Three Reasons Business Professors Deserve An “F”

Something is wrong. I keep running across the teachings of highly acclaimed business experts who have never run or owned or even worked in a business. Here, there is a quote from a University of Melbourne professor talking about why Kodak failed. Over there, is a professor from the MIT Sloan School of Management explaining where Jaime Dimon went wrong at JP Morgan Chase. And just about everywhere you look online, there are professors writing about what you and I as businesspeople are doing wrong every day.

As far as I can tell, these folks are experts of one thing: case studies examining other people’s failures. They teach them again and again—the same ones, over and over. They do extensive research to support them. They write books about them. They beat these examples into submission. Case studies become gospel. Watch and you’ll see these same experts dressing down the naïve students or businesspeople who somehow can’t readily see the clear lessons on every page. “I mean, seriously, Polaroid. Who couldn’t see that coming? ‘Sheesh’,” says the expert.

Case studies are hard for me to relate to because they don’t look much like the business world. They don’t come with overhead and employees. They don’t ask for 60-day terms and pay at 120. Case studies don’t break down in your office because the pressures at home are too much. Case studies don’t change every year with the economic tides. They don’t ask for reviews, bonuses, raises or more staff. Case studies don’t quit. They are not scrutinized by stock analysts, partners or spouses. They don’t cause you to miss your kid’s soccer game.

Come to think of it, case studies have almost nothing in common with running a business.

You know, I bet those silly folks at Polaroid are at home right now wishing they had hired more Ph.D.s to show them the way. I bet they wished they’d studied more case studies. Not.

I am reminded of a meeting I had many years ago with Robert M. McMath, author of the 1998 bookWhat Were They Thinking? At the time, Bob owned The New Products Showcase and Learning Center in Ithaca, New York, which housed an estimated 70,000 failed products. Bob collected products that were launched and bombed. For example, if you wanted to see all the failed soap products, Bob had them. He would occasionally go on shows like Letterman and display his favorite market misses. He’d joke about the silliness of the ideas with the host. It was all great fun, talking about the mistakes of others.

Bob was a businessperson and a fun guy, but judging history seemed a bit too easy. The very first time I met Bob, I asked him, in front of a crowd, to name a product that was currently in stores that would soon fail. His response was, “Oh you’re very clever.” Then he took another question.

Here’s the thing … getting advice from a professor who has never run a business is a lot like getting marriage advice from a priest. In both cases, the experts made a choice not to engage in the activity on which they are now advising. That just feels like a flawed strategy to me.

So here are the three reasons I give professors an “F” when it comes to teaching business:

1)   They have little at risk. Among others, Henry Kissinger is credited with saying, “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” When a professor gives guidance that is wrong, at worst, they are incorrect. When a business owner makes a major mistake, the bank comes and takes away their house.

2)   Focusing too much on history can actually harm future performance. So many businesses today are stuck using outdated models. Many are trying desperately to reinvent themselves by breaking old paradigms. Getting directions from people who are driving down the highway backward often contributes to this challenge.

3)   Wisdom is different than intelligence. I love to say that intelligence is learning from your own mistakes, and wisdom is learning from the mistakes of others. By definition, wisdom is painful. It is hard earned. It leaves bruises. So true wisdom is a generous gift from people who have lived through the pain themselves and are willing to share the lessons. It can only be delivered with humility because by definition it is sharing a personal mistake. Where is the humility in citing someone else’s errors when you took no risk yourself?

Renee Herzing, President of Herzing University, believes that businesspeople need to learn how to take risks, and the best people to learn from are the folks who have taken a few lumps themselves. She says, “Success in business depends on common sense and risk taking, neither of which can be learned from a textbook. You need to learn from experience or from someone who has lived it. That is why we prioritize hiring faculty with real-world experience. There is certain irony in turning to individuals to teach us about risk taking who have themselves taken few.”

Please let me be painfully clear. I’m not saying businesspeople don’t deserve to be critiqued. We do. And I mean no disrespect to academics. I have buddies who are professors, and I admire their passion and commitment to teaching.

But the best of the best practice what they preach. They have put something on the line to see if the lessons in the case studies are really so obvious. When they’ve done this, their contempt for mistakes becomes less resolute and their wisdom generous and precious.

First published on May 22, 2012.


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