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From confidence and risk-taking to delegation and relationship-building, there are 10 key traits involved in entrepreneurship — but not everyone has them all. — Getty Images/jacoblund

Successful entrepreneurs possess a diverse range of talents and traits that might seem to put them in a league of their own, but the reality is quite different. Nobody has the full range of abilities to guarantee success in small business, research shows, yet just about everyone has enough of the right entrepreneurial stuff to pursue their small-business dreams. The key is to identify your talents, proactively develop them and surround yourself with a team that possesses the skills you lack.

The polling and consulting firm Gallup has conducted multiple studies on the topic and sought to identify and cultivate talent around the world, and the research finds no significant differences in entrepreneurial promise by location, gender, age or socioeconomic status.

"Entrepreneurship is talent that can really live within anyone,” said Justin Lall, who, as director of strategic partnerships at Gallup, helps organizations find and develop entrepreneurs. “It does live in everyone to some degree. It's just a matter of nurturing it.”

The number of skills you need, and the level of proficiency at each, depend in part on the type of business. Consider the extremes, for example: Launching and growing a high-tech company that aims to garner outside investors and grow revenue into the tens of millions requires a level of creativity, innovation and persuasive skills not required to launch a local family-run service or retail business.

Some talents you need

Gallup’s analysis finds there are, broadly speaking, three types of entrepreneurs—rainmakers, experts and conductors—and no person embodies all three qualities, yet each is crucial in any organization. Within these broad types are 10 specific talents found to be critical in the successful creation and management of a new or growing business. These natural traits, in no particular order, are the basis for entrepreneurial decision-making—but again, nobody has all of them.

  • Confidence: Strong self-belief, especially in your ability to convince others they’ll get what you’ve promised.
  • Risk-taker: Comfortable with ambiguity, eager to embrace challenges, capable of managing high-risk situations.
  • Knowledge seeker: Constantly absorbing new information and applying it to the business.
  • Disruptor: Always looking ahead, iterating on old ideas and experimenting with products or services and new ways of doing things.
  • Promotor: Creating excitement and confidence internally and externally by being persuasive and communicating clearly.
  • Independence: Able and willing to do whatever’s needed, even outside your strong suits.
  • Determination: Tenacious work ethic, especially during rough periods, to accomplish what you’ve set out to do.
  • Relationship builder: Recognizing the value of others inside and outside the company and engaging them for the company’s benefit.
  • Profit focus: Sharpness in business and finance. Or, simply put: Knowing how to make money.
  • Delegator: Realizing you don’t have all these skills, nor the time to do everything, especially as the business grows.

“You got to figure out which one of those 10 that you're good at, and make yourself great at them,” Lall told CO—.

Regardless how you think you rate on any of these talents, no such list will reveal if you have the skills and personality to succeed at starting and running a small business, says Lynda Applegate, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School who has spent three decades mentoring entrepreneurs.

“Knowing whether or not you want to be an entrepreneurial leader is something that you don't know until you try,” Applegate told CO—. ”You learn by doing.”

Knowing whether or not you want to be an entrepreneurial leader is something that you don't know until you try.

Lynda Applegate, professor of business administration, Harvard Business School

You are patient yet relentless

To launch, grow or pivot a business, you need a plan, of course. And you need to be flexible, mixing patience and relentlessness as you experiment with opportunities.

In a small business, regardless of the size or type, you’ll pick a starting point and have a goal in mind, but just as in sports, you don’t win the moment you enter the field of play. Professional soccer players, for example, start a game with a pass backward, not down the field, Applegate points out. That thoughtful beginning is followed by a lot of strategic passes as part of a game plan to eventually win. Likewise, in business you have to make smart moves, keep your head up to look for good opportunities wherever they might exist, then pivot into them quickly and pivot just as quickly away from plays that don’t pan out.

“But above all, you're opportunity driven,” Applegate says of the successful entrepreneur. “So you're not just playing the ball at your feet but you are also looking down the field.”

Through interviews with successful entrepreneurs and a review of existing research, Applegate and her colleagues have identified 11 dimensions of entrepreneurial leadership that revolve around skills and talents. Many of the factors, including team building and sales skills, are similar to the key talents identified by Gallup, but others are more nuanced, including these abilities:

  • Identify opportunities.
  • Influence internal and external stakeholders.
  • Make decisions efficiently even with insufficient information.
  • Assemble and motivate a team.

Continuing with her sports analogy, Applegate stressed that an entrepreneur must surround herself with people who have skills that will benefit the organization now and later, as new opportunities arise. And that’s where a key entrepreneurial trait comes into play:

“It's relentless, because you never get it right the first time,” Applegate said.

The relentless nature of running a business requires another key skill not found on most lists of entrepreneurial traits, but one that many leaders say is indispensable: The ability to manage stress.

“To maintain our mental and physical health and be successful over the long term, it’s crucial to find ways of keeping stress from taking hold,” writes serial entrepreneur Deep Patel. At the top of any list of stress-reducing tips for small business owners: Carve out time for yourself by delegating, and then goof off or exercise or meditate—however you prefer to pursue a healthy lifestyle beyond work.

The upshot: Whether you could successfully launch and run a small business, or get better at growing one you already own, is less about your inherent talents and more about awareness of them and your desire and ability to build on your strengths and fill the gaps through hiring and delegating. The great news: Research reveals no age limit to a person’s chance of succeeding at all this.

"It's never too late,” Lall said.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published December 11, 2020