3 Business Lessons Harvard Taught but My Kids Made Me Learn

Focus and communication are topics in an MBA program but indispensable skills in a house filled with children.

learn more about Bea Wray

By Bea Wray


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When I walked out of Harvard Business School with my MBA focusing on Entrepreneurial Studies securely in my hands, I knew I had it covered. I had been taught by the best minds in academics and business and had voraciously absorbed everything they had to share. Over the years, that knowledge helped me create a series of successful entrepreneurial ventures. I am forever grateful for my stellar education.

But, with all due respect to Harvard, motherhood was what really taught me how to negotiate, communicate in the business world, think on my feet and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Raising three kids is undoubtedly the best training ground I could have for understanding what it takes to succeed and thrive in the entrepreneurial universe. Those lessons traveled directly from the playroom to the boardroom.

1. Repeat your story.

Three kids – ages 9, 12 and 14. Nobody listens. I'm only the Mom. And if they do listen, they only register certain key words – "allowance," "dinner," "shopping." Everything in the middle gets lost.

Entrepreneurs need to identify those key words in their industry to get listeners' ears to perk up, but it's what's in the middle they need to finesse and share like a daily sun salutation. Define your unique story mission, then repeat it again and again until what makes you different, what sets you apart as an enticing candidate for investment or an attractive brand for a customer, is crystal clear.

My father-in-law gave me sage wisdom during my first pregnancy. "I would strongly encourage your kids to hold open the doors. You'll ask and you'll repeat and you'll wonder if they're hearing you. Then when you least expect it, you'll approach a store and they'll open the door for you. They'd been hearing you all along."

Repeat your story until it is heard.

Related: 8 Ways to Make Your Marketing Message Stand Out

2. Listen twice.

Unless you're versed in the alien language of kid subtext, you know that to really communicate with your kids you have to listen for the cadence and observe the non-verbal communication.

This has proved an invaluable trait in my professional life. I used to sell software escrow agreements to clients worldwide where I quickly learned how easy it is to lose potential customers due to miscommunication. The very essence of what we were doing, selling escrow, meant different things to people. I would look out at the faces during presentations and see a complete disconnect -- the same wide-eyed confusion I'd see with my kids. After a few unsuccessful pitches, I restructured my presentation to lead with my ears rather than my mouth.

Listening to kids takes intent and patience. Once I applied those skills to the office, I began listening to prospective client to ensure I thoroughly understood their situation and business. To get your message across, you have to speak the language.

Related: Listening Is an Art, and Mastering it Will Make You a Great Leader

3. Focus!

We all hear how entrepreneurs need to focus. But how? The challenge is in the simplicity. Focus literally means saying "no" to a variety of activities and saying "yes" to fewer.

A common pitfall with any entrepreneur is the temptation to run in all the directions to see which leads to success. There is a story I share with entrepreneurs I work with. My son was struggling in basketball. He was a good all-around player but his skills got weaker as a powerful defense started to overpower him. Spending more time on the court made only marginal difference. He chose to perfect one area and build off of that. Out came the bright pink duct tape to form a big X in our driveway at the top of the key. He took twenty shots from the X every chance he could.

First, it was 11 out of 20, then 13, then 17. Soon he was unstoppable. That confidence translated into other skills on the court. As a successful entrepreneur, you need to understand that you can't be all things to all people. Dive deep into your business column by column. The success and confidence you will gain will surely roll right along.

While classroom settings can mimic communication situations, they are not real and the dynamics can be forced. Motherhood, on the other hand, provides real opportunities daily to review, assess and refine your communication skills. As a parent, you tend to pay more attention and have to learn quickly from your mistakes, both enviable characteristics in the business world and necessary characteristics for entrepreneurs.

Related: Why Focus Is the Number-One Element of Business Success

Bea Wray

Entrepreneurship Evangelist

Bea Wray is the executive director of The Creative Coast, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the creative and entrepreneurial community along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. The Creative Coast organizes Geekend, an intentionally interdisciplinary entrepreneurship and technology conference for the curious and creative. 

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