Verne Harnish (Wichita State University, 1980) was an outstanding undergraduate who was named the 1981 Omicron Delta Kappa National Leader of the Year, the Society’s highest collegiate honor. He is the founder of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), which has more than 14,000 members around the globe. For 15 years, Harnish chaired EO’s “Birthing of Giants” top program for chief executive officers held on the campus of MIT. He still teaches in that program today.
Harnish is the author of Mastering the Rockefeller Habits and The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time. His most recent book, translated in more than 20 languages, is the award-winning Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits 2.0). Harnish’s company, Scaling Up, is a global executive education and coaching company that has more than 190 partners on six continents. He is active on several boards including the non-profit Million Dollar Women and currently serves as vice chair of The Riordan Clinic. He is also the co-founder and chair of Geoversity, an executive education program which brings together leaders and organizations to collaborate in the pursuit of breakthroughs in human design, enterprise, and creative expression, all inspired by nature.
What were you involved in as a student leader at Wichita State University?
In addition to four years of various roles in student body leadership, I led our university’s organization which lobbied the regents and state capital on behalf of student needs. I also held different leadership roles in our fraternity system and received the Fraternity Man award. In addition, I led several initiatives, including bringing awareness and change to make the campus more accessible.
Do you have any specific memories about being named the 1981 Omicron Delta Kappa National Leader of the Year?
To my delight, the keynote speaker for the awards ceremony was David J. Schwartz, author of The Magic of Thinking Big. It was the first book my father gave me to read in middle school, and it profoundly impacted my approach to life.
Tell us about the Young Entrepreneurs Organization (now EO) and the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs (ACE).
It may come as a surprise to some, but in the early 80s, it wasn’t fashionable to be a student or young entrepreneur. Most parents’ reactions were, “that’s cute, but when are you going to get a real job!” Yet, with Steve Jobs’ rise to prominence, whom I consider the original “young entrepreneur,” and President Ronald Reagan’s emphasis on economic growth, my timing for first launching ACE, which went global by 1986, and then YEO (now EO) was fortuitous. We just rode the growing wave of entrepreneurial activity around the world.
If you had some advice to give to your 20-something self, what would it be?
I would buy versus build if I were in my 20’s right now. It is so hard to get from zero to one – and with the aging of the baby-boomer population, it is estimated that more than three million decent-sized businesses need to exchange hands. My partner scaled his firm through 24 acquisitions – a much quicker way to scale. I would do the same.
Tell us about Gazelles, Inc. and Scaling Up.
Gazelles, an economic term for growth companies, was the original name of our global training and coaching firm – but it proved too hard to spell!! So, we recently changed the name to something easier to remember and spell, Scaling Up (also the title of my latest book). In
addition to coaching, we have a robust online series of executive education offerings. We also have technology platforms that help manage the chaos that comes with scaling up an organization. In summary, we provide coaching, training, and technology to support scaleups,
the “first responders” of our local and global economies as we recover from the latest economic downturn.
During this recent and challenging year, how has the pandemic changed your business or your approach to business?
We were able to increase our reach by tenfold. For instance, we set a goal to host 2,020 CEOs/CXOs in 2020 (clever, huh?) at our in-person Scaling Up Summits. Going virtual, we hosted more than 18,000 in 2020.
Is there something uniquely different about being an entrepreneur in the U.S. than in other parts of the world?
The significant advantage entrepreneurs have in the U.S., over much of the rest of the world, is our society’s acceptance of failure. In fact, failure is almost a requirement to earn your stars and stripes as a successful entrepreneur in the U.S. Unless you’ve experienced failure in other cultures, it’s hard to appreciate how wonderful it is to be an entrepreneur in the U.S.
What is the Million Dollar Women’s movement, and why are you passionate about it?
Julia Pimsleur’s non-profit is focused on helping a million women, particularly women of color, who have been hardest hit by this latest crisis, scale their businesses to over a million in revenue – a multi-trillion-dollar impact (that’s The Magic of Thinking Big!). The million-dollar mark is the threshold for gaining membership into EO, which has too few women members. I’m honored to be on her board and support Julia’s important work.
What is your philosophy of leadership?
In a word, my philosophy of leadership is based on the importance of care (or love). In the context of business, set a big vision, then care for the people that are going to help you reach that vision – the customers, employees, and community. No one is going to truly care for your customers or your company unless they feel cared for by you. I recommend reading Professor George Kohlrieser’s book Care to Dare to get more details.
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