When they announced his name as the winner of the distinguished teaching award at the commencement day of Class of 2000, twelve years ago, every single one of Ralph’s student in the audience stood up and clapped. We didn’t stop till Ralph stepped off the stage.
I asked him when I met him just before I left New York, if he had noticed. He smiled with his eyes and answered with his very own version of “Oh, yes.”
I remember that “Oh yes”, I remember the smile that always started with his eyes.
I first saw Ralph smile with his eyes on a cold Tuesday morning in January at the business school’s new campus on Amsterdam. It was the best possible start to a new year and to Tuesday and Thursday mornings for the next five months.
Arno and everyone else who had taken Ralph’s signature course on general management had raved about Top Management Processes (TMP). Ken and I both signed up for the course, completely unaware of what awaited us in the class room.
We also tried to convince Safwan Masri, the Vice Dean at the Business School that given our “extended” corporate experience we really didn’t need the course on Corporate Strategy. Strategy was nothing but fluff and there were other hard courses that needed our attention.
Fortunately for us, Safwan was a much better negotiator and forced us to sign up for a double dose of Ralph. Top Management Processes on Tuesday morning. The core course on Corporate Strategy on Thursday mornings. Within a week both days were labeled as power mornings amongst Ralph’s students.
The classes were the most fun we had at school. Ralph premise was simple. Are general managers born or can be trained? Is there a science to this subject? Can you teach it in a full semester course at Columbia? For twelve years the power morning sessions of TMP generated some of the most intensive case discussions and debates around strategy and general management on campus.
Ralph became our guide to understanding the drivers at work at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. He introduced us to T J Rodgers and no excuses management at Cypress Semi Conductor. He made us choose between Mustafa at Serengeti eyewear and the controversy that was T J.
But more importantly like John Whitney in the Perfect Prince and Donald Sexton in International Marketing, Ralph introduced us to ourselves and our many friends in the class room. We saw amazing insights, analysis and arguments in every single class. Ralph conducted our case discussions with the finesse of a maestro. His “But, Jawwad” would somehow inspire and move you to give reasoning and arguments that you had never thought of before. “What would you do” became the other hall mark from the TMP course, since the course was just as much about doing as it was about dissecting. Ralph made us the stars we became by showing us what we could do if we applied our minds and started thinking and behaving like general managers.
The TMP mailing list and Ralph became my most important support group as I first build the business that became Avicena and later picked up the pieces as the world around me came crashing down. Confused with the conflicting reactions I had received from two other professors, I asked Ralph for his opinion about doing what I was trying to do. Ralph took his time and finally said, “Why not?”. Glenn Hubbard, our entrepreneurial finance professor and Ralph, both helped as advisors and mentors during the final six months at school as I tried to wrap up the MBA and launch a new business off the ground.
Ralph’s door was always open, if you needed help, guidance, a second opinion or good advice. And of all the friends and mentors at school, Ralph always gave great advice.
It was the Ralph on the sidelines of the class that I remember and miss the most. Amin, our 8 month old son would routinely hang on to my knees and cry as I tried to sneak away for my early morning class. A few times I ran really late and tried a lit bit more stealth than was called for. Given how important Ralph’s approval and opinion had become to all of us I went up to him and explained why I had walked in late that day. Ralph smiled, (I know I keep on repeating myself but he always did, that is what I remember of him), and said, “We all have sons, Jawwad, we have all gone through this stage, no worries”.
This morning as I stood by the whiteboard and looked at my eager class of MBA students in Dubai, I really missed Ralph.
I had been struggling with his death ever since I landed in Dubai and saw Glenn’s email on Tuesday night. As Ralph would say, it would not be good form for a forty year old to shed a few tears in front of his thirty year old students. Or maybe not. Ralph taught us that general managers and professors, despite the myths and the hype, were also human. Especially at Columbia Business School.
The best of teachers, teach. The greatest of teachers inspire others to teach. Ralph E. Biggadike was my inspiration.
May the Almighty bless him with the best of Golf Clubs, of Golf Courses, and the biggest, baddest whiteboard of them all in the afterlife.
I miss you Ralph.
Ralph E. Biggadike. 17th August 2012.
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