A friend recently asked me what I thought were the top five character traits one must have (or develop) to be successful as an entrepreneur. As I started to think it through, I realized that it’s not easy to distill all the important characteristics of an entrepreneur down to just five, but here’s what I came up with, in no particular order of importance.
Having been in the entrepreneurship game for more than 30 years now, I have learned that, without a doubt, if you don’t have perseverance, you are highly unlikely to achieve any meaningful level of success as an entrepreneur. Although you may plan and do your best to predict the future, I haven’t met anyone who can do that with 100% accuracy. Therefore, there are going to be unforeseen challenges and you will need to persevere in order to overcome them. The good news is that, like many of the key characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, this one can be learned — you don’t need to be born with it.
2.) Goal Setting
I’m not sure this is one that I would always have included on this list, but over time, I have learned that the ability to set goals correctly, monitor progress toward those goals, adjust course as necessary, and make sure they are completed regardless of the obstacles you encounter, is critical to the success of most entrepreneurs. The alternative is to not set goals, but where does that leave you? As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else. Setting goals and keeping them on your radar on a regular basis can also help to keep you motivated and on track when times are tough.
3.) Tolerate Uncertainty
One thing most successful entrepreneurs I know do very well is to tolerate uncertainty. They are comfortable and very often stimulated in situations of uncertainty. Unlike many other traits, this is one that may be difficult to learn — to some extent, you’re either born with it, or you’re not. Those of you who have sought certainty and predictability in your careers and elsewhere in your lives may find it very challenging to be in the relatively chaotic world of entrepreneurship, particularly at the early stage of a venture. In your case, you would be wise to associate yourself with others you know who perhaps have more of a tolerance for these situations, so you can lean on them a bit when the inevitable chaos and uncertainty arrive. You may also want to take a role in the venture that allows you to deal with some of the tasks that are a bit more routine and predictable.
4.) A Strong Desire to Succeed
Most of the great entrepreneurs I know have an extremely strong desire to be successful in everything they do. They are usually quite competitive, sometimes to an annoying degree and sometimes regarding tasks that, at least on the surface, don’t seem very important. This drive to succeed is what pushes them to be the pioneer, to take the proverbial arrows, while others are content to sit back and fall into a routine. If you don’t have such a strong desire to succeed, this may be another one that is a bit difficult to learn — I think it’s possible, but to some extent you’re either born with this desire (or had it ingrained in you as a child), or you’re not.
5.) Different Definition of Failure
Hardly any entrepreneurs in the history of time have achieved great success without a failure, usually many, many of them. Sure, a few have done it, but some people have hit the lottery as well. It happens, but it’s highly unusual. Much more common among successful entrepreneurs, are stories of repeated failure — sometimes 10, 20 or more failures — then what appears to be a sudden success that came out of nowhere. The reality is that it did not come out of nowhere; it came from the ability to learn and course-adjust, based on previous approaches that did not work. Mindset is everything as an entrepreneur. This is best illustrated by a comment made by Thomas Edison, when someone asked him if he had failed on a particular experiment. His response was to the effect, “no, I just eliminated another way that does not work.”
As I mentioned up-front, this list of key successful entrepreneur character traits is not exhaustive, but these are the key traits that are top-of-mind for me. In reality, entrepreneurship is a complex undertaking, so there’s a large number of traits that explain success and failure. Let me know your thoughts on some of the key ones I may have missed here. To the extent that you believe you are deficient in some of the important characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, find people you can work with to complement your strengths. And to the extent that the traits are learnable, keep working to improve. The desire to continually improve should probably be number six on this list.
Let me know your thoughts.