Monday, June 2, 2008

Categories of Business Thought

I try to learn all that I can from people who understand business better than I do. As I’ve done that, I’ve begun to see that there are very distinctive categories of business thought. While the top players in these categories all know their stuff, they really do not speak the same language. If you’re seeking counsel from guys like this, it’s important to understand the framework they think in and how it may or may not apply to yours. The three categories of business thought I’ve come to recognize are Corporate, Corporate Entrepreneur, and Bootstrap Entrepreneur.

Corporate: Some of my primary exposure to the world of corporate thought has been through the Executive MBA at Vanderbilt University. The guys at the top of the corporate world are playing a sport I know little about. They deal with leadership on a very high level and tend to think and talk in broad concepts. The best of them are visionaries, but they really do not – and probably should not – think much like I do.

Role Models: Mike Hyatt, (CEO, Thomas Nelson) and Marty Dickens (former President, BellSouth/AT&T) are both fine local role models in this camp. They are effective leaders whose impact extends beyond their companies. They’re also fine Christian men who exemplify Kingdom mindset. Inspiring and leading well enough to steer massive bureaucracy takes serious clarity and strength of mind. I have a lot to learn from them. However, although I deeply admire them, I do not aspire to be them. In many ways, their lives are not their own.

Corporate Entrepreneurs: This category of business thought is a blend of Corporate and Entrepreneur, but it is absolutely its own category. The guys who operate here really do have their own way of thinking about business. If you sit in on a board meeting or brainstorming session with them, they speak and operate in very corporate ways, but they think and act as entrepreneurs. While they might never try to bootstrap a business off of a few hundred dollars, they are highly effective at raising large sums of money, quickly turning it into a fast-growth enterprise, and then selling it at handsome multiple a few years down the road. These men and women are the favorites of venture capitalists.

I like these guys. I am learning a LOT from them. They think like entrepreneurs in a lot of ways, but they are very effective at putting structure to their enterprises. They are big on planning and do it well. They take the best of the corporate world and apply it to the entrepreneurial mindset.

Role Models: I am building relationships with as many of these folks as I can. I cannot name them all here, but Dan Hammond (President, American Hometown Publishing) and Michael Burcham (President, ParadigmHealth) have both taught me a lot recently.

Bootstrap Entrepreneurs: This is business thought in its most basic, primal format. The guys who excel here have generally built their companies from the ground up, often with little formal business training, investment, or outside help. If you were to tell them “it takes money to make money,” they just might laugh. I could write all day about this mindset, because it’s closest to my own. I learn quickly and easily from those who are ahead of me here, because I already think and speak much like they do.

Role Models: Having an Bootstrap mindset does not mean thinking small. Many of these folks are wildly successful. Dave Ramsey is one of my current favorites. His company’s numbers are not public, but they do have over 200 employees and they’re growing fast (debt free, of course). Their company is extremely well run. I know a number of his employees and I’ve learned a lot from them. Dave’s “EntreLeadership” course is a fantastic study on effective management techniques for those with this mindset. I’ve also learned a lot from Robert D. Smith, Lighting Crown Publishers. He runs a massively successful organization out of the basement of his (albeit quite large) home. The level of leadership and efficiency that bounce around between those walls is mind boggling.

The Point: Your own business mindset has probably been formed largely by the career experiences you’ve had so far. Whether you’ve worked primarily in large corporations, in the fast-paced world of venture capital startups, or in the boot-strapper’s world of small business, your work experience has shaped how you see both business and opportunity.

So who should you learn from? In the early stages of your career, I think it best to learn from those who are already excelling in your business category. A recent college grad in a Fortune 500 company, for example, could learn a lot more from successful people in his own organization than from boot-strappers like me – at least more that would be useful in the early stages of his career. However, the more successful you become, the more you will have to gain by studying the ideas and techniques of those outside of your category. They can bring fresh insight, new ideas, and perhaps the inspiration you need to shake things up. In other words, wherever you’re playing ball, learn the rules of that game first – then do all you can to broaden your perspective.

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