What Business Are You In?

“What business are you in?”

When I ask my clients this question, they usually respond with “education” or “workforce development.” But is that really correct? I would argue that education or workforce development is not their business but rather the service they offer. The true business they’re in is much bigger than that. In reality, educators and workforce development professionals are in the relationship and inspiration business.

Think about it. These organizations need to win the hearts and minds of their students, trainees, and stakeholders. They have to build relationships and communicate a message of value to many different audiences: students, parents, business and industry partners, legislators, and the communities they serve. They have to inspire young people to perform at their highest potential with passion, resilience, and commitment. The goal with every audience is to motivate them to be part of what’s happening at the organization. Yes, this describes a business centered on people, relationships, and inspiration.

Taking a Lesson from McDonald’s

I’m reminded of the recent movie Founder, which tells the story of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. At the start of the film Kroc, played by Michael Keaton, was very successful selling franchises and fueling growth—but he wasn’t generating any revenue because he was only making 1.4% of a 15-cent hamburger.

This all changed when Kroc met business advisor Harry Sonneborn, who told him, “You don’t seem to understand what business you are in. You are not in the burger business; you are in the real-estate business.” Sonneborn went on to say, “you don’t build an empire by making 1.4% off a 15-cent hamburger; you build it by owning the land over which that hamburger is cooked. That’s where the money is.”

Today, McDonald’s is one of the largest real-estate companies in the world. Its signs everywhere proudly proclaim that “billions and billions” have been served there. But the success of McDonald’s is not about the number of burgers cooked. It’s not the uniqueness or even quality of its product that makes McDonald’s the monolith it is today, but the simple fact of how much real estate it controls. Early on, Kroc embraced the true business he was in and that’s when the success story started.

It’s not so different in the education and workforce development world. Relationships and inspiration are where the success is. These are the things that drive engagement, performance, attendance, and positive word-of mouth—everything an organization needs to be successful in its mission.

Building Bridges

Ralph Ellison says, “Education is all a matter of building bridges.” This process of winning hearts and minds doesn’t end once the student enrolls or the trainee is hired…actually, that’s when it really ramps up. We won’t be able to fully reach today’s young people without building the relationships that keep them engaged in their learning. We can’t deliver on our promises of education and training unless we can motivate them to fulfill their contribution to their own success. Nor will we be successful for long without continually growing and strengthening connections with our communities and stakeholders.

All organizations have to truly understand—and embrace—the business they’re in to be successful. This may mean expanding our concept of what exactly we are delivering. It’s not just knowledge. It’s not just skills. It’s not even just a dynamic competitive advantage in today’s new economy, critical though that is. No, the full scope of what we’re delivering should include the tools, environment, and support to motivate young people to perform at a higher level. Yes, it’s true: we’re in the relationship and inspiration business.

About The Author
Mark Perna
Mark C. Perna is a best-selling author and the founder of TFS in Cleveland, Ohio, a full-service strategic consulting firm whose mission is to share and support every client's passion for making a difference.
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