A basic principle of the world’s great religions is that man (and woman) should be on a journey of lifelong education. Presumably, this reflects our innate need to learn and grow. It’s what separates us from the other species. It’s also what separates successful entrepreneurs from the mediocre ones.
After all, the world is changing at an increasing pace. In order to stay ahead of your competition, you must constantly learn about best practices in all aspects of business, and implement them with your own spin.
My fellow columnist, Brian Scudamore of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, is a master at borrowing from the best. Like me, he is an avid reader of business books and attends business education events and programs. We recently compared notes over breakfast, and I loved hearing how Brian had picked up the best practices of Verne Harnish (author of Mastering the Rockefeller Habits), Jim Collins (Good to Great) and Bradford Smart (Topgrading), among others, and adapted them to his own company. Brian also spends about $2,000 a year per employee on staff training and education. As he likes to put it, this investment ensures that tomorrow, 1-800-GOT-JUNK? won’t “ever be as dumb as we are today.”
But we also live in a busy world. Accordingly, the single biggest objection I hear to pursuing continuing entrepreneurial education is that a leader can’t find the time to do it. Nonsense! One of the first lessons learned if you “stay in school” is that the most successful entrepreneurs work “on” their businesses rather than “in” them.
That distinction is critical. If you are tied to mundane management responsibilities — say, bookkeeping or operations management — you are not going to have the time to read (or do anything else). The best business leaders put people and systems in place that allow them to pull away from such details and spend time creating a vision for the business, developing the strategy and implementing the tactical steps to achieve it. You can do that the hard way, reinventing the wheel as you figure out what works in business management. Or, you can make it easier on yourself by going to school and applying the lessons of those who’ve been there, done that.
The alarming truth is if you don’t get back to class right away, you’ll be left behind. Not only is the pace of change increasing, but sources of competition are proliferating — you are now as likely to be put out of business by a competitor from China or India as you are by someone located in Saint John or St. Louis. (Essential reading on this topic: Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.)
Admittedly, pulling yourself away from day-to-day business is easier said than done. But it’s absolutely achievable and totally worth it. My most valuable business lessons have come from the education programs I have been involved in over the past 20 years as both student and presenter.
Here are some of the easier ways to further your entrepreneurial education and avoid the school of hard knocks:
Put aside time every day to read
Plenty of business books can provide important insights into all aspects of your company, as can general business magazines such as PROFIT and journals specific to your industry. But reading about the world, current affairs and history can also help you be more competitive in the global economy. A favourite “business” book of many entrepreneurs — including me — is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which remains relevant 2,500 years after it was written.
Go to trade shows and conferences
I get tremendous value from conferences, such as PROFIT‘s GrowthCamp and those of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO). In August, my thirst for self-improvement was quenched by the four-day EO University in Chicago, at which I heard such speakers as The E-Myth‘s Michael Gerber, Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s fame, and Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the Titanic. But perhaps the greatest conference learning comes from networking with peers in the corridors and over meals. At the 11 EO Universities I’ve attended, I’ve made lifelong friends who regularly provide their business advice.
Register for an executive education program
Take this shortcut if you don’t have the time or resources to enroll in a full-fledged executive MBA program. Ten years ago, I attended the Birthing of Giants program at MIT. It’s a three-year program over a long weekend each year at which 60 young entrepreneurs learn from MIT, Harvard and Babson College professors, as well as experienced entrepreneurs. (Nine days over three years? That’s doable for even the busiest entrepreneur.) There are similar programs out there, including the University of Western Ontario’s Quantum Shift.
Join a peer-mentoring organization
My EO membership entitles me to attend the group’s monthly educational events in the major cities in which EO has chapters, and also participate in forums — groups of eight to 12 entrepreneurs who assemble monthly for three hours to share their experiences on issues presented at the meetings by members on a confidential basis. My forum mates have been my most important business advisors over the years.
Lifelong entrepreneurial education has provided many “aha!” moments that I’d never have experienced otherwise. It can do the same for you, too. So, take my advice — or, at least, your parents’ — and stay in school.