I recently attended Utah’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award ceremony honoring Josh James. While the Governor and others gave well deserved accolades to Josh, it got me thinking about what it really takes to be a successful entrepreneur. Is there a secret sauce? Inherent personality traits required? Key lessons that must be learned the hard way?
As the daughter of a serial entrepreneur, I have unconsciously contemplated this idea of successful entrepreneurism my whole life. My father had many successful business ventures including buying equity in failing banks and turning them around. He also had many ideas that were not so successful. My personal favorite business flop: coffins, for devout Catholics, that were replicas of the Pope’s tomb. I grew up in a household where the dinner conversation frequently revolved around my Dad’s latest business idea. His daughters helped him “run the traps” – meaning debate the merits and risks of his latest idea. Was my father’s success dependent solely on good or bad ideas? How important was his leadership and personality in succeeding?
The Harvard Business Review published an article in 2000 discussing three business personality types:
- Obsessives are by the book tacticians thriving on order and analysis
- Erotics need to be loved and value consensus
- Productive Narcissists are visionary, charismatic leaders willing to do whatever it takes to win and could care less about being liked
The article held that Productive Narcissists are the best leaders and entrepreneurs. There is much proof to back this up. Think Jack Welch, Larry Ellison, and Steve Jobs (to name a few). But this flies in the face of conventional business wisdom around collaboration and team dynamics. When I attended Wharton Business School, as an example, classes were offered on team collaboration and students were rewarded for excelling in teamwork. Additionally, books like Good To Great praise leaders that empathize with staff and build team consensus.
Are the characteristics that make a great entrepreneur different from those that make a great corporate leader? Is that why many boards replace the founder with a seasoned CEO? If this is true, then why have so many businesses struggled when the founder was removed? Look at how Apple floundered when Steve Jobs was replaced in the 90s. Google, Facebook, and Oracle are all great examples of companies that continue to thrive under the leadership of the founding entrepreneur.
So what makes a successful entrepreneur? Is it solely a great idea? I don’t think so. While mandatory, a great idea alone will not ensure success. Do you have to be an unsympathetic narcissist? I hope not. But, I do think there are a few personality traits that help breed success: unwavering belief in your ideas and a tenacious pursuit of winning are a few that come to mind.
Maybe my father should have spent as much time refining his personality as evaluating business ideas. Who knows? If my Dad would have been more of a Productive Narcissist, coffins resembling the Pope’s tomb would be the hottest selling item at funeral homes.