Endless qualifications and a Mensa membership don’t impress Askar Sheibani, the CEO of IT and telecoms repair service company Comtek.
‘A high IQ doesn’t make for a competent leader; Einstein would not have been a good businessman. If you meet professors of business at Harvard or Oxford, they know about the theory but they cannot run a business.’
Some of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs make a point of their lack of formal education. Richard Branson and Philip Green left school with barely an O-Level between them, let alone an MBA, and yet that didn’t hinder their ability to become billionaires.
For Michael Richards, who quit university and went on to build up and sell his software company Snowdrop Systems in 2007 for £17 million, there are plenty of examples of chief executives who aren’t “clever” in the conventional sense.
‘What qualifications demonstrate is that a certain level of ability has been acquired. I’m not a character who would dismiss qualifications as they can demonstrate character in a person as well. It’s easy to quit something because you don’t like it. To be successful you need determination and resilience,’ says Richards, who now runs 2nd Head, a business consultancy.
There is a tendency for self-made billionaires to wear their lack of education like a badge of honour. The more prosaic truth, however, is that the majority of entrepreneurs do come from conventional backgrounds and have taken the university route.
Daniel Lowe, the CEO of data centre specialist UK Solutions, started his first business when he was 17 and ran the company while completing a degree in mechanical engineering. On a practical level, his degree furnished him with the necessary expertise in his chosen field (he went on to complete a computer science degree), while also giving him a layer of protection should his foray into entrepreneurship fail. ‘University degrees give an entrepreneur a different set of things,’ says Lowe, who is 31. ‘It’s important to have that experience of what learning is like but I also needed a safety net too.’
Daniel Woolman is another fresh-faced entrepreneur. At 26, he’s already won a number of contracts with UK supermarkets for his “odour control” company Binifresh. Woolman freely admits the degree he studied at university, modern history, had nothing to do with the world of business. ‘It isn’t directly related but it does teach you to be resourceful, to do research, studying periodicals and journals so you can think for yourself.’
Similarly, further education beyond the standard BA can’t be seen as a hindrance. Peter Gradwell, the MD of IT telephony business Gradwell, recently finished a Phd in computer science at the University of Bath. He admits to being a ‘numbers guy’ and a bit of a ‘geek’.
The company, which he also established at university back in 1998, has been through a growth phase in the past year and 20 new staff have been hired, bringing the total number to 45. He says that his technical expertise has only been good for the business, whereas the real focus for him has been on hiring the right managers and getting the best out of people.
Quality of teaching
There is a sense among many in the business community that the knowledge taught in classrooms is too far removed from what’s required in the real world. Robert Terry, who was previously the chief executive of the Adam Smith Institute, a free-market economic think tank, and is now head of executive consultancy ASK Europe, says: ‘The practitioner community and the academic community aren’t close enough to make the knowledge that is available come together at the coalface.’
Terry – currently studying a PHD at Cranfield – argues that there is a wealth of useful knowledge and information that could be used by entrepreneurs to improve business performance. ‘There is a gap between the training that occurs and then what happens in the workplace,’ he says, adding that this failure is why a large proportion of money invested in training doesn’t actually deliver any benefit.
The problem is that what is taught is not implemented on a day-to-day basis. Terry suggests that this can be overcome by CEOs ensuring they go on training courses themselves, thereby setting the right tone from the top down. ‘Training and development departments are in an invidious position,’ he says. ‘There are bosses who are aware that training is a good thing and often they know that something must be done and will sign off a training programme for staff, but what they won’t do is give the ringing endorsement by going on the course themselves. Everyone has to be doing it.’
By definition, the best business leaders aren’t fools. But their intelligence extends to other areas, such as bringing the best out in people. ASK Europe’s Terry notes the importance of ‘emotional intelligence’ and how ‘the ability to skillfully work with others is right at the heart of the business’
Tyler Moebius, the CEO of online ad network Adconion Media, says: ‘The truly great leader has the ability to understand a situation and then adapt. They can summarise and articulate a complex situation and find a simple solution that seems obvious.’
Other qualities are also called for, such as persistence. Binifresh’s Woolman spent three years getting his device onto the supermarket shelves and overcoming rejection. ‘I’d had a good meeting and then the buyer I’d spoken to changed and the new buyer wasn’t taken on it. The opportunity disappeared overnight. I couldn’t believe it and I went back and asked for them to take a look. They said they couldn’t but I spent the whole day in the reception area waiting. Eventually the buyer’s assistant spoke to me and I got the deal. It’s easy to give up but it does pay to be tenacious.’
Likewise, Comtek’s Sheibani was literally reduced to working from his back garden after business agencies and banks dismissed his idea as a dud. ‘I spent £50 and bought myself an old shed and set up a workshop. I persuaded friends who I knew in the industry to use me for repairs and I was quite successful and got a proper 300 square-foot workshop from the council, which felt like a palace,’ he says.
Sheibani now employs 100 people and has offices in the UK, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. The vital ingredient for him in running a profitable company is ‘to be really optimistic and not be frightened of risks’. He says: ‘You need to have interpersonal skills and understand the psychology of people to motivate them; that is extraodinarily important. You have to spot the opportunities and have a vision of the future.’
It’s the kind of thing that can’t be taught, like a sporting talent or gift in music. ‘I don’t believe having a degree or PhD will make the slightest difference to how you run a business,’ says Sheibani.
SAGE spoke to over 1,000 business people and identified six key qualities that can be found in the most successful business brains. Your Business IQ is a measurement of your talents across all six of these qualities.