5 Business Fundamentals I Did Not Learn at Wharton

In a previous blog, I discussed the five business fundamentals that I learned at Wharton. Today, I discuss five keys to business success that I did not learn at Wharton (and that may not be learnable in a classroom environment).

1.  Politics matters

One key to business success is to do business with the right people, people who are ethical and will deliver. As such, people usually prefer to do business and work with people that they know and are comfortable with. An unknown with incredible talent does not stand a chance against a mediocre that is known and politically linked in. Is it fair? Maybe not. But, it is what it is. As such, playing the political game, networking and getting yourself known, getting good mentors to help you and to open doors, being physically proximate to the top, and (yes) the proper flattery of key leaders are all vital in the vast majority of companies and in business in general.

2.  Business and Leadership Savvy is Crucial

The most successful business people know how to get things done through people and know how to make money. Alas, that glittering MBA degree, while valuable, does not ensure that you are business savvy. In fact, I have known and worked with both Wharton and Harvard MBA’s that really did not get it; that did not understand how to lead people and how to make money in business. Alternatively, the most business savvy person I have ever worked with was a college drop-out who just understood business deeply. Look behind the degrees and credentials and find the people who are business and leadership savvy and do all that you can to get them on your team.

3.  Execution is More Difficult Than Strategy

Once you have decided on the right market and put a good strategy in place, it is time to execute on that strategy. This is the real challenge in business. The gap between what a company wants and plans to get done and what a company actually gets done is wide. Success in the daily battle to get the right people aligned with the right priorities and the right amount of effort on these priorities is what distinguishes great companies from the rest. As Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan said:

The difference between a company and its competitors is its ability to execute; this is the critical difference for success.

4.  Ethical Issues Are Always Gray

In school, ethical issues are usually black and white. Even when gray, the issues are easy to resolve. As the student, you are not immersed in the problem, people and issues. In real life, no significant ethical issue is any color but gray.

  • Your very best salesperson stepped over the line (just once, he or she swears) and got caught.
  • The person you have been grooming to succeed you had an affair with a direct subordinate.
  • The great manager whose son just died and who is going through a divorce cheated on his expense reports.

None of these are simple to resolve. But, resolving these ethical issues promptly, appropriately and with as much dignity (for all involved) as possible will go a long way towards your business success and your personal piece of mind.

5.  Your Biggest Daily Challenge Will be Managing Yourself

How you manage yourself will determine a great deal of your success as an individual and as a leader.

As an individual…

  • Do you set goals, prioritize daily on these goals, learn to say “No” to distractions, and get things done?
  • Do you have the courage to get uncomfortable and take the right risks nearly every day?
  • Do you constantly force yourself to learn what is now important and unlearn what is comfortable but no longer correct or relevant.

As a leader…

  • Can you force yourself to listen to others, to not interrupt and add your two cents worth, even when you “know” the answer?
  • Can you force yourself to let others make decisions so that they will be held responsible?
  • Can you force yourself to not jump in and solve everyone’s problems but guide the team to its own solutions?
  • Can you force yourself to keep the focus of the business on just the few, critical priorities?

This self-control will be the hardest thing you will do on a daily basis, if only because it needs to be done, both as an individual and as a leader, every single day.

Your Thoughts

So, what do you think? Are there other equally important business fundamentals which cannot be learned in school?


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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