Radical Approach to Acquiring Real Business Smarts

David, my son, invited Kathy and me on a double date one Monday night to hear Joe Gransden and his 16 Piece Big Band at Atlanta’s Cafe 290. They were amazing. The band included a couple of Grammy award winners and some of the best musicians in Atlanta. The bass trombonist, Lee Watts, was David’s trombone teacher for years.

A couple was sitting next to us with their 16-year-old son, who was clearly enamored with the performance. I talked to his dad during one of the breaks, and he told me Joe Gansden, the band leader and trumpet player, was his son’s teacher.

Here was an expert trumpeter taking the time to pass on his skill and love of music. He is one of the best in Atlanta music. Respected, successful and when asked to teach, a teacher.

Worthless Lunches vs Practical Learning

I am an angel investor, and I’ve been investing in startups for 23 years. During that time, I’ve had people ask me for advice. They ask, “Would you be willing to have lunch with me to talk about your experience as an angel investor?”

We have lunch. They ask a few questions. I share some stories and learnings. And that’s it. They start investing or they don’t.

But in 2008 I was hosting an Angel investor meeting and met a young lady who approached me with a different request. She was brilliant. She had a finance degree from Vanderbilt and an MBA from Harvard. All with high honors.

She asked, “Would you meet with me and teach me how to become an angel investor?” She was the only person who ever asked me to teach what I learned in all my years as an angel investor.

I told her, “I’ll do it. Let’s meet next Wednesday at my office.”

In preparation for the meeting, I had to develop a plan. The fact that she asked me to teach forced me to a deeper level of preparation. In comparison, I did no preparation for the lunch meetings.

How Are Business Skills Learned?

We buy a book. Read. Take notes. Learn it. Apply it.

We attend a seminar. Listen. Take notes. Apply it.

But when we ask an expert to mentor, we meet for one or two meetings and then nothing. Because there is no mutual economic reason to stay connected, the mentoring relationship disintegrates. So we return to books, seminars and, too often, bumbling along.

A New Mentoring Action Plan

I meet with entrepreneurs every day. Most of them are first time entrepreneurs. They are intelligent, motivated, but inexperienced. They read books, go to conferences, build their network, and may have even graduated from a noted accelerator program. Yet they lack the skills to succeed.

Is this how you would describe yourself? Then why don’t you ask an accomplished entrepreneur or executive you admire to teach you the skill?

That’s right. Identify them. Contact them. Ask them to teach you a specific skill. After all, you think they are an expert.

Here’s the catch. Offer to pay them to meet with you for a finite period of time and teach you. This makes you a serious student and provides them with an economic incentive.

Why You Want the Reluctant Teacher

You don’t want to learn from the person who offers to teach. You want to learn from the person who is too busy to teach. The person who is practicing the skill every day. That’s the guy you want.

For instance, when it comes to the skill of managing a sales force, the expert has three elements of success the teachers won’t have.

He has a personal belief system, a philosophy, which is the foundation of his success.

He employs a methodology he developed from years of experience.

He has a fresh network of peers who will be invaluable to you and your success.

Ask him to meet with you for one hour a week for six weeks. He is not a teacher with a curriculum, so don’t expect it. Ask him to simply discuss his favorite sales management book with you.

What Experience Can Teach

You’ll learn sales management, and it will be reinforced by the personal experiences of your expert. He’ll make the skill memorable, real, and alive. Applying it is a snap because that’s the homework from week to week. And you’d better do it, because you’re paying him.

Other skills which can be taught by accomplished entrepreneurs include:

  1. Building your founding team
  2. Go-to-market discipline
  3. Evaluating markets
  4. Strategy for early stage companies
  5. Practical ways to get cash from customers
  6. Building an effective early stage board
  7. Managing family life as an entrepreneur

Be like the young man who dreams of being a great trumpet player. Find the man you admire, and ask him to teach you his skill. Make the investment in becoming an accomplished entrepreneur.

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4 thoughts on “Radical Approach to Acquiring Real Business Smarts

  1. Well stated Charlie. I have been on both sides of these conversations. I am disappointed in myself for not asking better questions of the person I wanted advice from and in not encouraging the other person to ask me better questions.
    Your suggestion is not just a tact to be more clever during these interactions. It is a heads up, forward looking approach.
    Thanks

    • Thanks for commenting.

      We know so many gifted people and yet we are afraid to ask them for help. I do believe mentoring breaks down, along with the quality of advice when we seek it for free. Let’s make these learning opportunities mutually beneficial and the teachers (and students) will take them more seriously. Thus, improving the quality.