Balancing Work & Life: Making Time for Class

May 13, 2008
By Colleen DeBaise for SmartMoney

Regina Glenn, A business owner for the past 25 years, is a workshop junkie. She estimates that she’s attended more than 130 classes or seminars throughout her career (and personally conducted about 200) at colleges, the Chamber of Commerce, the local Rotary Club, professional associations, even churches.

Attending a workshop is a lot like “sitting down with your popcorn and watching the movie go,” says Glenn, founder of management-consulting firm Pacific Communications Consultants in Bellevue, Wash. Classes help her stay up-to-date — she’s learned about Internet marketing and international partnerships, among other topics — plus provide a venue for networking and spotting new talent. These days, if you don’t branch out to meet others and “learn what is going on, you will not survive as a small business,” she says.

Many entrepreneurs say the key to building a successful business is to never stop learning. To that end, numerous business owners say they pepper their schedules with classes and online seminars that teach them everything from basic management skills to the latest industry-specific concepts. While it’s often difficult to step away from the daily grind, they say it makes them better business owners — and helps them better manage the stress of running the show.

For Kate Coxworth, founder of one-year-old fashion company Kate Boggiano in Chicago, classes help her get a grip when she’s feeling overwhelmed. She’s currently taking an 11-week basic marketing class through the Chicago Association of Direct Marketing, a trade group. She enjoys talking to seasoned entrepreneurs in attendance who have been there, done that, and are willing to share lessons learned.

When she looks ahead at all the work needed to build her brand, “in my mind, I can see how things are going to go well and bad at the same time,” says Coxworth, who also takes e-commerce seminars and webinars. “To hear from other industry experts makes you feel better.” The only tricky part is finding the time, as she serves as her company’s president, primary shipper, accountant, designer and “about 10 other jobs,” she says.

Some business owners say they need to attend class precisely because they wear so many hats. Many, like Coxworth, say they’re experts in their industry niche, but need more training on the basics of running a company, such as marketing, hiring employees or managing cash flow. Others say they want to gain a competitive edge by learning about hot topics, whether that’s going global, using technology better or becoming eco-friendly.

Entrepreneurs often justify the hours spent in class by thinking of it as time spent working “on” rather than “in” the business. Debbie Whitlock, co-owner of Sound Financial Partners, a financial-services practice in Seattle, says small-business owners inherently miss the advantage of large corporate strategy sessions, so taking a class (she takes classes in organization, efficiency and public relations, among others) can help fill that void.

Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor of organizational behavior at Michigan State University and co-author of “CEO of Me,” estimates that most educational degrees are out of date within five to seven years, so classes are a smart way for entrepreneurs to update their skills.

Kossek, who has conducted research on career development, says people who successfully manage their work lives usually do two things — network outside their immediate circle of friends, and seek feedback from others. Attending a class can accomplish both, she says. Plus, “going back to school is a great example of making time for one’s own personal self — which often gets lost when people are working so much,” she says.

Jeremy Brandt, founder of 1-800-Cash-Offer, a professional home-buyer network in Dallas, agrees. He never attended college, and enjoys taking business classes on “whatever piques my interest” to foster his own personal development. Through the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a networking group for business owners, he’s attended international seminars in Tokyo, Marrakech and New Delhi. Learning about other cultures and how to do business on a global scale is well-worth his time. “Sometimes you just have to say, ‘we’re not doing any more work, and we are taking advantage of this,'” he says.

Glenn, the veteran workshop attendee, advises other business owners to do some research before registering for a class or seminar. “If you don’t know until you sit down what they are going to talk about, that can be a waste of time and energy,” she says. She recommends taking classes through a reputable organization — a local university, for instance — and inquire about a speaker’s track record before signing up.

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