Tomatoes, Raincoats, and Hamlet

Attending business school, according to Huggy, was one of the best decisions of his life. But it was the extracurricular activities that, in retrospect, made him a more focused, confident teacher. As part of an unusual debate society, he and others had to recite excerpts from Shakespeare without pause while facing a crowd of rowdy tomato-tossing students. Their only defense: a tennis racket, raincoat, and motorcycle helmet. “You learned how to just keep going forward no matter what. It was a powerful (and sometimes messy) experience.”

A Very Full Plate

When he’s not teaching, researching, traveling, or writing, Huggy is still a very busy man. Time, he realizes, is the thing he doesn’t have enough of. So, we asked him how he’s spending his time these days.

  • Latest book written: The Friction Project: How Smart Leaders Make the Right Things Easier and the Wrong Things Harder, co-written with Robert J. Sutton.
  • Latest book read: Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey. “Alexander the Great discovered pilaf in 328 BC. Can you believe that?”
  • Listening to music: Contemporary Brazilian bossa nova is top on his playlist, thanks to recommendations from some Brazilian MBAs.
  • Pandemic activity that stuck: Opening an old-fashioned atlas and blindly pointing to a spot as cooking inspiration. “What do we know about the cooking of Aceh, a province of Indonesia? I don’t know. But we’re going to find out. And the next thing I know I’m reading books about two empires in Indonesia.”

As our interview came to a close, Huggy was ready for a glass of wine and meal planning: “ I might make something with cloves, cardamom, jalapeno, cilantro and shrimp — and garlic, plenty of it.”

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