As a culture, Americans celebrate and revere our most successful pioneers and makers of world-changing brands—think Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, even Walt Disney. Today, the Information Age has ushered in a whole new class of entrepreneurs focused on developing technologies with the potential to change people’s lives or disrupt entire industries. From examples like Travis Kalanick and his role in the creation of Uber to Jack Dorsey and his work in establishing the global social communication platform that is Twitter, the world is evolving, thanks in large part to entrepreneurs.
No matter how dissimilar their products or their personal backgrounds, successful entrepreneurs have one unifying thing in common—all overcame major obstacles in order to make their big ideas a reality. They tend to share some core personality traits that give them the ability to continue their work in the face of difficulty. However, some of these traits may be surprising. The following four characteristics are particularly undervalued:
This trait isn’t often included in “top ten” lists of important entrepreneurial characteristics—possibly because it’s a difficult trait to define. You will, however, see traits like determination, passion, resilience, and flexibility often listed. Grouped together into one concept, these traits encompass what it means to have grit. Grit is possibly the best indicator of success in an entrepreneur.
The road to entrepreneurial success is long and difficult. It’s sure to include more than a few detours and failures along the way. For many, the high stress and instability of growing a business is overwhelming, but grit allows people to keep going. Grit is the difference between a founder who loses steam and gives up after a big setback, versus one who thinks his or her way around challenges, using mistakes to craft a better strategy for the future.
2. Active listening
For an entrepreneur with vision, it’s easy to get wrapped up in a leadership role and get used to talking more often than listening. But having the ability to do the inverse is actually a more valuable and vastly underappreciated skill in business.
Active listening is important for an entrepreneur in terms of communication with employees, investors, and even with customers. Not only do entrepreneurs who listen have a better opportunity to gain an objective viewpoint of their business, but great listeners are often perceived as more trustworthy than those who listen poorly. Entrepreneurs who actively listen make fewer mistakes and are more likely to pick up on insights that can benefit them in their work.
That’s because they see listening as a form of learning, and often go out of their way to talk to people and ask questions. They’re curious about what other people have to say. In addition, they’re mature and confident enough to realize they won’t always be the smartest person in the room—and that’s a good thing, because they can learn from others. Many carry notebooks and write down what they learn to spark new ideas. Entrepreneurs also have a competitive advantage when they listen closely rather than dominate every discussion. People who talk too much are more likely to reveal a business or product concept before it’s ready.
As social media continues to provide us with ways to create a curated self-image, authenticity is an increasingly rare trait. This is also true in the case of entrepreneurs. The unimaginative articles pushing a worn-out narrative about who and what entrepreneurs tend to be like and how they achieve their success do a disservice to would-be entrepreneurs with great ideas. Just like every job or role where creativity is required, founders are undeniably better off being themselves.
Authenticity makes a person memorable—it is a simple and effective way to stand out without any extra effort. Authenticity also allows an entrepreneur to stay motivated by being honest with him or herself while building the company. This can prevent situations where the founder has to sacrifice his or her values or passions in order to achieve success.
We sometimes hear stories about the blunt and cutthroat nature of businesspeople who are held up today as the definition of success. Their singlemindedness in pursuit of their goals and willingness to do whatever it takes, at any cost, are viewed as intense dedication and necessary for anyone who hopes to succeed in business.
One thing that these narratives do not highlight, however, is how valuable empathy can be in terms of both an entrepreneur’s professional work and personal growth. Many of the extremely talented and highly educated people drawn to tech meccas like Silicon Valley have spent most of their time in a classroom or behind a computer and less time interacting with people—especially those who are different from themselves. They don’t take the chance to travel and meet people from different countries and cultures, and they don’t mix with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Without these experiences, many people who hope to be successful founders lack the empathetic ability to see things from a different perspective. Essentially, they’re wearing blinders, and it puts them at a disadvantage in terms of developing products that people actually want. Empathy enables entrepreneurs to listen to and understand what people really want or need. In addition, it can also be a handy tool when trying to motivate a startup team through difficult phases of development. Moreover, empathy allows people to feel real gratitude when they do find success, which makes the achievement much more fulfilling.