Can You Learn to be a CEO in Any School or University?
CEO since 1989, Consultant in High-Performance Best Practices since 2002.
Almost no one in academia would have a clue about how to run a business, unless they were a retired CEO. No matter how many books they read, or theories of management they studied, they could never become qualified without actually doing it. The university/college environment is nothing like a real business either. How could a professor possibly learn how to create, or operate, a for-profit business when they are on a college campus their entire career teaching students? It is just silly to think they could really. You cannot learn to fly a plane, ride a bike or water ski by reading and studying. Would you study being a boxer, trapeze artist or sales person and expect to jump right in and be an expert? Would you want a newly graduated surgeon to operate on your mother? Even a valedictorian of their class? Or would you chose a “B” student with ten years’ experience doing that operation? I know what I would do. We all do really. So why do we think being a CEO, or manager for that matter, is any different? What would make anyone think sophisticated arts like management, leadership, Strategic Planning, hiring the right people, operations and other skills can be learned from a book or a professor? Well, yeah, they might want you to believe that.
Firstly you must think about the fact that being a CEO at a start-up, a small company from 7 to 25 people, and over 25 people to 100, and then over 100 employees are all very different jobs. As a company grows the job changes dramatically. Many start-up CEOs are replaced by themselves, or investors, when a company gets to a certain size because the skills to take it from $0 to $1 million are completely different than the skills to take it to $10 million, then $25 million and over $50 million. It is actually mostly dependent on the number of employees being managed. In fact it gets easier as the company grows because you have a larger team and skill set base to draw upon. However, the skills needed are so very different at each stage we really need a model to look at that.
I created a five “Stages of Development Growth Model” below for companies. At each level the skill sets needed are very different. The focus of the CEO must also shift. Early on it is Product (or service) Development and validating the business model. Later it is sales and marketing, and optimization of these and operations. Then, even later, systemization of the business, which requires leadership, systemization and management skills not used before in an early-stage business or launch. This widely different skill set need is a major reason so few companies survive the first 2-5 years. This is why I created AirTight Management (), our Six Systems framework for scaling companies. AirTight’s Six Systems are for taking companies from about a dozen employees to a hundred and then a thousand or more. It is a systemization of the systems needed to run a company.
Few CEOs can shift through all these phases of a company's development. Few understand even how very different these jobs are to do. Top serial entrepreneurs like, Richard Branson, simply hire the right people and walk away. They are visionaries and look at business models and markets to determine a business is viable – like investors. They do not run the business, though they will require financial statements and good metrics (a Corporate Dashboard) be provided to show progress. The real hard work is done by a CEO (or other title like General Manager or Managing Director) in charge of that business. Branson and others can obviously not run 400 businesses, they are more like a venture capitalist than a CEO in these situations. This is also true of most large conglomerates. Of course, Branson knows and has run businesses before, unlike most venture capitalists.
Most CEOs know how to work "in" their business, but not necessarily "on" their business. This takes insight, discipline, reading and study. It is best done with mentors and coaches too. Even most CEOs do not stay on a constant learning curve. Running the business day-to-day often gets in the way. Michael Gerber’s book series The E-Myth discusses this issue in great detail and is another must read for any aspiring CEO, entrepreneur or even manager.
Rarely do I find a CEO running a small business who understands these principles well, even if they intellectually acknowledge them. They are often trapped in some stage of company development they do well, but cannot get to the next stage without help. Tony Robbins says “The limiting factor on the growth of any business is always the CEO”. I cannot disagree. I know I did not understand the long learning journey ahead of me when I founded my first company at age twenty-nine. I already had over five years of managing people. I had already been on a Board of Directors. I had even launched many very successful products and run large software development teams for a Fortune 500 company already. I was also a new CEO and bound to be on a brand new learning curve for many years. My company rapidly grew to $156 million in revenue, and about one-hundred employees, as it had a great business model and timing with an enabling technology. I was really glad I read four to six books a month for many years before that, but I also knew I had a lot more to learn. I joined a CEO Round table to learn from my peers for three years. I join the MIT Enterprise Forum to look at new business models every month. I looked for more ways to learn faster. Books on tape, peer groups and business associations. I had many informal mentors and bosses along the way too. I wish I had a formal one. Obviously today I could do a much better job as a CEO with an additional twenty years’ experience.
What Skills are Needed to Grow an Existing Company?
Strategic Planning, management and leadership best practices, developing dashboards and metrics, budgeting and forecasting, Process Management, and recruiting, developing and training the right people are all "arts" not skills really. Each takes decades of experience to become proficient at. These six areas become the most important functions of a CEO once a company reaches between about 15 to 25 people. Others who are specialists will be doing the more technical and specialized things and the CEO must not be a “Generalist”. Not a specialist. Yet we have no good, practical schooling for these things, other than on the job training. This is why AirTight Management has six separate, modular Systems that drop in at a certain stage of a business’s growth curve as needed for each of these requirements. They are frameworks to operate within that add structure and discipline, a process to be successful.
“Teaching Art” and a Model for Learning that Every Manager Should Understand
Even basic management is not taught well in MBA programs, as it is theory, not practice. I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” which published an amazingly useful model on the four levels of learning. I had a similar one I called The Wisdom Pyramid I taught in my CEO Boot Camp but he nailed it better than I ever could. I use his model all the time in my work. The four levels of learning he named are:
- 1. Unconscious Incompetence – You do not know what you do not know.
- 2. Conscious Incompetence – You have gained some understanding of the scope of what you do not know. You know you are ignorant in this specialty area, skill or art.
- 3. Conscience Competence – You can perform the functions in this area with focus and concentration, but are certainly no expert who could compete with professionals in that area.
- 4. Unconscious Competence – Your subconscious brain has been literally rewired, after thousands of hours of practice, to do a skill or art by reflex, intuition and in the “blink” of an eye. Hence the title of Malcolm’s book. Getting to this level requires years of experience and practice, exercising your brain constantly, not just facts, reading or knowledge. At this level your subconscious brain is acting as a massively parallel supercomputer that has been wired to do exactly this job all the time. It might be Strategic Planning, dashboard design and business model design (like my brain is after decades doing these) or painting a masterpiece. You do the job in a “Blink” that 99.9% of others could never do in hours or even weeks. And you get the “right” answer, sometime not even knowing why unless you think about it. It has become a subconscious reflex.
What Does this Mean for Managers, Leaders and CEOs Today?
We have literally millions of managers in the U.S. alone and maybe 5-10% could be called "Professional Managers" - People who study their art and constantly improve at it. These people are called “Self-actualized”, they are driven to improve themselves constantly and will eventually become the best in the business. At AirTight Management we teach five styles of management every manager must know and use. Most mangers use a single style and do not have a framework to adjust what they do based on the people and circumstances. How can they practice something that has not basic foundation in knowledge and models? Managing and leading people is an art so complex that no two days will ever present the same challenge in some companies.
The good news is there is so much opportunity for growth here that CEOs, and companies that do this well, will dominate their markets in time. I would estimate less than 5% of companies use proven best practices in Management Science. This is the stuff proven by research to be effective! Imagine being in any business and not using the proven best practices of the industry thirty, or even fifty, years after they were invented! But management is a “soft art”, not held up to the kind of scrutiny that many professions are with certification, testing and licensing. However, we have no framework for managers to grow, develop and use these best practices that is a “Standard” yet. Just a massive collection of books, gurus and stand-alone courses with no roadmap through them for a career. If you study and use these best practices, growing through your career, and using coaches and mentors to guide you, you will easily be in the top 5% of managers. I have read over 1,000 books on management, leadership, entrepreneurship and business and I am still learning. I always will be I suppose, though it gets harder to find new things to learn each year.
So the question we started with “Can you learn to be a CEO in school?” is not a tough one to answer. Absolutely not. Can you learn to be a great artist in school? A Leonardo Da Vinci? Also no. You can get a foundation and begin practicing your art. Yes. It will just take five years, or more, of near full-time practice to become an expert. Unless it is something simple like digging ditches.
So how about all those “Overnight successes”? There are very few real “overnight successes”. If you look closely you will almost always find that they had five or more years of practice that easily gets forgotten. The Beatles overnight success was preceded by many years of playing in small bars and clubs in Germany where they refined their skills, learned to play, write and deliver their music live (showmanship) – all different skills. When they appeared on The Ed Sullivan show, starting the British invasion and Beatlemania it was after many, many years of hard work and practice. Most any overnight success is the same. It does not come from book learning, or overnight at all. Education is just the foundation, the beginning of a long journey. It opens up your mind and teaches you to learn.
Until we can plug biochips into the brain with experience burned into them, or have the technology of The Matrix, any complex skill or art will take years of actual experience to learn well – to become an artist or professional in your field. That does not mean people will not try and fail and a few rare ones will succeed by being in the right place at the right time but if you want to play the odds and constantly increase your value in the marketplace and options then you need to be a lifelong learner.
Any journey starts with the first step. So read a book or two every month, but practice your art every day. Think about it and how you can improve, not just doing it. There are no shortcuts and anything worth doing is worth doing well. The dividends will pay for a lifetime too.
Bob Norton oversees all engagements at AirTight Management while working to enhance and develop the Six Systems he created and acting as Chief Consultant and training all AirTight Management Licensees. He is also available as a personal coach to CEOs and senior executives.