20 successful CEOs share the best thing they learnt at school

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School is an important time for everyone. Not only does it provide the educational foundation that informs our adult lives, it’s where we begin to learn how the world works. Many successful people attribute their achievements to moments during the schools years — events or wise snippets which they carried with them for the rest of their lives. In fact, sometimes they learn more outside the confines of the classroom.

20 of the most successful CEOs share the best and most memorable things they learnt at school and how it has impacted them in business.

Gen George, OneShift & Skilld

Gen George, OneShift & Skilld

The principal once got up on stage and held up an anonymous letter sent from someone who was believed to be a parent, complaining about how young ladies screaming and cheering on their friends in the school music festival was inappropriate.

The principal read out the unsigned letter while we all sat there thinking that we were in trouble. She then proceeded to tear it up and stated, “If you are going to have an opinion, no matter how silly or misguided it is, like this letter, have the courage to stand up for it and to sign your name to it. People will respect you and only from respect can constructive debate occur.”

Well… you can imagine the standing ovation and respect we all had for our principal.


Gary Elphick, Disrupt

Gary Elphick, Disrupt

I was suspended from primary school for running an illegal lolly trade. I used to use my pocked money to buy sherbet sticks in bulk and then sell for five times the price. I ended up ‘employing’ other 9year olds to distribute for me. My dad (an SME owner) backed me all the way after he found out.

Later in school. at seventeen, I was suspended again, this time for buying novelty plastic wristbands — during the live strong craze — and selling them in the canteen at lunch. I made $4k profit over 3 months and that funded a round the world ticket the following year. The school were so angry they suspended me and then at the end of the year gave me the Bill Honey award for entrepreneurs.

This taught me how to hustle and that people may not always understand at first, but stick to your guns and forget what anyone else thinks.


Janine Allis, Boost Juice

Janine Allis, Boost Juice

Having gone to a tech school which actually taught you welding and sheet metal, there was not too many memorable things that the school taught me. The most valuable skill was typing, which I was taught on a manual typewriter. I left school with the ability to type 100 words a minute touch typing. It has been a valuable skill ever since.


Alyce Tran, The Daily Edited

Alyce Tran, The Daily Edited

I went to an all girls school where I was taught that there were no limits and that I could be anything I wanted to be. Also, correct grammar! I see incorrect punctuation and bad grammar daily in emails addressed to me!


Andre Eikmeier, Vinomofo

Andre Eikmeier, Vinomofo

I disliked school intensely. I was called into the principal’s office in year 12 and told I wouldn’t be able to sit my HSC because I’d been absent too many days — 161.

School taught me many things about people, and many things about myself. It also taught me to not compromise. I had a moment in my HSC English exam, where I had to write an essay on a Jane Austen novel. Now during that year, I’d written an essay on Pride and Prejudice that was fairly critical. I was failed, but I questioned the score, as I was being failed for my viewpoint, not my writing ability.

So I’m sitting there in the final exam, trying to decide to write what I really feel, or what I know they want to hear. To my shame, I chose the latter and scored very well, naturally. But I felt dirty, and vowed not to do that again.


Alison Baker, Workible

Allison Baker, Workible

The most memorable thing I learnt in school was to participate — to say “yes” and ask “why not?” To attempt big, hairy, audacious projects, to use my voice and stand up for what I believe in, and to lead by example. I learned the power of taking an active role in defining my own life, my own rules and my own happiness that you can’t tap into if you simply sit on the sidelines and don’t get involved.


Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin, BlueChilli

Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin, BlueChilli

I could go on a rant here and say that School doesn’t prepare the future of entrepreneurs, which is why I support programs like Dice Kids and Club Kidpreneur…

But, in answer of your question: the best thing I learned at School was how to learn.


Les Schirato, Vittoria Food & Beverage

Les Schirato, Vittoria Food & Beverage

The best leaders are not necessarily the best academics. Schools try to make everyone the same and conform. People skills and thinking differently builds better entrepreneurs.

Being a sergeant in the cadets and playing rugby league at school taught me about discipline, leadership, and the power of working as a team. Motivating and inspiring people to achieve a common cause and painting a picture of what success for them will look like — a clear vision.


Lachlan McKnight, Legal Vision

Lachlan McKnight, Legal Vision

I learnt to speak French at the French School of Sydney. Because I learnt French I ended up living in France for 4 years which was great career wise and lots of fun. We now have a engineering team which is half French. Obviously communicating with them is much easier than it would otherwise!


Alec Lynch, DesignCrowd

Alec Lynch, DesignCrowd

Learning to code in high school and university sparked my passion for innovation, tech and entrepreneurship, which led me to launch DesignCrowd from my family home in 2008. Today, DesignCrowd has raised $12m in Venture Capital, has 50 employees and almost $20m in yearly revenues.


Fred Schebesta, Finder.com.au

Fred Schebesta, Finder.com.au

I learnt to be disciplined — to focus and achieve something. I wasn’t too comfortable with what we were told to focus on, in fact I would have preferred to focus on other things. But, regardless, I learnt to focus in and do what I needed to do to achieve excellence.

The other thing I learnt was to compete to the highest level. Push past what I thought was an adequate performance into a superior performance and relish the feeling of winning.


Adam Brimo, OpenLearning

Adam Brimo, OpenLearning

The most important thing school taught me was curiosity. I went to a school in Fairfield, Connecticut, that did education a little differently. We spent a lot of time out of the classroom on field trips doing different activities outside the school gates. My teachers encouraged me to think deeply and ask questions. That mentality sticks with me today.

I’m still incredibly curious about how things work and are constructed. It’s funny that I’ve now built a company around that teaching style. OpenLearning goes beyond the traditional model of online education to engage students in projects that are stimulating and leave a lasting impact.

School can be so much more than academia, it can change your way of thinking and the way you see the world. Curiosity is everything and I can credit my teachers with showing me that.


Jarryd Burns, Thankyou

Jarryd Burns, Thankyou

I learnt that you could run a business from your locker. I started my first business in high school selling cans of soft drink out of my locker at a cheaper price than the canteen. I also learnt that if you put ice in your locker to cool the cans down that the ice will melt and potentially seep out into the locker below you and ruin your friend’s textbooks.

While it was just a bit of fun and a way to make pocket money at the time, it was the beginning of my interest in business.


Russell Francis, Velpic

Russell Francis, Velpic

The best thing I learned in school, which I still use today, was how to work with people together as a team. It’s not as if a teacher stood up at school and said, “Instead of our maths lesson today, we’re going to learn about teamwork.” It was hammered into us as a cultural thing.

We had a highly collaborative way of working. We spent all of our school hours and leisure time together – and we did it together as teams. We played in the same football team and we had the same classes together. It was all about the collective.

I now find it difficult to employ people if they don’t recognise teamwork as a core business principle. Working together to achieve a common goal and sharing in each other’s success is really important. Teamwork is something you learn through experience – but it can be part of your company’s culture.


Jodie Fox, Shoes of Prey

Jodie Fox, Shoes of Prey

The best thing I learnt at school was from my drama teacher, Mr. Derrett. He simply said, “Follow your heart – The people with the happiest lives follow their heart.” This advice has never let me down.


Hugh Stephens, Schedugram

Hugh Stephens, Schedugram

At school I learned the value of reading, and reading widely. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry — there’s something that you can learn from anything you pick up.

The best advice I ever got was to try to avoid reading only the things you think are fascinating or relate to your work. For example, in business and consulting, much of my career has been about taking principles from one area (or even era) and applying them to somewhere new and different. Never run away from something that challenges your mind, and whenever someone recommends you a book, recommend one back to them!


George Parthimos, Connexion

George Parthimos, Connexion

During the final weeks of my VCE, one of my teachers said to her students, “Well, you have completed your studies and I wish you well with your exams. My last piece of advice to you is this. Find yourself a good accountant and a good lawyer. Trust me, you’re gonna need them at some point.”

Those words didn’t mean much at the time, but have proven to be the best advice I received that year.


Stuart Allinson, BidEnergy

Stuart Allinson, BidEnergy

I learned three things at school that have carried me through my adult life. One was formally in the class room. The second was informally in the school yard and third was from my dear Dad, God bless his soul.

Formally, my headmaster was something of a WW1 veteran-disciplinarian. Despite his toughness, his adage was that everyone has a talent and it was the school’s job to find it.

In the schoolyard, I learned to use humour to defuse potentially hostile situations – which can be useful in business situations. Humour can also put people at ease, so that you can get past the formality and discover their real motivations.

Outside of school my dad shared his experience, “If you ever get called into the boss’ office with a problem have a suggestion or two about potential solutions.” This equipped me to always think about operating at the next level.


Bridget Loudon, Expert360

Bridget Loudon, Expert360

I learned that I could do anything I wanted to in life if I worked hard, focused and took calculated risk. When I was studying for my final HSC (“Leaving Certificate” in Ireland) exams, I knew the only way I could get perfect marks was by trying to predict what topics might come up and leaving out about 40% of the syllabus for most subjects, in favour of perfecting said predicted topics.

I often just shut down during those classes to focus on other things. Teachers and other students thought I was mad to leave out, for example, particle physics. It paid off beautifully.


Bradley Delamare, Tank Stream Labs

Bradley Delamare, Tank Stream Labs

School taught me that no good work can be achieved alone. I grew up in a small town called Wymondham in England. The local school had a strong sporting agenda. I played football, rugby, cricket, tennis and basketball – every sport that was available, I played it.

Working effectively in teams is at the crux of everything I do – especially when it comes to the operation of Tank Stream Labs. Going to a school that placed so much emphasis on team sports helped me to appreciate that everyone is different and understand great things can be achieved when a group of people band together.

We have over 200 tech startups working out of our labs collaborating to make their businesses grow. It’s one of my core goals as CEO of TSL to ensure we create a positive team culture. I have no doubt that my commitment to my school sports teams growing up has shaped the way I manage a co-working space now.


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