Businesspeople Are Useless

Interacting with businesspeople never ceases to amaze me. They presume that they’re qualified to run companies. Why? Because they are businesspeople.

What makes a good businessperson, anyway?

There seems to be a factory-like process of creating “great” businesspeople: Take some random people with above-average self-confidence. Toss them into business school, teach them how to write up business cases, let them join McKinsey for a few months. And out come great businesspeople. Very linear and predictable. Those businesspeople are going to be our future startup founders and CEOs. Great.

But - let’s put that aside for a moment - imagine you have a plumbing problem. It’s serious. One of the faucets in your bathroom is leaking. You need someone to fix it soon. To get the job done. There are two candidates to choose from.

The first candidate has gathered ten years of practical plumbing experience. He’s fixed a wide range of problems, including the one you’re currently having.

The second candidate has spent five years in Ivy-League Plumbing University. There he learned everything about the intricacies of flow mechanics in water pipes. He graduated with a Master’s Degree in International Plumbing Stategy (IPS). After that, he spent a year at plumbing McKinsey where he advised enterprise bathroom owners with broken faucets on how to fix them. He never actually fixed one himself.

Who do you choose?

Obvious. Common sense. We go for the guy who clearly knows his plumbing and gets the job done. But why do we choose so differently when it comes to businesspeople?

I recently attended ClojuTRE 2019 where Dave Snowden mentioned in his talk that (paraphrased) the qualification to become CEO used to be an apprenticeship inside the company, not some degree you get outside.

This is mildly concerning. It means that nowadays we’re hiring unqualified businesspeople - at scale.

The Training <> Job Conflation

But - this is not a rant about businesspeople. This is so much more. Not all businesspeople are incapable. I know some good ones. So there must be a larger underlying problem. What is it?

It’s about people who conflate their formal training with their job.

We shouldn’t care about formal training. We should care about whether someone gets the job done. And to get the job done, people rely on skills they have acquired in the past. Sometimes you get those skills through formal training. More often, you don’t. In the real world, you either teach yourself or work closely with someone who teaches you.

And these are two vastly different mindsets - it’s either I studied business and that entitles me to run this company or I’ll work on this problem for which some of the skills I acquired in the past may be useful.

The first person feels entitled to run the business because of her formal training.

The second person puts the problem first. There’s a problem to solve and some skills she’s acquired may come in helpful for that. This mindset is hugely beneficial - she admits she may be lacking some skills. There’s implies a willingness to learn - forever. Those are the businesspeople you want to have. Those people who constantly feel they’re behind the curve and are forever learning and improving.

Domain-specific Knowledge

And this is where domain-specific knowledge comes in. We need knowledge which stretches across disciplines. And we need it from the start. Like, when identifying business problems to solve: Put a bunch of businesspeople into a room with the task to come up with startup ideas (commonly called an Incubator) and I guarantee you that nothing useful will come out of it.

Make one of those businesspeople work for a year as a plumber and I guarantee you that she’ll come back with more than one great business idea including customers and working prototypes.

And this is the secret golden chamber where great business ideas are hidden. But hey can only be unlocked if someone ventures out of their formal training, acquires other skills and comes back with new ideas. Those are the problems you want to solve - low-hanging fruit, easy on a technical level but with high impact.

But, flipping this around, if we stay confined to what our formal training tells us to do, we don’t come up with great things. We’d found yet another Database / AI / Blockchain / Uber for Dog Walking company.

Business skills are a utility and any utility is useless unless it’s applied to real problems. And it’s our responsibility to go out and find them.


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I write semi-regularly about programming, medicine and, of course, various self-experiments. If you'd like me to send you an e-mail once I've posted something new, feel free to subscribe below.