2017 Best EMBAs: Rodney Cheung, University of Toronto (Rotman)

Rodney Cheung

Rotman School of Management – University of Toronto

“A Lifelong learner with the drive for team success.” 

Age: 47

Hometown: Toronto, Ontario Canada

Family Members: Wife

Fun fact about yourself: An arts lover in particular with foreign films and live music performances

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Waterloo – Systems Design Engineering (BASc.) with Management Sciences (MSci) option

Where are you currently working? Chief Information Officer (CIO) – MediSolutions.  At MediSolutions, we are working to create a brand-new business model. Taking a startup mentality within a 34 year-old company, our executive team is creating a brand-new business model based on technical Machine Learning innovation to integrate pharmaceutical companies and advertisers to enhance patient care worldwide.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I am a member of Rotman’s Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) focused on value creation and capture through building massively scalable technology startups with focus on Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). I am also a recipient of the John Harris Award for outstanding performance in the CDL program — 2016-17 — for students who have demonstrated entrepreneurial ability through curiosity and by transforming ambition into action. Executive MBA Recipient of the Jane Tyerman Award, which is the peer nominated award for the student who, “through leadership and a commitment to excellence, has contributed the most to the learning experiences of their classmates.”

I also mentor a group of younger people through their careers as a way to give thanks to all of those who have given me tremendous pieces of advice along the way.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Obtaining a 3.88/4.0 GPA on the academic aspects while becoming more inclusive in my thinking, resulting in significant Emotional Intelligence (EI) growth. Prior to Rotman, I had believed that the two were at odds with one another and considered EI growth to be counterproductive towards having an edge with a drive to succeed. Rotman has a very interesting aspect of pedagogy within the EMBA program with respect to team work. In the first of four terms, you are assigned to work within a team. After going through many experiences with your first team, you are then re-assigned to a second team for the remaining three terms.

This gave me the opportunity to learn from my mistakes. As academic results were a large goal for me, I drove the first team too hard while taking on a lot of the load which resulted in fairly strong grades at the expense of strained personal relationships. Given the candid feedback within safe learning environment, I approached the second team in a much different way concentrating more on building personal relationships instead of directly concentrating on academic performance as the dominant goal. What I didn’t expect was the great friendships that have developed along with even stronger academic results.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I have created two consulting startups from concept, to revenue stages through to founder exits. The key aspect through this process, which you don’t gain from working in larger companies, is the need to be flexible and adaptable as there are no circumstances where you can sit back and say “that’s not my job.” In our startups, you also need to make your clients succeed along with members of your team in order to deliver value to shareholders.

This has given me the adaptability and out-of-the-box thinking (now significantly enhanced by the EMBA experience) to be able to bring in integrative solutions to solve problems allowing me to be a change catalyst for organizations.

What was your favorite MBA Course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? Coming from an engineering background with concentration on technology, I had thought that the quantitative courses would be the most enjoyable for me. Instead, the many qualitative courses on leadership were my favorites with one of the many highlights being John Oesch’s Business Problem Solving (BPS). From understanding the role of one’s hidden biases to understanding the role of congruency amongst all aspects within an organization, I gained many insights. I learned that making a “right” decision with logical reasoning is insufficient for an organization to optimally thrive and grow.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? Rotman has all of the characteristics of a leading EMBA program, including world class faculty, reputation for excellence and alumni network. One unique aspect is Rotman’s Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), which focuses on developing massively scalable startup ventures. The opportunity to join the CDL solidified my decision to choose the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? As somebody who is afraid of not being on top of things, one of the early lessons we were given by a member of the previous EMBA cohort was that you cannot do everything properly and things will drop. There are so many incidents during the program with conflicting due dates with professional, school, and personal deliverables and thanks go out to the many people who covered for me during these times. Learning to become more interdependent was another significant lesson within EMBA.

What was your biggest regret in business school? That I had not done it earlier!  Ten years earlier would have been an ideal time for me. Coming from an engineering background, I had thought that the business side concentrated on “soft” skills, which were not as valuable as “hard” quantifiable technical skills. What I didn’t know at the time was the importance of both aspects.

Although everybody’s personal circumstances are different, I would encourage anybody who is on the fence to try to find resources available (mainly time and money) in order to make it happen. Another path would be to take an introductory program as many schools are offering mini-MBAs so that you have the opportunity to sample being in the classroom again. Taking an EMBA program in your mid-to-late 30s will provide you with enough work experience to appreciate the lessons learned and give you an extended opportunity to apply the knowledge gained.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire?  There were so many great people in the program but I would say that I admired Lata the most within the program. I find it incredible that she was able to complete the program at the same time as immigrating to a new country, finding a great position at leading financial firm, along with taking care of her young daughter.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I felt like my career arc had plateaued and I was doing similar things over and over without feeling challenged.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…doing same old thing without knowledge of the bigger expansive opportunities and viewpoints out there.”

What is your favorite company and what are they doing that makes them so special? I’m impressed by Jack Ma from Alibaba. I find his approach extraordinary. In particular, I love his active promotion of women as his senior leaders within his company. As a big proponent of diversity at all levels, I find his statement attributing the success of Alibaba to having gender diversity within senior roles very inspiring.

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the executive MBA experience? It can be said that in the general public’s eyes, the luster of an MBA degree has declined from its peak in the 1990s and 2000s. As a dean, figuring out a way to make traditional business schools more relevant in this day and age with an emphasis around innovation and the new knowledge based economy would be the biggest change

The curriculum needs to evolve to bridge legacy EMBA topics with the new world of innovation. An EMBA’s experience within business schools must connect to the real-world to provide value to society as a whole.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? Continued executive leadership focused on providing an innovation agenda within organizations and to their customers. Creating societal good given the vast amount of technological change and impacts machine learning and artificial intelligence will have on individuals on the years ahead.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My wife Jia for all her support and patience as well as being an inspiration to me with her intelligence and kindness.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? As an intelligent and thoughtful leader.

Favorite book: Murakami 1Q84 – All of Murakami’s books are so immersive and create such vivid versions realities that are changeable.

Favorite movie or television show: Tough to choose just one but Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are three of my favorites.

Favorite musical performer: Trent Reznor. From the pure aggression of his earlier work with Nine Inch Nails to more recent complex musical scores, he has a great range which continues to grow and evolve over time.

Favorite vacation spot: – I love the energy behind global megacity hubs and London UK is one of my favorites.

Hobbies? Running, Snowboarding, and Music.

What made Rodney such an invaluable addition to the class of 2017?

“Rodney is a rewarding example of a student who was able to get the most value out of the Executive MBA program by leveraging his strengths and business experience while developing the areas for improvement, especially those revealed to him over the course of the program. Rodney came to Rotman with the mindset of a strong individual contributor. Rodney used the various components of the EMBA’s Leadership Development Program to heighten his awareness of the importance of the emotional side of leadership, which motivated him to focus on developing his own interpersonal skills. His openness, willingness to change and strong commitment to a new leadership style resulted in a fundamental shift from a getting things done on his own approach at the beginning of the program to a more participative, consensus-building approach with a heightened awareness of himself and others by the end of the program. At the conclusion of his classes, Rodney was presented with The Jane Tyerman Award, a peer nominated award for the student who “has contributed the most to the learning experiences of their classmates.” This recognition by his peers offers an apt summary of the impact of Rodney’s success on his personal development journey.

Rodney was also able to further enrich his learning experiences while in the program. He discovered an opportunity to apply for a highly-coveted engagement with Rotman’s Creative Destruction Lab, even when this opportunity was not formally open to EMBA students. Within several months of being in the CDL, Rodney once again demonstrated outstanding academic performance highlighted by his exceptional entrepreneurial ability to build massively scalable technology startups. Rodney’s success with the CDL made the CDL and EMBA think differently about each other. Driven entirely by Rodney’s success in demonstrating the value that EMBAs can bring to start-up technology-based companies, future EMBA students now have the opportunity to participate directly in the work of the Creative Destruction Lab. His self-driven relationship building with the CDL is a very rare example of how the initiative of a single student can directly influence the design of the program for the generations of EMBA students that will follow Rodney.

Rodney was transformed by the program and, in turn, transformed the EMBA experience for himself and for generations of EMBA students that will follow Rodney.”

Nataliya Korchagina
Director, EMBA Program

Doug Hyatt
Academic Director, Morning, Evening, and Executive MBA Programs
Professor of Business Economics