Learning to Do Business – and Other Things: 4 Models

Getting an MBA is not the only way to learn how to run a business. For my money, it’s also not the best way, and it almost certainly isn’t the most common way. I don’t have the numbers to back me up, but common sense suggests that the vast majority of business owners and managers learn by doing and by scrounging for new knowledge whenever and wherever they need it.

That’s certainly been my experience as an entrepreneur over the years. Seth Godin’s recent announcement of his “apprenticeship/not-internship/graduate school/charm school track-changing” alternative MBA got me thinking a bit about how entrepreneurs might better focus their learning efforts without taking on the formal structure and high costs of an MBA. It seems to me these models apply well to any sort of lifelong learning.

Study at the foot of the guru

This is essentially the approach that Seth is offering with his alternative MBA. Work with the guru in the guru’s environment. Receive instruction, and engage in reflection along the way. Wear the nickname “grasshopper” proudly. As Seth himself acknowledges, this is not the path for everyone. You have to have the time to do it, and usually, a means of supporting yourself while you do it. And of course, you have to find an appropriate “guru.”

But the opportunities are there. Whether your goal is to start a business, learn a trade, or become a better artist, writer, or musician – just to name some of the possibilities – there are people out there in your community who would be willing to mentor you for some period of time in exchange for your labor or perhaps modest payment. Find them through Craig’s List, local organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, or perhaps by using a site like School of Everything.

Call in the advisers

Inc. Magazine has an interesting article this month about a business professor, Jeff Koeze,  who finds himself in the position of taking over and running a family business – one that has been run on a “straight from the gut” basis for years by his non-MBA father. Koeze’s father’s advice to his son? “You can’t learn to run a business by reading a book.”

Naturally, the professor didn’t listen to that advice. He read plenty of books, but he also brought in a number of outside consultants and learned a great deal in the process.

I know some readers are wrinkling their noses at the very mention of the word consultant. Too many simply leave you with a stack of “deliverables” and recommendations, and then happily cash their checks. But really the best consultants should be good teachers.

And bringing in a consultant or other adviser does not need to be the province of business alone. By tapping social networks through tools like LinkedIn or Twitter, even individual lifelong learners have the ability to solicit advice freely. (And if you are thinking “Well, you get what you pay for,” you are right – that is why it is important to cultivate your networks well.) In cases where more focused, specialized advice is needed, it may make sense to use services like Elance or Guru.

Call in your colleagues

Every month I meet with a small group of other business owners in the Triangle area of North Carolina where I live. The idea is that we are able to share our ongoing experiences and get input and advice from each other that helps us run our respective businesses better. We pay a nominal fee to the organization that coordinates the group, but outside of that, the only cost is our time. Inevitably, I walk away from these meetings each month with a list of new ideas and new approaches to try in my own work.

People who belong to good book groups experience much the same thing. I know I have learned as much or more from some of the book groups that I’ve participated in than in graduate school literature seminars I have taken. The range of groups you might participate in is as long as the list of things you’d like to learn, and these days, it’s not all that difficult to find a group to match you interests. Ask colleagues, check local bulletin boards, papers and other publications for community education offerings, and of course, check out Craig’s List and consider posting a call to form a group if you don’t find one that is a fit.

Do it yourself

You’ll probably want to complement all of the activities above with some active, focused reading (or listening/watching) of good resources for your topic area of choice. Or you may decide that a good, strong reading list is really all you need. In the world of business education, this is the model exemplified by the Personal MBA, a self-learning program based on a selection of 77 business-oriented books.

Naturally, you could come up with a list like this for any subject area (though you might want to tap gurus, advisors, and colleagues in putting it together). And I highly recommend a posting by Michele Martin over at The Bamboo Project that digs into how to use the Personal MBA approach as a “framework” for your personal learning.


Any of the above approaches can offer a great way to advance your personal learning, whether for business or other areas. Put them all together – gurus, advisors, colleagues, and you – and you have a package that I think probably beats most formal degree programs.

Are you already doing something along these lines in your pursuit of learning? Please comment and share you experiences.

Jeff Cobb
Mission to Learn

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