5 Lessons Business Movies Taught Us

SMBOs: Take some cues from the silver screen about business ethics, micromanaging and living to win vs. actually living.
wolf of wall street
Wolf of Wall Street teaches us that in the end, ethics really does matter. What else can you learn from business movies?(Photo: Goksan Ozman/Flickr)

As a small business owner, you might not have a lot of time for movies. But these five classics deliver valuable lessons about what not to do when it comes to managing your business.

“All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies,” said Steve Martin’s character in “Grand Canyon.” Check out these cautionary tales for some of those answers.

“The Social Network”

Lesson: Clearly identify roles and responsibilities at the beginning.

This dramatized examination of the rise of Mark Zuckerberg from Harvard student to CEO of a multimillion dollar social media empire is a true entrepreneur’s tale. But Zuckerberg ends up in court against two fellow students who claim he stole their idea, and he also squeezes his friend and co-founder out of the business. (The friend is blindsided when an investment deals allows Facebook to dilute his shares in the company to nearly nothing.)

“The biggest pitfall shown in the film is lack of communication and expectations,” said Beth Silver, managing director of Doubet Consulting, a marketing and strategy firm for small businesses. “One person thinks they did more or contributes more and that all will be OK. It’s not.”

In the early days of their partnership, said Silver, the co-founders should have spelled out their roles and created space for continued re-evaluation. Advised Silver, “Constant communication, especially among partners, is key.”

“Up in the Air”

Lesson: Personal connection is key.

George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, has been performing large-scale layoffs so long that he’s become jaded and detached. But when his method of face-to-face corporate downsizing is threatened by a young counterpart pushing a cost-cutting remote video system, Bingham reinforces the importance of human interaction.

With so many business tools skewing digital, it’s important to remember the value of personal communication with employees, and especially, clients and customers.

“The Wolf of Wall Street”

Lesson: Establish a code of ethics early on and stick to it.

Leonardo DiCaprio portrays real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort, whose high-earning, debauched firm engaged in illegal trading for which he was later arrested. Belfort’s rapid rise and deafening fall is the ultimate cautionary tale of what happens when short-term thinking — not to mention drugs and naked women in the workplace — takes over and profitability is pursued at the expense of stability.

“It’s about ethics,” Silver said of the film’s key message. “Character is important and, at the end of the day, people like to work with people and companies they like.” What’s more, data show that consumers, especially millennials, are more likely to do business with companies they view as ethical.

“Office Space”

Lesson: Micromanaging is a no-no.

Working as a software engineer at a cube-farm tech company is a drain on this movie’s main character, Peter Gibbons. But what makes his job truly soul killing is his do-nothing boss, who lingers around his desk and repeatedly insists he work weekends to “play catch-up.” The boss’ interruptions distract and frustrate him, causing his productivity to plummet.

Micromanaged, overworked employees turn into unhappy, burnt-out employees who often end up leaving. In fact, one study concluded of micromanagement, “The negative impacts are so intense that it is labeled among the top three reasons employees resign.”

Retain the great talent you have by training your team well, making sure they know the goals and how to do their jobs, then stepping back and letting them do them.

“Glengarry Glen Ross”

Lesson: Succeeding in business isn’t everything.

“Glengarry Glen Ross” depicts two days in the life of four real estate salesmen who spend the majority of their time in the office or on the road pursuing a sale. The men live off the high of converting prospects into clients, at the expense of their actual lives. When they learn that all but the two top salesmen will be fired, an increasingly desperate attempt to survive, despite a lack of good leads, ensues.

“In this movie, winning is everything,” said Silver. “It shows that lack of balance today’s business owners often have: It’s either black or white,” said Silver. An absence of work-life balance is detrimental to even the highest-functioning entrepreneur and can ultimately lead to burnout.

Create space to build a well-rounded life — or risk becoming like the defeated men in this dark tale.

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