Three Things We Don’t Teach Entrepreneurs

We do a great job teaching ideation. And founding. And finding customers. And pitching. And sources of capital. And pretty much everything you need to know up until about 10 employees.

Want to know what we do a crappy job teaching? Running the company.

You know why I think that? Because I’ve spent the better part of the last 4 years both teaching entrepreneurship and advising start-ups. And regardless of type of company — tech, life science, impact — CEOs seem to share many of the same areas where they don’t feel they have a lot of learning resources — even if they have degrees in business or even specifically in entrepreneurship.

By “we” I’m primarily talking about undergraduate/graduate entrepreneurship education. But it’s true in the media, the books, the speaker series etc. etc.  The information resources with regard to entrepreneurship tend to fall in one of three areas:

  1. War stories: here’s how I did it
  2. Specific how tos: here’s what I know how to do (marketing, legal, finance)
  3. Generalized advice: aggregate lists of what successful companies do

This is all fantastic and we should keep generating this information because it adds to the general knowledge base. But here’s just a glimpse at what we’re not teaching and where our students find themselves bewildered when they get out there:

  1. How to balance the vision and the details. The real key to being a successful entrepreneur is getting things done. But the job of a start-up CEO is everything, all the time, preferably yesterday. Obviously the right balance is unique to each individual and each company. But just telling people to hire for their weaknesses is a cop out. We need to develop a tool or philosophy that helps start-up CEOs be more confident that they’re working on the right stuff and not spending too much or too little time on the details. How can we add some rigor into the decision making about what to work on next?
  2. How to lead groups and build a culture.  Many of today’s founders are in their 20s. They may have little or no prior work experience. They haven’t necessarily had a boss or been a boss or brought a group together around a common goal. (Leading the fraternity/sorority fundraiser does not count here, I don’t care how much money you raised.) We need to teach young CEOs how to take a huge goal, break it up into pieces, then delegate, motivate and hold folks accountable. How to celebrate when that goal is complete.  And then do it again. We need to teach how to handle it when something in that pipeline goes wrong.  We need to teach to bake in culture from the beginning because it necessarily comes from the top and once people start texting each other Dilbert comics it’s really hard to reverse. Sure, you can have video games and free snacks and ping pong tournaments, but perqs do not necessarily equate with happy, productive employees who solve problems, delight customers and get things done.
  3. How to initiate and cultivate relationships. This one is probably the hardest to teach and gets left by the side of the road because it seems too soft for Business.  We tell our students to network but we don’t teach them how. We tell them they need to learn how to manage conflict and deal with difficult personalities but we don’t teach them how. We tell them they need to get a thick skin and be resilient but we don’t teach them the self-care skills that are necessary. Does that mean if they didn’t get it from Mom & Dad they shouldn’t be an entrepreneur? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, I’m not crazy about where this post ends because I don’t have the answers. When CEOs come to me and tell me that they’re struggling, I suggest they build a personal board of advisors. And it may be the case that the skills I’ve mentioned here are better taught one on one. But I think as educators, maybe we need to take an expanded view of the core skills we are teaching to better support the leadership of companies that can scale.

I’ll wind it up with a resource I’ve been recommending to a lot of CEOs lately: Startup Leadership by Derek Lidow  It is one of the first and best books I’ve read that covers some of these leadership challenges and it’s a great start at bringing some of this scaleable leadership thinking out for discussion.