Back to School
It is the time of year when students are headed back to school. It’s a time-honored tradition based on one of the simplest truths – that education is an important asset. This is true whether you are entering high school or running a business. As the digital world causes the pace of change to accelerate, lifelong learning is even more critical to independent business people. We need to incorporate new trends, and modern insights into our approach. As such, how are you, the small business CEO, capitalizing on your educational assets?
Stay on Top of Current Events
Any business executive today needs to stay abreast of the news. I am sure many of you have sophisticated twitter set ups deigned to keep you abreast of anything from breaking news at the SEC to the latest Giants score. It is a struggle, since the demands of the job make it tough to keep up. But, being on top of current events is critical, but that is not what I mean. Staying current is more informative than educational. What I want to know is what are you doing about your education?
A CEO can never stop learning. Sometimes learnings are forced on you; I learned a lot about bankruptcy when one of my largest clients went belly up in the “dot bomb“ era. Our receivables were designated as preference payments and we ended up in a 2-year proceeding. It was a “trial by fire” education process – not one I would recommend.
Learning can also be through shared experiences of professional groups, like YEO (Young Entrepreneurs Organization) or YPO (Young Presidents Organizations) where CEOs can discuss issues confidentially with peers. I found this type of professional development to be very beneficial for me. Organizations like Vistage, the Alliance of CEOS or The National Association of Women Business Owners can afford similar insights. You can learn how others address workplace issues or confront business challenges and incorporate that new knowledge into your approach.
Similarly, industry conferences are a great way to pack a lot of learnings into a 2-3 day period. Whether it is a an industry topic or a soft skills issue, such sessions can help you get out of the muck of the day to day business and really think more strategically. A CEO buddy of mine tries to do a conference every 6 months just to be sure he can continually bring new thinking and ideas into his company.
But for many smaller businesses, such programs may be a financial stretch. At $3-5k for seminar fees and travel expenses, these programs may be cost prohibitive for many smaller or newer businesses. Moreover, a conference only educates one person – the attendee. When income is tight in a small or growing business, such concentration may not seem wise.
As an aside, to deal with that factor, I always made sure to share the proceedings, readings and highlights of any programs I attended with my employees. I would send an email explaining the content, offering links to speakers, or books. There always had to be some “take home value” that I could redirect back into the business. Even programs that were a bit far afield from our line of business were shared with all. My employees seemed to appreciate this knowledge sharing, and I was happy for them to see that my time out of the office was not just fun and games but real, applicable content.
Business “Book Club”
A great alternative to high priced seminars is creating a “book club” within your business. When my firm was about $3mil in revenue and we were watching every cost, I had an epiphany about my education process. Although I found reading management literature and leadership books interesting, wouldn’t it be better if everyone around me read them too? It’s one thing for me to tell them about a book, and quite another for all of us to read it and share.
Of course, the whole company couldn’t read the whole book – that would have been too much to expect. As it was, the “homework” notion still has a lot of baggage for many people. So I would read a book, and find one chapter that made sense for all to read. Similarly, perhaps it was one Harvard Business School article that it made sense for all of us to discuss. “All of us”, back then, by the way, included a few sales people, an office manager, some support folks and an accountant. The book club was for all of us.
The intent was threefold: to enhance our shared knowledge, have some team building and have some fun. The latter accrued from either the late afternoon wine and cheese or the midday pizza that accompanied the book club meetings. We read chapters from Competing for the Future (by Gary Hamel & CK Prahalad), Leadership Is an Art, and Built to Last (by Jim Collins). Although all are more than 10 years old now, I wouldn’t hesitate to include them on any reading list. Sometimes I would lead the discussions and others I’d ask one of the other employees to lead. As anyone who is in a traditional book club knows, talking about a book helps you understand it all the more. And talking about it with a nice chardonnay and some brie on a Thursday afternoon at 5 makes for a very great team meeting. And the cost – a half a dozen books and some libations – seemed well worth it.
Recently I went back to my company as the Interim CEO. The firm now has 60 plus employees and $60 million in sales. In the spirit of enhancing our collective human capital assets I asked the question what should we as a firm be doing in training and development. Several people asked us to start a book club. (No one, I should add, had been there in the years of the first book club.) Salespeople especially wanted to be sharing insights with their colleagues about the business books on their night tables. I couldn’t help but smile.
The moral here is that a book club can work in any sized company to enhance the knowledge of employees. In this day and age when so much information is assaulting us, having salient points directed our way can be refreshing. It shows true leadership on the part of the CEO to offer that direction to employees.
It’s almost September. Why not consider going back to school…