Does the Entrepreneur Know More Than the Corporate Titan?

Who knows more about business, the corporate executive or the entrepreneur?” I didn’t expect to hear a question like this while in the Harvard Business School faculty dining room, but when Faith (not her real name) posed the question, I could tell she had a point to make.

Each role requires a unique skill set” I replied, “there are things a corporate CEO needs to know that isn’t necessary for an entrepreneur, yet the same is true in reverse, the entrepreneur does things a typical corporate CEO would be clueless about.” Faith could barely wait for me to finish before she said, “True, but don’t you think traditional business education spends too much time on how to be a corporate CEO and too little time on how to actually run a business?

Faith should know, she’s gone full circle from her current role on the faculty at Harvard Business School. After graduating from business school in the late 80’s, Faith had a successful 15-year marketing career with Pepsi-Cola. As she was climbing the corporate ladder, Faith was asked by her father to return to Wyoming to run the family business, a massive quarry operation that was doing about $30 million in annual revenue. “Even with my MBA from Harvard and the incredible experience managing a couple thousand people at PepsiCo, I was unprepared to actually run a business when Dad put me in charge. His death four months later pushed me into a dark professional crisis. That’s why I’m passionate about teaching business school students more than the textbook corporate business principles.

Faith’s comment that day in the faculty dining room was particularly relevant given the successful journey that started the day she left the corporate world to join the family business. Eleven years after taking over the family business, she engineered its sale to a Fortune 100 mega-company. At the time of the sale, Faith’s family business was doing $250 million in revenue.

As I look back on it,” Faith said “nothing in my traditional education or corporate work life prepared me to run the family quarry business. But now that I’ve done it, I know I’d be better prepared to run PepsiCo than would the head of PepsiCo be prepared to run my family business.

As I reflect on this recent conversation with Faith, I know she is right. Having worked directly with scores (maybe hundreds) of entrepreneurs, and having also worked at senior levels of two giant corporations, I agree with Faith that it takes as much, if not more, instinct, skill and judgment to run a $5 million family business as it does to be CEO of a $5 billion global enterprise.  The compensation and perks are better when you are a corporate titan, but if I am placing bets on getting the job done, I’ll go with the in-the-trenches entrepreneur, any day.

JIM CUMBEE is President of Tennessee Valley Group, Inc. a retainer-based business brokerage and transition mediation firm in Franklin TN. Cumbee is an attorney and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. He has a wide range of corporate and entrepreneurial experiences that make him one of the most sought-after business transition advisors in the state of Tennessee.

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Tennessee Valley Group

Jim Cumbee established Tennessee Valley Group to help business owners fulfill their dreams for life after business ownership. It’s a mission that his 30+ year career history had prepared him well for—in addition to being an attorney, transition mediator and business broker, Jim has been a buyer, seller, and entrepreneur. His broad range of experience gives him unique insight into how business buyers and sellers can achieve their goals.

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