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My top five ingredients for business smarts

02 July 2019


My top five ingredients for business smarts

For those of you with children, you’ll understand the joys of helping them with their homework.

In my case, I have a nine-year-old who’s currently obsessed with how quickly he can do his times tables (the Times Table Rock Star app on his iPad is truly genius). He competes against his classmates, teachers and thousands of other children around the world. In the space of six weeks, his mental maths has gone from OK to Jedi status.

I have a 13-year-old who excels at doing as little as humanly possible and combines this skill with leaving everything until the last minute. Peak homework time is the bus journey to school.

My eldest daughter, however, is almost 17 and her homework is actually quite interesting and thought-provoking. She’s studying Business Studies as one of her A-Levels, and one of the questions she was set was this: “Explain what makes someone smart at business”.

Quite an interesting question and one that got me thinking.

Most people tend to answer questions like this by starting with intelligence (specifically IQ points). It’s relevant, but only a little bit in my view.

I’d wager that the smartest people we all went to school with didn’t end up being the best at business. And that’s because business requires (and rewards) skills which are far broader than purely IQ.

I came up with my top five requirements for what makes someone smart at business:  

Number 1: Intuition

I’ve always been a firm believer in trusting my gut. So, while I understand the benefits of seeing all the data, I still find that I largely rely on my instincts.

My experience also tells me that I don’t think you can ‘learn’ business. It’s not like most of the subjects we studied at school where the more time we spent revising them, the better we got. Business is so complex and moves so quickly that you can’t ‘revise’ really hard and then expect to do well.  

Number 2: Relentlessness

If I had the option between hiring someone who had an IQ of 150 who worked moderately hard, and someone with an IQ of 100 who never stopped, I’d choose the latter every day of the week.

We can all learn new skills, and new ways of doing things, but we can’t wake up with a different level of motivation. You either have it or you don’t.

In my experience, this level of motivation is closely linked to finding something which feels more like a calling than a job. I remember when I was in on a graduate training scheme at an investment company (before I co-founded Octopus).

I knew I was in the wrong job because I used to look at my watch at 1pm every day out of sheer boredom. If you find yourself doing the same thing, you’re probably ready to move elsewhere.        

Number 3: A can-do mindset

To me, the world is split into doers and thinkers. Thinkers do exactly that. They’re like the professors at university, constantly tinkering with their thinking (either because that’s what they find interesting, or because they’re aiming for perfection).

Doers are the opposite. They’re the bulls in the china shop, constantly itching to get on with things.  

Number 4: Creativity

The world is changing more quickly than ever and the people (and organisations) which succeed will be the ones who are most able to adapt and change. This tends to be people who embrace change and who get excited about doing things differently. That’s a rare skill. 

As we get older, we tend to get more set in our ways. We feel comfortable in our routine because it makes us feel safe. The most successful business people will constantly want to reinvent themselves and to try new things.       

Number 5: Positivity

People do business with (or choose to work for) people they like. A lot of this is down to the environment that people create around them. People generally fall into one of two camps – glass half full or glass half empty.

You need both in a business (so you see the risks and don’t run off too fast), but I personally have a bias towards people who are positive and fun to be around.