growth accelerator Meet Toby Stansell, an Interise instructor who has been teaching the Greenville Chamber’s Minority Business Accelerator in Greenville, SC. The program, powered by Interise’s StreetWise ‘MBA’ curriculum, is designed to advance economic inclusion by increasing the overall capacity of locally-based growth-oriented MBEs. Toby serves in executive management roles for high-impact, fast-growth organizations that want to leverage innovation and technology for improved operational and financial performance.

How would you describe the type of business owner that participates in the StreetWise ‘MBA’?
The business owner that participates in StreetWise ‘MBA’ is committed to the entrepreneurial path. They would rather “go down with the ship” than serve as an employee in a traditional role for an established organization. They have a genuine interest in the market space in which their business operates and they are absolutely passionate about the product(s) or service(s) that their organization brings to that market… to the degree that they spend countless hours thinking and plotting how to make improvements to their ”deliverable.” This includes improving quality, uniqueness, performance, aesthetics, packaging, pricing, marketing… anything that will move their solution as far away as possible from being considered a commodity and toward a market position in which their offering is considered unique or “exclusive.”

The second primary characteristic of a business owner that participates in the StreetWise ‘MBA’ program is that they know that they can run their business more effectively… they just don’t know how. They are willing to invest the many hours in preparation, classroom time, and testing the principles that are espoused by the program to improve the performance and health of their organization and elevate their chances of achieving a sustainable market position and long-term financial success. In short, they want to reduce their dependence upon “luck” as the primary success factor and instead learn and apply empirical business knowledge and skills in the arenas of strategic growth planning, finance, sales, human resources, etc. The StreetWise ‘MBA’ program equips and enables the business owner to lead and manage their business in a fact-based, data-driven fashion using principles that work in today’s market conditions.

What is the hardest thing for small business owners to learn or unlearn?
The conventional perspective that all small business owners need to dismiss is that everyone else around them that is running a small business knows exactly what they are doing and is wildly successful. Most small business owners feel inadequate and are sometimes overwhelmed by the requirements of running a business and the unexpected challenges and problems that seem to pop up like mushrooms every day. The fact is… all of us in business have felt that way from time-to-time! So many times, small business owners feel like they have to attack these issues and lead their business completely on their own, when in reality there are plenty of people willing to help and a wealth of resources at their disposal. Small business owners simply need to remember that no business is perfect, all businesses have challenges, no business leader has all the answers, and we learn from each other. So one of the primary practices that small business owners need to adopt is to associate themselves with a community of both business peers and business mentors, be forthcoming about the challenges they are facing, and ask for help.

As you facilitate change in small business owners, what is your role and what isn’t your role?
My role is two-fold. For lack of a better term, I need to serve in the role of “Sherpa”. Muck like a Sherpa serves as an experienced and expert guide that leads less-experienced climbers up Mt. Everest… where one misstep can lead to severe injury or death… I am charged with using the StreetWise ‘MBA’ curriculum… augmented and leveraged by the knowledge, skills, and experience that our Guest Experts and I have accumulated, applied, and refined over many years in the business world… to exponentially increase our students’ chances of growing a successful business. Our leadership has to keep them from stepping off the cliff into the abyss and making a fatal error that dooms their business venture to failure. I am their escort and safety net at the same time… leading them toward productivity and profitability while reducing the opportunity for catastrophic failure.

My second role is as friend, confidant, and ally. I need to have a natural intellectual curiosity in the business that each business owner operates and be available to them when challenges and unexpected situations arise for which they need advice and guidance. Sometimes I just need to listen and have empathy toward the situation in which they find themselves. I need to interact with them and share insights in a way that earns their trust and respect, and they need to know that my interest in and appreciation for their business journey extends well beyond the classroom setting.

My role is not to step in and operate their business with my hand at the helm. I am not the surrogate leader. I should not overstep my boundaries, but instead provide prescriptive guidance and let them tell me how well the instruction works once applied. I am not the business owner’s judge and jury; they are not accountable to me for the success or failure of their business and business endeavors, and I should never make them feel as if they are letting me down. They are accountable to themselves, the other stakeholders in the business, the organization itself, and their family. This role requires a delicate balance of instruction, encouragement, and honesty. As the old southern saying goes, I need to be able to step on their toes at times without taking the shine off of their shoes.

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What is the strength of having cohorts with business owners across industries?
This is an easy question to answer as it falls along the lines of a philosophy that I have had for a number of years. This is a somewhat oversimplified explanation, but I promote the idea of a “shared learning experience” over the term “mentorship. The term “Mentor” implies that one individual in the teaching/learning relationship has all the answers. That is simply not the case. All of us as individuals, regardless of our age and stage in life, have been privy to a broad range of unique experiences, personally and professionally, that provide each of us a body of knowledge and experience that is truly unique and not perfectly duplicated anywhere in the universe. So we all have insights to share with each other that are unique and valuable. That paradigm gets played out in spades when we combine different types of leaders from different industries, as the exchange of ideas, approaches, tools, processes and stories weaves a rich mosaic of learning that is almost never matched when we only interact with individuals and institutions that are just like us. The old saying, “Variety is the spice of life” is especially true when it comes to the types of business interactions and learning experiences in which we engage.

Interise provides knowledge, know-how and networks to grow businesses. Can you choose one of these, and explain why it is essential to the needs of your participants?
In my experience, the “Aha!” moment occurs for an individual when they can take something that they have heard or that they know and translate that knowledge or principle into effective action. This is the classic definition of “application”, and to me, “application” and “know-how” are synonyms for each other. Knowledge is great, but knowledge for an individual is only theory until that knowledge is “applied” to a particular challenge or opportunity in a way that improves the current reality or makes someone’s life better. We need to help the small businesses with whom we interact translate knowledge into know-how via the following process:

  1. Identify a pervasive challenge or a universal opportunity.
  2. Explain why this challenge needs to be addressed to why the opportunity needs to be capitalized upon. Paint a word picture of the “before” and “after” landscapes.
  3. Document how to address the challenge or opportunity.
  4. Tell them how to address the challenge or opportunity.
  5. Show them how to address the challenge or opportunity. Role play the entire process end-to-end.
  6. Work with them side-by-side executing the process in a real-life situation.

The above process executed faithfully translates knowledge to know-how and transforms the uninformed to experts. Our role as instructors and coaches is to facilitate this metamorphosis.