Tag Archives: business schools

5 Entrepreneurship Basics B-Schools Don’t Teach

The other day I posted 5 Entrepreneurship Basics B-Schools Can Teach. It’s natural to follow that list here with the exact opposite: 5 other entrepreneurship basics the business schools can’t teach. But I couldn’t quite do it. I had to change can’t to don’t. That, to me, is a significant difference. So here they are  (things they don’t teach, not necessarily things they can’t teach):

1. Dealing with people

Sure, you can teach organizational management, and there are rules for employees, lots of advice on selling, buying, leadership, and all that. But can anybody really teach empathy? Do you learn how other people feel by sitting in a classroom, or by working with (and living with) them. I like the new network television show (Lie to Me — pictured here to the right) where they read physical signs like facial expressions to know who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. The rest of us need a lifetime to figure that out, and, let’s face it, we probably never do.

How about the basics of self interest, like starting every business communication with “you” and the benefits for the reader or listener? Or figuring out who’s likely to be a long-term ally, and who isn’t? Or figuring out that selling right is listening first, and solving people’s problems? Some business schools try to teach that stuff. Most fail.

2. Right and wrong

I know business schools are trying to teach business ethics, but it’s so hard because there are so many different views, and social and political constraints; and ethics means different things to different people.

My bias on this point is that businesses that act in ways that help the community, and their employees, and their customers, and the earth and the environment, and all that jazz, will do better over the long term. Things like fair play and, at the very least, doing no harm, are critical to long-term success.

Fairness is so important. No business deal or alliance will work over any useful time frame unless it offers benefits to both sides. Screwing people is not a successful business model. But can that be taught? I can’t even prove it, let alone teach it.

3. Having a life

With all the baloney we spread about entrepreneurship passion and perseverance and persistence and all, where in the curriculum do we teach putting business in the right order of priorities? Who teaches that it’s easier to find a new job, or build a new business, than a new spouse? Which class is that?

Business schools and business academics undervalue life as they (we) teach starting a business as the classic high-end getting financed and getting an exit. There’s way too little attention to what we (with a sneer, usually) call a “lifestyle” business, or, for that matter, starting up via bootstrapping instead of outside investment. And nobody teaches how to decide what to do when a crucial business meeting interferes with a kid’s soccer practice.

Every class in entrepreneurship should have at least one session with somebody who got so obsessed with the business that they lost the rest of their life. It happens a lot. It needs to show up in the classroom too.

4. Managing risk

I don’t mean the technical side of risk management. Business schools are generally excellent at teaching the numbers and analysis of risk, mathematical tools to evaluate the time value of money, for example, and formulas to compare technical investment risk like the internal rate of return (IRR).

I do mean living with risk. Not betting things you can’t afford to lose. How to sleep at night when your customers owe you enough to destroy you simply by failing to pay what they owe. How to figure out which spend is a reasonable risk for generating a future payback, and which isn’t. How it feels to take a second mortgage, or how it feels to tell a graduating high-school senior with a great record that there isn’t enough money for the college he or she has earned.

Don’t take risks if you can’t live with the downside consequences.


5. When to hold and when to fold

One of the hardest thing we do, in startups and small business, is figuring out when to stick to the plan and when to back up and try something else. There are no magic formulas, no software that can do that for us. It wraps up a combination of guessing the future, projecting different possible scenarios, understanding what’s at stake, and figuring out where assumptions were wrong, where sticking to the plan makes sense, and where it’s going to be like running your head against a brick wall over and over.

Reflection: teaching with stories

How do we teach any of this? The best hope, I think, is by telling stories: Stories of failures, stories of problems, challenges met, situations, and so on. We do deal with business cases in business schools, and cases, when done well, are a lot like stories. Of course the value depends on a couple of important factors, like the case itself (real business, or big business?) and the teacher. True stories, told by the people who lived them, can be better than business cases.

Final thought:

Am I wrong on this? Maybe my experience is out of date. If the business schools are getting better on this, I’d like to know. I’d be very happy to be proven wrong.

5 Entrepreneurship Basics B-Schools Can Teach

I’ve been asked a lot lately about business schools and entrepreneurship, which is why I did this post, last Friday, about one thing wrong in that area; and then this one yesterday, on whether business schools can teach entrepreneurship. That’s become a very interesting discussion. I expect to post on it again, if only just to summarize some of those comments.

So, in the meantime, looking at Twitter and comment reactions to yesterday’s post, I sat down today and thought about what you can learn about entrepreneurship in a classroom, that will help you be a successful entrepreneur. Not that you can’t also learn all of this from books, websites, mentors, and advisors too; but learning it in class might be more efficient.


1. Cash flow

Cash flow is critical but not intuitive. Cash isn’t profits. That ebb and flow of cash related to accounts receivable and inventory management, collection days and payment days. This one by itself justifies studying entrepreneurship. Studying this in the classroom is way better than learning it the hard way. One cash flow disaster (running out of money) in business can cost you more than two years in business school. Easily.

2. Business planning

Yes, I really like business planning. I’ve liked it since I was first exposed to it in the middle 1970s. Don’t get bogged down in the formal academic full business plan, necessarily; but business planning is a great way to see a whole business, from strategic focus to objectives to specific milestones, tasks, responsibilities, management, sales, marketing, and finance. And it’s a great tool for teaching.

3. General business fundamentals

Never underestimate the fundamentals of strategy, marketing, data gathering, finance, and analytical thinking. There’s a lot to be said for learning how to translate concepts to numbers and back to concepts. Not to mention vocabulary, and analytical frameworks, and methodologies for isolating problems and layout out solutions. Disciplines and methodologies are good to know. And hey, buzzwords don’t hurt.


4. Communication skills

Writing — clear, simple communication, in practical English sentences — is so important. It is so often underestimated. And presentation skills, focusing on what’s most important and communicating that to others. My experience is that good business schools teach that.


5. Skepticism

A good education can teach you what not to believe, and why not. Enthusiasm is great, and you hear so much about passion and persistence and all, but not without a basis for reviewing what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Rethinking Business Schools After the Fall

Blame the business schools? As the culprits roll out of the fancy offices in New York and Washington, it’s hard to resist the temptation. There have been several thoughtful pieces on that in the last couple months, particularly the New York Times on blaming the business schools, and Are Business Schools to Blame posted late last month on a Harvard Business School blog. If you care about business education, for whatever reason, read both of these. The first is a bit longer than most blog posts, but thorough, well researched, and significant. The second includes a long string of thoughtful comments.

I care about business education. I think there are serious issues here, and a chance, maybe, to use this crisis to promote some change for the better.

The Times’ piece raises serious issues:

Critics of business education have many complaints. Some say the schools have become too scientific, too detached from real-world issues. Others say students are taught to come up with hasty solutions to complicated problems. Another group contends that schools give students a limited and distorted view of their role — that they graduate with a focus on maximizing shareholder value and only a limited understanding of ethical and social considerations essential to business leadership.

The Harvard follow-up cites three underlying problems (and I’m paraphrasing, here; the words are mine, summarizing):

  1. The traditional business school curriculum separates management from leadership. Management is analytical. Leadership is fuzzy.
  2. Business school lore and legend is about making money. Get an MBA, get rich.
  3. Business schools aren’t owning up to the possibility. The actual phrase is “There has been little contrition on the part of those involved in MBA education after the crisis.” Hard to argue with that. At least Harvard is there.

I see a whole lot of truth in most of this. And I believe in education in general, and I loved the two years I took to get the Stanford MBA, and I wouldn’t change a thing about that time (from 1979 to 1981). I teach one class a year at the University of Oregon business school. So I am involved in all this. And I do think there’s room for a lot more change. And good and bad news.

The Bad News

So much of what they’re saying is, at least from my point of view, mostly true.

Business schools tend to train people to be consultants and middle managers. In my class at Stanford we almost all wanted to be management consultants. Those were the best jobs. From what I can tell, that’s still true, and at all the good schools.

That idea of minding the stockholders interests, blindly, is very deeply rooted. It’s a very powerful rationalization. “Oh well,” they say, as they make the short-sighted, environmentally insensitive, socially insensitive, and even borderline unethical decision, “our job is to mind the share price.”

And the share price, meanwhile, drives very short-term views. The share price doesn’t often reward the strategic decision that sacrifices short term bumps for long-term health.

Business ethics are too often an afterthought. They should be at the core of business strategy, wound in and absorbed in product and market strategy, but they aren’t. They’re separate.

The Good News

The good news is the tremendous boom in teaching about entrepreneurship. It’s the absolute rage in business schools. Entrepreneurship programs are the bright new thing everywhere.

When I was at Stanford, there was only one course on anything related to small business or entrepreneurship. It was called Small Business Management, taught by Steve Brandt. It was a really good review of the startup process, the business plan, and getting investment. It was my favorite course. But it was also the only one offered that had anything to do with entrepreneurship. Today Stanford has a booming center for entrepreneurship and some amazing activities related to entrepreneurship: speaker series, videos, and so on.

And that’s the rule, not the exception.

Furthermore, people inside the schools are waking up to the growth in green business, social entrepreneurship, sustainability, and so on. I was at MERC 2009 the week before last: put on by the George Mason University Entrepreneurship Center, focusing on sustainability. The University of Oregon business school has a program on (a center focusing on) sustainable business. There too, that’s the rule, not the exception.

And a Hope for the Future

Maybe it’s still just a pipe dream, an ex-hippy delusion left over from the 1960s, but it seems to me that changes in the business landscape — increasing visibility, for example, in an explosion of small-scale quasi-journalism in blogs and social media — make it steadily more important than long-term successful business has to respect the fundamental values of fairness to employees and customers, sustainability in resources and the environment, and better citizenship in a very broad sense.

The world is revising the golden rule: do unto others as you would have posted and tweeted everywhere, and lodged in Web searches forever. I think that’s a good thing.

Maybe in the future the businesses will actually do well by doing good.