How to be a student of business

7th April, 2015

Boston, winter 2012: As I crossed Boston Common on a cold, clear, sunny morning, I wondered what the next seven days would hold for me. I was in Boston at Harvard Business School to undertake a weeklong Executive Residence Course in Launching New Ventures. From hundreds of business courses all over the world that I had researched, this one was the one I most wanted to do and was willing to fly halfway around the world to attend. My never-ending pursuit of being a student of business continued.

Being a business owner myself — as well as advising hundreds of business owners on how to grow and improve their businesses — means that I must always be at the forefront of the latest business trends, industry skills and entrepreneurial knowledge, even if it means jumping on to a plane and travelling halfway across the world to do so. If you want to be one step ahead of your competition in business, then you must be willing to learn and do whatever it takes to be a student of business.

Being a business owner means that you never truly stop learning about business, and not just about your business, either. You must be curious and willing to learn about all types of business. You must be a constant student, always searching to expand your knowledge, open to new ideas, and willing to do what it takes to innovate and grow your business on the global stage, rather than on the local stage. People say that you must think “globally” about business, but I disagree. I think as a business owner you must learn globally and then pick the best of what you have learnt and implement what will work locally back in your business.

For those business owners out there who want to stay ahead in the game and build a thriving business, then here are some tips so you too can become a student of business. Knowledge is power, and constantly being hungry for business knowledge will turn you from a student into a master.

1. Learn from other people’s business

It’s not good enough just to only focus on your own industry or within your own business circle. Business owners sometimes can become too narrow minded, or too focused on their neck of the woods. They often miss out on huge lessons from other industries and markets that could create innovation and growth in their own business. As a student of business, always have a keen interest and a youthful curiosity as to what is happening to a business that is complementary or adjacent to your own. As an accountant, I’m always interested in what is happening in the world of investment and finance, property and banking, and national and global economics. These adjacent industries can impact positively or negatively on my own business, so part of being a student of business is to know what is trending or emerging in other people’s business.

2. Read widely

As a student of business, you need to read about business. There is a wealth of knowledge in the marketplace that can be gained from reading certain business books, business magazines and digital media. I read at least one business book a month, and I am very selective on what I read. I can think of nothing better than browsing the business section of a major book store, as I’m constantly on the lookout for books about new strategies, markets and tools that will help my own business. A word of caution here: If you are going to read business books, then only select authors who have gained the actual knowledge and experience from running their own business. Whilst business theory is fine, you will learn best from those who are knee-deep in the weeds, and who have achieved in business what you are yet to.

Allocate 30 minutes a day for business reading to feed your entrepreneurial brain. Do it first thing in the morning before your business day becomes hectic and overloaded. Cut out magazine articles and bookmark blogs and websites that interest you and will build your business skills and knowledge so that you can grow into a better owner, manager and leader. 

READ: 10 business books to inspire you

3. Embrace decentralised learning

I will jump on a plane to go anywhere in the world to do a business course, attend a workshop or seminar, or listen to a keynote speaker. As a student of business, you need to think far and wide and seek out the best business courses and training to enhance your skills to grow and innovate your business. This is called decentralised learning — venturing beyond your locality, unconstrained by geography, where being a student of business knows no bounds.

For example, what would happen if a major competitor of yours attended a trade show in Las Vegas and you didn’t? What if whilst there, they discovered a new and exciting product that they could import back home that was of a better quality and at half the retail price of the products that you are currently selling in your business? Would you start to lose customers? If you want to be a student of business then you need to be at the top of your class; otherwise your competition will leap ahead.

4. Learn from those who have gone before

I’m not a fan of business coaches or business mentors. In my mind it conjures up images of hoards of people, blindly following a so-called a business “expert” because they have no direction themselves. By being a student of business, you will get your own direction and sense of self-worth. It means learning from many teachers adding your own creativity and understanding to it before implementing it in your business. Don’t just follow the crowd. Sit back, take in what is needed and what is useful for your business and then discard the rest.

Mix with like-minded business people from whom you can learn, but do not make the mistake of becoming a mindless “groupie” who mimics or imitates what others have done. Cherry pick words of wisdom and harvest the best ideas, but then implement these in the context of your own business. For example, following what Richard Branson does in his billion-dollar business empire will not work for most small business owners today. Seek out and learn from other business owners who are three to five years ahead of where you are now, and then study how they got there.

5. Never stop learning

Every day, every week and every year make it your goal to become wiser and add to your armoury of business skills and knowledge. If you want to continuously grow and reinvent your business, then make a commitment to learn a little more about business every day. A student who continuously learns a little every day does better than the student who just crams the day before the exam.

READ: Investing in yourself vs. your business

What next?

Each year set a target in your business for it to be better, stronger and more profitable than it was the previous year. Seek out the skills you are currently lacking. Find out what industry knowledge on new products and services you need to know in the next three to five years in order to stay ahead of the competition. Surround yourself not with those business people who just talk and boast about being a “business person,” but rather with those who quietly and shrewdly go about building a thriving business that you want to emulate.

When you stop learning, discovering, and growing, so does your business. Don’t fall into the trap of business stagnation. Always be looking for ways to enhance your business skills and knowledge by learning to be constant student of business.