How to create business success without a degree

Centre for Business Growth

Left to right: Nicolas Hermence, CEO of Canterbury Sink and Tap; Dr Jana Matthews director of the Australian Centre for Business Growth; Dean Russell, CEO Moira Mac’s Poultry and Fine Foods; Andrew Crawshaw, CEO Smarter Bathrooms and Kitchens; Chris Horsley Wyatt, CEO of Blonde Robot; and Isaac Rankin, GM Business Banking ANZ.

It’s well known that Richard Branson never finished high school, but has gone on to become a hugely successful business leader in spite of this.

Last year, he wrote that he has never been intimidated by someone with a university degree, because he never judges people by their education or qualifications. Instead, he looks for personality and experience. Branson’s advice for entrepreneurs? Don’t worry about someone with more academic credentials, because “entrepreneurial drive beats a fancy degree anytime”.

Nearly one quarter (24%) of the chief executives who enrol in Australian Centre for Business Growth clinics and growth modules either haven’t started or haven’t completed a university degree. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were all ‘college drop-outs’; learning from the ‘school of hard knocks’ or the ‘school of life’, as Branson calls it. So, what makes them a successful business leader who may have not gone down a traditional education path? These are some of the strategies we’ve implemented and seen work.

Applying theory in a practical way

Adult learning is about applying research and data while learning from the experiences of others in similar roles.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with thousands of chief executives from small and medium companies around the world who are trying to grow. By simplifying complex information into easy to understand chunks, and focusing purely on what they need to know to grow a company, chief executives, managing directors and executives are able to learn what they need to do, why, when, and in what order.

Having a network of business leaders working alongside this group and providing real-world examples of how they’ve applied this knowledge is another powerful tool to enable learning.

Approaching learning individually

People have different learning preferences and chief executives are no different. Some prefer to read, others want to listen, others need graphics, and others need to talk through ideas. By trying and testing different strategies and gaining an understanding of the ways they learn best as a leader, chief executives from all education levels are able to gain a greater understanding of how to grow their business

Choosing people based on values not personality

Branson says he hires for personality and experience. When he says personality, I suspect he’s talking about people who match his values: optimism, innovation, and taking charge.

We teach our chief executives to look for and hire people who share their company’s values and can perform their functional responsibilities at a high level. While most people think a good hire is defined by competence — acquired through university education or experience — this is simply not enough. Fitting with company values is just as important. People can have great personalities and be very competent in one company, but fail in another because they are not a good match with the new company’s values or the functional requirements of the position.

Our companies have learned that chief executives who choose people based on values and competence — regardless of whether this is derived from education or experience — are essential to company growth.

Connecting real world outcomes to established research

The chief executives coming through our program are often dealing with something which has stunted their growth — they aren’t sure why it’s happening or what to do about it. Some chief executives practice a ‘ready, fire, aim’ form of leadership and are more prone to action than reflection — they don’t always take the time to learn from their mistakes or their successes.

Taking the time to learn and reflect upon why something hasn’t worked in the past can be done through combining established research with real world outcomes. Chief executives and executives who have the space to think about and apply what they have learned to their own company have the ability to analyse what they are doing well, not doing well, and identify the changes needed to grow. Periods of reflection are followed by discussions and agreement on the changes that need to be made, and who will be accountable for those changes.

Viewing company growth as a team sport

A chief executive can’t grow a company alone and it takes a team effort to learn together. Taking moments to step away from their business and work “on the business” rather than spending every waking moment working “in the business” is important.

Learning as a team means sharing reflections, identifying problems and developing solutions together. We like to take the approach of having growth experts assisting businesses. These experts have started, grown and exited a company successfully, and are able to show chief executives and other leaders who may not have had a formal education that there’s a real need to reflect on wins and losses, while sharing insights with experienced coaches that enable them to improve their game.

The right knowledge, delivered at the right time, and applied appropriately, makes such a difference to business leaders. Rather than getting caught up about the fact that their education isn’t formalised, all chief executives have the ability to adapt the theory of business and it’s practical solutions to business issues.

NOW READ: How to recognise your biggest growth-stoppers


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4 years ago

I wonder what was the school of life that Zuckerberg attended. I thought he started Facebook from uni.

4 years ago
Reply to  DavidFilmart

One thing I have learned growing up is that we all have very different experiences growing up. While one 18 year old might not have been exposed to much of what life can throw at you, another may have seen more in 18 years than most people see in a lifetime. Its not really about age as much as it is about the experiences within a particular time frame. There are also many other factors playing a part in how a person interprets those experiences based on age, emotional intelligence, and background depth of knowledge and wisdom (which is hard to imagine from an 18 year old). But realistically, it can be a unique situation that must be considered on an individual by individual level.

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