Small business owners must deploy a wide array of skills and traits in order to keep their businesses in operation. Every business is unique and poses its own challenges, but there are traits that many successful business owners have in common. This is not a list of must-haves. No person on Earth has every single one of these characteristics. Fortunately, although we often think of a “trait” as being something inborn and unchangeable, all the traits on this list are actually things that can be developed and improved with experience.
Common Characteristics of Entrepreneurs
Even the easiest life is full of setbacks and resistance, and running a business has never been an easy life. Whether it’s struggles over payroll, disappointing results from a marketing campaign, or just bad weather that ruins an event, hardship is a day-by-day experience, not a rarity. Good business owners get back on the horse when they fall off; great business owners can fall off the horse a thousand times, and on the thousand-and-first time, climb back on board more determined than they were the first time.
Nobody can do it alone. The ability to work and play well with others is critical for a business to succeed. Business owners who are able to see the ways in which their business is a group effort are far more likely to make full use of the talents of the people surrounding them.
The flip side of collaboration is self-reliance, and it’s not a contradiction that both traits are important. (Most of us are better developed in one area than in the other, and that’s OK—leverage your strengths to compensate for your weaknesses!) Being willing to shoulder the burden of running a company doesn’t mean not accepting or even planning on the help of others. It means being able and willing to do it yourself if need be.
Whether you call it drive, determination, or motivation, it’s one of the non-negotiable elements of business success. Nobody slacks their way into success in the long term. Running a successful business requires being a self-starter, capable of taking action for one’s own reasons without needing an external prod.
It is possible to do good, even great work that one does not care about—perhaps out of a sense of duty or obligation, or as a matter of professional pride. However, over the long haul, the only way for us to do well at something is to care deeply about it. Passion is what inspires the extra hours or the sleepless nights fretting over details. Note that it is possible to be passionate about either the specifics of what you are doing, or about the process of doing it (or sometimes both if you are very lucky).
Business operations are complex and chaotic at the best of times, and often the only way to avoid collapsing into total reactivity is to proactively set overarching goals for oneself, one’s team, and one’s organization to meet. Goal-oriented business owners are able to impose those goals and take control of operational agendas, so that while dealing with the flooding river, they also attempt to dig its future channel.
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Humility does not mean thinking little of oneself, putting oneself down, or underestimating one’s own talents and skills. Those things are actually just insecurity. Rather, humility is being aware of one’s own fallibility and knowing one’s actual limitations. Humble business owners are able to ask for help when they need it, to accept legitimate criticism and feedback, and to remain grounded even in success.
Another set of theoretically opposing traits, confidence is actually an important counterbalance to humility. If you know in your bones for a fact that you can juggle six balls at once, humility is what prevents you from claiming you can juggle eight, and confidence is what lets you bet the mortgage money on being able to do five. (It also lets you be willing to try to do seven.) Confidence is deeply rooted in self-knowledge; the more you know about your own abilities AND limitations, the more confident you can be when you test them.
Small business owners are often in a perilously privileged place, morally speaking. As the boss, they are constantly making decisions large and small, and of course some of those decisions are going to prove to be in error. Yet, as the boss, the owner is also often not subject to critique or correction, particularly from employees. (Customers may feel less restraint. You’ve seen online reviews.)
This can lead to a dangerous false social reality, in which everyone in the business (including the boss) knows that he or she hopelessly fouled up the Anderson account, but nobody (including the boss) is willing to say so. Accountable leaders take responsibility for both their accomplishments and their failures, and in doing so earn the respect and the support of their employees and customers.
Having a vision for the company is a crucial element of being a successful owner. You don’t want to go overboard with lofty, unachievable goals. Having a vision for a company is simply a matter of seeing in the mind’s eye where the company should be going, what it should look like, and how it should serve its customers. Being able to conceptualize the future in this fashion, and equally importantly, being able to communicate that vision to a team, is an important element in being a successful small business owner.