Dave Conrad: What is business thinking?

Dear Dave: People go to medical school to think like doctors. Others go to law school to think like lawyers. So what does it mean to go to school to think like a business person? Can you teach business thinking, or just the functions of business? I work with people, who have business degrees, but don't have much business sense. — K

Dear K: Great question. First, let me say that, not all people are cut out to be business people. Nothing against them — they are just not capable of handling the risk and uncertainty of business, nor are they able to build the plans and relationships needed to make commerce thrive.

Business is a people thing and you need to have, or develop, a thick skin and realize — as my wife's great uncle once told me — "You need to learn how to take it between the eyes." I don't know … maybe you can't teach business thinking, but you sure can learn it. The best business thinkers I know have been in the trenches — been there-done that — and learned from successes as well as failures.

I want to be clear that I believe entrepreneurial thinking is somewhat different from business thinking. Even though both require learning a solid foundation of the functions of business — such as strategy, marketing and finance, etc. — entrepreneurs are creative "tinkerers" that often go against the need for more certainty that business models and education teach. Trust me, they try to reduce risk as much as possible, but they tend to thrive on "throwing the dice" to see if something will work.

Business thinkers tend to migrate toward solid and tested processes and paradigms that can work and keep working. Entrepreneurs tend to appreciate what business models have to offer, but they will go out on the limb more and try new and untested things — even if the calculations say the level of risk is quite high. To sum it up, their credo is, "nothing ventured, nothing gained."


Business thinking goes beyond management thinking. Whereas managers tend to manage things and the people that do those things, business thinkers think about how to drive value, make money, grow the business and beat the crap out of the competition.

Managers tend to want stability and reliability; business thinkers tend to want to increase market share and drive profits. It's not to say managers are not strategists, I am saying managers are more concerned with making sure their team and department are functioning well and business thinkers are thinking about making more money and growing the business.

What makes up a business education?

As a business professor, I think the more you know about the many areas of business, the better you will be able to think. I and my fellow business professors try hard to not only teach content, but also make sure our students are able to go out and apply what they have learned. In short, knowledge is a good thing, but being able to use your knowledge "tool-kit" to solve problems and exploit opportunities is the goal of our education.

This tool-kit must be loaded with both quantitative and qualitative abilities — being able to work with numbers AND being able to work with, persuade and motivate people. It is a blend of being able to do a task and work a plan, but also being able to build relationships, deal with chaos and conflicts, communicate often and well and have an endless passion to bring out the very best in everyone around you.

In summary, the best business thinkers I know, and have known throughout my life, had an endless, intense commitment and passion to succeed and grow the people who work for them and depend on them. They always are trying to produce, innovate, build and create sustainability. They realize that hope is nice, but it is not a strategy. They think!

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