The polished CEO

Key areas to boost your know-how to become a more savvy and profitable business leader.

September 15, 2014

Growing a business today is a study in adaptability. What contributes to growth in one year or circumstance, may not work the next. So how do you acquire the competitive edge that will help steer your business through good times and bad? Staying sharp and keeping your skills current may be one of few clear advantages available to everyone.

There's never been a better time for entrepreneurs who want to develop better business acumen, thanks to global, regional and local interest in business incubation. In the United States alone, there are over 1,250 business incubators, according to the National Business Incubation Association. No matter what your circumstances or where you live, pursuing training and professional development is easier than ever due to information technology and an abundance of face-to-face or online training geared for business.

Knowing where to reach and what type of training or education to get is a more puzzling matter. The choices include a range of quality and price, from free webinars to expensive MBA programs. For business-minded people, the obvious question is: which are the most relevant to my career or business? Would an MBA or college degree help?

"The good news is that there are support systems that are less costly, more flexible and more targeted for business owners and entrepreneurs," says Kris Taylor, a serial entrepreneur, and a guest lecturer at Purdue University's Certificate of Entrepreneurship program in Lafayette, Indiana.

Taylor has an MBA and worked in management, training and development as a corporate insider before founding K. Taylor and Associates, LLC, a consultancy specializing in change management and leadership development. She says MBA programs are overkill for most entrepreneurs and business owners. "An MBA is usually the wrong task for a lot of reasons—and that's before you even consider the investment of time and money," Taylor says. "MBA programs are geared toward cranking out people to fill seats in large organizations, and that's vastly different than running your own business.”

The people factor

Almost everyone can benefit from training that focuses on the people side of running a business, whether it’s learning to manage relationships in a family-owned business or mastering how to select, motivate and lead people. Professional development, definition of roles and succession planning rank among the top concerns for family-owned businesses, says SCORE volunteer Jack Bernard.

Family-owned businesses, which represent 80 to 90 percent of the U.S. economy, sometimes benefit when the younger generation gathers experience in another business or industry before taking a position in a family business.

As an example, Bernard cites a friend who worked for a large national bank before joining a bank owned by his family. “He picked up the skills and brought back a lot of new knowledge that he would not have otherwise had,” Bernard says.

“Working in a family business can be invaluable, but there should always be a clearly defined succession plan that works out how you are going to develop your skills and progress through a career ladder,” he says. Businesses that don’t plan development in a structured way will struggle to keep the skill sets they need to make generational business transitions.

Taylor is not alone in her assessment. Mark Lowenstein, a retired business leader, former business professor, and small business counselor for the Cape Cod chapter of SCORE, says you don't need a college degree or an MBA to learn the practical career skills for managing a business. "There's a difference between being smart and being educated, and there are other ways to get smart, which may or may not involve a formal education," he says.

Chambers of commerce, for example, offer highly relevant training that doesn’t require a lot of time. Lowenstein also encourages his SCORE clients to find professional or trade organizations associated with their industry. “Attending an annual conference or trade show in your industry will keep you current, and lets you pick and choose content that addresses your areas of need,” he says.

Most business leaders have the subject matter or industry expertise they need to be successful in their core business. A more likely shortcoming is missing business knowledge in one of three categories: finance, marketing or human resources.

"Everyone has to assess where they stand in each of these categories," Taylor says. "Usually, the area where you're weakest will be painfully obvious, but sometimes it can be a mix of all three."

Finance: The weakest link

One of the most common weaknesses is understanding the financial aspect of a business, according to Jack Bernard, who retired as a senior manager for a national healthcare firm before becoming a SCORE volunteer with the Atlanta chapter. He says that weakness is the downfall of many promising small businesses.

"I think most entrepreneurs and small businesses really struggle with business planning and accounting," Bernard says. "You have to be able to quantify your revenue and expenses per unit based on reasonable assumptions. If you can't do that correctly, you have an inaccurate break-even point. In business, there's always a ramp-up period before you make money. If you don't have the capital to take care of that period, you go out of business. For so many businesses, the reason they don't have the money to get through that period is a lack of good financial planning skills."

You don't need to be a financial wizard to overcome this gap, but you may need to build better business planning and accounting skills. For people who want to improve their understanding of finance, Bernard says SCORE offers many seminars and workshops, either free or at minimal cost, both online and in person. SCORE training covers a wide range of topics, from how to price your product, to creating a road map for your company's growth.

Community colleges are another possibility for addressing a lack of financial skills, according to Lowenstein. Even they may be a stretch if they take too long to cover applicable information or don't address a particular problem that needs to be solved. At a bare minimum, he says, business owners and entrepreneurs should take a class in QuickBooks to understand what a bookkeeper does.

For most people who are already running a small business, Lowenstein suggests non-credit, continuing education classes, which offer a more practical learning experience than academic training. "This content tends to be taught by practitioners as opposed to academics, so it's more focused on tactics and strategies, rather than underlying principles," Lowenstein says.

Social marketing still confounds

The ability to take people from knowing your company, to making a sale and managing the relationship is almost as critical as having a market-worthy product or service. Without customers, you won't have money to manage. That's why marketing may be among the most significant challenges for small business leaders.

Even savvy business minds are apprentices when it comes to a handling a newcomer to the marketing mix: learning how to integrate social media. According to a survey by Forrester Research, 97 percent of marketers used Facebook or Twitter in 2013, but most were still struggling to understand and influence ROI. "People are trying to figure out social media and learning how to manage those spaces, which are changing all the time," Taylor says. "On the surface, social media marketing is free, but it still takes time and energy."

A 2013 survey of 600 small businesses by Manta, a social network for small business, shows that 58 percent of small businesses were struggling to attract new customers and promote their Facebook pages and 60 percent have seen no return on their investment. Social media experts say that’s due to a lack of understanding about how to engage with prospects and how to combine social media marketing campaigns with traditional ones. “There are so many ways you can close the gap on those needs, either through learning or by hiring freelancers or agencies who can help you build out your team,” Taylor says.

If your company decides to take the do-it-yourself approach to leveraging social media, professional organizations for business communicators and marketers are good sources for relevant webinars, workshops and research. Among the choices: International Association of Business Communicators, American Marketing Association, and Business Marketing Association. If you live in an area where there’s a local chapter, you can find their meeting schedules online. If not, visit their websites for paid webinars and conference materials.


Tips from the pros

Make a commitment that matters to you. For some people, it’s a financial commitment. For others, it’s time. “To stay current, I spend an amazing amount of money on my own development,” says Kris Taylor, guest lecturer, Purdue University certificate of entrepreneurship program and owner of K. Taylor and Associates. “I find that when I pay to attend an all-day session, I’m highly likely to go, pay attention and try to implement what I learn. When it’s free, I’m much more likely to ignore that information.”

Don’t bite off more than you can chew
Identify two or three things from every workshop or session that you will do. Register for one course at a time and do the homework. “Generally speaking adult learners are the best students, but if you don’t do the homework and reading, you’re wasting your money,” says Mark Lowenstein, a former associate professor of business at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, Vermont.

Make friends with the instructor
Whether they are teaching an academic course or a professional workshop, teachers are always interested in people who show an interest in learning. These contacts can become lifelong professional friends.

Examine the syllabus
Check to make sure course or seminar content makes sense. “If you don’t see a good outline, don’t take the course,” says Lowenstein.

Make yourself accountable
Kris Taylor uses an approach she calls “Ripping the Wallpaper.” “It’s easy to say I am going to do something, but when I make a rip in the wallpaper, it creates a mechanism that forces me to do the right thing,” she says. For companies with a training budget, Taylor recommends networking roundtables where people help each other and hold each other accountable for doing a few things toward their development between meetings. Her favorites: Vistage, Strategic Coach, EOS, Action Coach. Chambers of commerce often host similar groups for entrepreneurs at no charge or minimal cost.

Read your way smart
If you want a practical approach to solving real-life business problems, start reading. For busy people who can seldom afford the time or money to attend seminars and workshops, business books may be the best option for professional development. Example: Idea Stormers: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs, by Bryan W. Mattimore. The authors wrote this book specifically for small- to medium-sized businesses that want to become more innovative.

Taylor says business leaders should always find a book to help them explore why they do what they do, and reflect on what they value most. One of her favorites: “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life: Reclaiming Purpose and Passion,” by Dawna Markova.


Mark E. Battersby is a financial writer based in Ardmore, Pa., and a frequent Snow Magazine contributor.