(Editor’s note: Marty Abbott and Michael Fisher are partners with AKF Partners and have recently published The Art of Scalability. They submitted this story to VentureBeat.)
You can learn a lot of things in the classroom.
A lot of the knowledge you’ll glean comes in the form of facts (or “laws”) on how and why certain things work. A few lessons involve behaviors, such as team work. On very rare occasions, one learns a life lesson.
But there are some things you’ll never learn in the classroom. Hopefully, this will fill some of the gaps:
Ethical Challenges Occur More Frequently Than You Expect – Some engineering programs and a large number of business programs offer courses on ethics, but while these courses might expose the student to certain predicaments, they seldom help the student develop the muscle memory necessary to respond to ethical dilemmas.
Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about ethical dilemmas because we think they only happen to the top management, or that they will be easy to spot given how significant they seem to be in the Wall Street Journal. The truth is that you’ll likely be faced with ethical challenges quite often. The journey to moral bankruptcy, after all, isn’t one giant leap, it’s a series of small steps.
The way to avoid this is to think ahead about where your line in the sand should be drawn so that you know you are heading in the wrong direction if you approach this line. Also find a mentor or group of people who will tell you the truth and help guide you.
My Actions to Ethical Dilemmas Have Consequences – Even when you are doing the right thing your decisions have consequences. There are lots of studies indicating that whistle blowers are likely to suffer from retaliation and often leave their jobs involuntarily. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do the right thing – in fact it is your fiduciary responsibility to do so. Just expect that sometimes the right thing is painful – that’s why it’s called the “harder right” versus the “easier wrong”.
The Whole Truth Is An Illusion – You will almost never know the whole truth, so don’t pretend that you do or that you will. Our perceptions of the world are clouded by our own subjectivity and by our interpretation of information. But this shouldn’t stop you from making a decision.
Analysis paralysis is a term used to describe the situation where the deeper you dig into a topic the more questions you have. As a rule of thumb, don’t make decisions with only 10 percent of the available information – but don’t expect to have more than 75 percent before a timely decision is required. Most importantly, be humble in your decisions and opinions because of this fact, but stand by them until proven wrong by more information.
Great Ideas Are Nothing Without Execution – Great ideas without good execution get slaughtered in the market by ‘good enough’ ideas with great execution. There are plenty of examples of the same idea failing until properly executed such as Facebook when compared to earlier attempts such as SixDegrees and Friendster.
Intelligence Still Requires Experience – In school we compete against classmates that have generally the same level of experience. Thus, one’s intelligence plays a key role in academic performance. In the real world brilliance alone, especially in competitive situations, simply isn’t enough.
The Dunning-Kruger effect, sometimes termed Illusory Superiority, tells us that the less competent we are in any given area (competence is driven by experience), the more likely we will rate ourselves as “better than average” in competency. This illusory superiority often drives bad decisions.
Cash is King – Along with all the other Monday morning quarterbacks, we pontificated after the economy took a nose dive that you need to determine how you are going to monetize your business before you build it, not afterwards. That cash is king holds true for personal as well as business financing.
Cash gives you flexibility to try new product lines or kill ones that aren’t working and it also gives you longevity to weather out economic crises or the loss of a large customer.
Hire Fast, Fire Faster. When it comes to building scalable businesses, hiring and retaining the right employees is of the utmost importance. The problem, as we’ve discussed in lowering your standards to build a better team, is that despite all our training on how to interview candidates, you can’t determine the star employees from an interview. The alternative is to make hiring decisions quickly but also make the harder decisions to let people go quickly as well.
Not All Conflict Is Bad. We grow up being told not to argue with our teammates or peers but both scholars and practitioners agree that there are good and bad forms of conflict. The good conflict, known as cognitive conflict, is the healthy debate that teams participate in when determining what or why something should be done. It involves a wide range of perspectives and experiences and can help generate strategic options for growth.
Bad conflict, known as affective conflict, is role based and often involves who should be doing something. (A point of caution here: Research also shows that cognitive conflict, if left unresolved, can escalate to affective conflict.)
Heroes – We are taught that firefighters or people who solve crises should be our heroes. The reality is that it’s the fire preventers not fire fighters who should be lauded. Unfortunately we train our employees to wait for a crisis to occur before acting when we praise those who save us during a crisis.
There is one thing worse than the opportunist who waits for fires so they can be the hero – and that’s people who create situations that they can solve in order to become the hero. In companies this might be an engineer who allows in sloppy code so they can jump in when the site is down and fix it.
Leadership Is About EQ not IQ – As Malcolm Gladwell has indicated in his book Outliers, evidence suggests that the most successful leaders have some minimum IQ. But IQ alone is not sufficient to be a successful leader. The greatest leaders have high emotional quotients, often considered a combination of social intelligence and emotional intelligence. Leadership is not about you. It’s about your teams. As a leader you need to check your ego at the door and worry more about your team’s welfare, performance, and improvement.