Why there’s no substitute for practical experience in business

Two women working at a computer
Hands-on experience in business is just as important as learning and careful planning, says Chris Niarchos.

You can have an MBA from a top university, have read every business book from How to Win Friends and Influence People to The Art of War, and have meticulously created the ‘perfect’ business plan, but if you’ve never actually ‘rolled up your sleeves’ in the corporate world, you might be in for a shock.

While education and careful planning shouldn’t be undervalued, they’re no substitutes for real-life experience in business. Here are three reasons you should make it a priority.

Learning from mistakes

Business mogul Richard Branson says he found out that the best way of learning was doing when, as a kid, he tried and failed to set up a business selling Christmas trees. I have to agree, there’s no better way to find out what works and what doesn’t than by giving things a go.

Since starting my own business at the age of 22, I’ve learned many invaluable lessons through basic trial and error. Whether it’s setting up a lemonade stall, taking a role as a salesperson or launching your own company, the only way to truly hone your skills and develop your business acumen is hands-on experience.

Don’t let fear of failure stand in the way of taking on a challenge. Getting it right every time may feel good, but it’ll never take you as far as going outside of your comfort zone and getting it wrong every now and again.

Developing ‘soft skills’

There are some skills that are far easier to develop in the boardroom than in the classroom. Building rapport, actively listening, making decisions, solving problems, leading others, performing well in a team dynamic, motivating yourself and managing your time well are just a few of the so-called ‘soft skills’ that are crucial in the business landscape.

You can watch all the TED Talks you like (many of which are excellent) and read every business blog under the sun (including this one!) on these topics, but I’m afraid you won’t get a chance to properly sharpen your abilities until you throw yourself into the world of work. 

Differentiating yourself

Whether you’re applying for a nine-to-five role, pitching for work as a contractor or seeking investment in a business idea, your experience is one of the first things people want to know about.

If you’re trying to set yourself apart from every other graduate, freelancer or budding CEO, it’s important to be able to demonstrate that you have the relevant experience required to get the job done.

Whether you’ve successfully managed a charity project as part of a voluntary role, broken sales records in a blue chip company, or tried and failed to bring a new product to market, what’s important is that you’ve got stuck in and tried to do something for yourself. 

Chris Niarchos is founder and chairman of The Cobra Group of Companies, which specialises in incubating, developing and managing a diverse portfolio of start-up enterprises and successful companies.


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