At a business roundtable hosted by Johnson’s Smith Family Business Initiative, Peter Cuneo, managing principal at Cuneo & Company, shared his views on leadership today and family businesses at Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration 2015.
By Jay Wrolstad
Successful entrepreneurs are made, not born, with demonstrable leadership attributes that all too often are lacking in people seeking positions of power in business today, Peter Cuneo said in opening the Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration 2015 on April 16. His roundtable talk, hosted by Johnson’s Smith Family Business Initiative, was followed by a discussion moderated by Daniel G. Van Der Vliet, executive director of the Smith Family Business Initiative, and including Rhett Weiss, executive director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute.
Cuneo, a business turnaround specialist and architect behind several high-profile success stories in rescuing firms, including Marvel Entertainment and Remington Products, also touched on the dramatic changes in corporate America since earning his MBA from Harvard 40 years ago, and a new international family business initiative he helped launch.
“Today, there are 1,000 billionaires in the world, some of whom are 25 years old. That’s a far cry from when I got my MBA and entrepreneurs were few and far between,” he said. Big corporations dominated back then, he noted, and operated at a snail’s pace compared to the real-time, 24/7 business activity ushered in by the digital revolution.
There are some positive developments for entrepreneurs from these swift advances in technology, said Cuneo, such as enabling instant communications that essentially shrink the world through Internet-based global conferences and allowing a business to start anywhere, at any time, including a garage or a dorm room. “It’s a very different world; there are great opportunities now, more than ever before,” he said.
Still, there is a downside to this reliance on technology and instant gratification that prevents new business leaders from seizing the moment. “Younger people are glued to their screens — phones, computers; they are locked into online social media, Cuneo said. “There is little face time, which is the best way to communicate, especially when there is conflict, or bad news.”
In fact, he added, many among the new generation of business leaders can’t deal with conflict or failure, or learn from it, because they lack exposure to meaningful misfortune that builds character and a willingness to accept criticism. That, in turn, makes them avoid risk, a critical component of entrepreneurship. “You cannot become a great leader without experiencing great difficulty in life,” Cuneo said.
Most MBAs today don’t know how to lead; they’re smart, but they can’t work effectively in a corporate setting, he said. “They rely on what others tell them defines success rather than focusing on what makes them happy. We have 30-year-olds seeking venture capital who have big dreams of striking it rich and retiring when they are still young, which rarely happens. Dreams are good, but you can’t be delusional about your professional goals.”
Leadership skills are the single most important thing young people can obtain to achieve success, said Cuneo, who maintains that leaders are made by experience and by mentors.
Cuneo left Marvel Entertainment five years ago to form a consulting business with his two sons, and hopes to point future leaders of family enterprises and entrepreneurs in the right direction via iLEAD (Intergenerational Leadership Entrepreneurial Accelerated Development), an educational program he helped establish that links Johnson with the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China.
Cuneo describes iLEAD as a foreign exchange effort, creating new opportunities in China and worldwide through networking and collaborative learning. Among the key components, he said, are the transfer of cultural values and maintaining family wealth, particularly in China, where a one-child mandate makes establishing and maintaining family businesses very difficult.
Cuneo has learned a few lessons from his own family business. “You have to keep an open dialog. Working together means being open about both family dynamics and professional dynamics. Be open about family wealth and how that wealth is shared. In my case, our company is experiencing much smoother sailing than five years ago,” Cuneo said. “I am fortunate to have two sons with different skills who want to make their own way in the world and see their family members happy.”
During the moderated discussion following his presentation, Cuneo, Van Der Vliet and Weiss all agreed that problems arising in failing businesses start with failed or failing leadership, and anyone taking a leadership role in a family business must be especially clear about roles and sensitive to the family culture.