Tuesday, September 16, 2008

7 Survival Skills for Tomorrow's Leaders

What entrepreneurial skills do today’s students need to succeed?

I took a crack at that question in a presentation yesterday to about 50 students at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. They were attending a get-acquainted session for SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise) – the Laurier branch of an international organization dedicated to building students' business and entrepreneurial savvy.

SIFE is a remarkable organization. Through SIFE, students across Canada get involved in ambitious projects designed not only to build their skills, but make the world a better place. A few of the programs SIFE Laurier is working on: helping coffee-growers in Mexico create a fair-trade co-operative; teaching business skills to inmates of a woman’s prison in Kitchener; and helping disadvantaged aboriginals in Toronto start businesses.

Building on this week’s apocalyptic events on Wall Street, I warned the students that they will be graduating into an increasingly uncertain world, where big business and government no longer have the answers. It will be up to each of them to carve their own path.

And these are the seven key disciplines I suggested they master:

* Critical thinking: Learn to question everything, to look for alternative solutions. Find the weaknesses in other people’s ideas and plans. Learn to articulate what is wrong with them and why things should be different.

* Understand strategy: Strategy is a consistent process of analyzing your assets and liabilities, understanding your opportunities, setting objectives and making appropriate plans to meet them. Strategic planning is the key tool of business. Planning what we'll do before we do it is what separates us from the apes.

* Understand a balance sheet: If you don't know how much money you have, and how long it’s likely to last, you won't be in business for long.

* Understand how to communicate: Your ability to tell explain your ideas, and convince other people to share in your enthusiasm, is essential to success in life and in business.

* Learn to tell stories. Stories are the way humans have always exchanged knowledge and information. Tell stories with beginnings, middles and end, heroes and villains and quests and obstacles. This is how people remember information; not through facts and names and statistics, but through stories.

* Embrace the Responsibility of Leadership: The world needs leaders. Leaders are simply people with ideas and visions, and the ability to convince other people to follow their lead. Confidence, passion and integrity are the leys to leadership.

* Give back: Virtually every successful entrepreneur I know is committed to giving back. No business succeeds alone: businesses win by engaging the support of whole communities of employees, investors, customers and supporters. In my experience, most business owners want to give back to the community that nourished their companies, and they are generous in doing so. They believe in kharma.

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