Have you got the right character traits to be a successful entrepreneur?

Paul O’Leary examines the personality traits of the entrepreneur and reveals the universal triggers for a successful business

Did you know the personal characteristics of those who view entrepreneurship as a career choice, persist at it, and succeed at it, can be distinctive? It takes a lot of work to get an entrepreneurial venture off the ground and even more work to make it successful.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor recently reported that in 2009, 2.7% of the adult population in the UK were actively trying to start a business, compared with 5% in the US and 2.8% in the G7, while one in five UK individuals saw an opportunity for entrepreneurship in the recession.

Everyone knows that entrepreneurs are different from the general population, and the successful entrepreneurs even more so, but it is often hard to define that quality. Is it their idea, their drive or just good luck?

While those 2.7% were launching their ventures, I spent 2009 conducting research to determine if there were any hints to be found by studying the personalities of successful entrepreneurs. I asked 227 finalists for the Ireland Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year programme over the last twelve years to take the Predictive Index® (PI®), an objective personality assessment that uses an adjective checklist to identify consistently expressed personality traits.

A very distinctive PI Profile for the entrepreneurs emerged from the data with over 70% sharing common core characteristics. Contrary to the popular perception of successful entrepreneurs as being solely independent, single-minded and devoted to their unique passions, they in fact often have high levels of social competence and social intelligence, with an innate ability to connect with others on an interpersonal level.

Additionally, 82% of the entrepreneurs studied are assertive, self-confident, challenging, venturesome, independent and competitive individuals, while 85% have low patience, and are tense, restless and driven individuals, who work with a profound sense of urgency.

Here’s a more detailed look at the ‘natural’ entrepreneurship personality profile I found:

  • Proactive, assertive, has a sense of urgency for achieving their goals
  • Communicates directly and to the point
  • Independent in putting forth their own ideas, which are often innovative and, if implemented, cause change
  • Impatient for results
  • Less productive when doing routine work
  • Task-focused; often noticing and driven to fix technical problems
  • Able to work through any personal/emotional issues
  • Adept at spotting trends in data or figuring out how complex systems work
  • Confident in taking action without input from others

So what does this mean for those 2.7% or even for business leaders large and small?

Entrepreneurial performance, indeed any individual’s performance in a given role, is largely a function of character and skills. This is just as valid for roles in sport, social, political, personal and family settings as it is in business. Because skills can be continually learned, developed and honed, but character is fixed and stable, a prerequisite to top-performance in any role is getting the character-fit right.

Remember, successful entrepreneurs and innovators approach life with a hypothesis-testing mindset, and seek to cultivate that mindset in others. They are independent in putting forth their own ideas, respond well to pressure and challenge, and will resourcefully work aound roadblocks to achieve their goals.

One research area that is still somewhat unexplored is the connection between personality characteristics and success at various stages of the entrepreneurship process or different types of entrepreneurship. For example, are the same personal qualities and characteristics as helpful for a solo entrepreneur who is at the very initial point in his or her business as they would be in a more mature or team-based setting?  A project for another day…


Paul O’Leary, MBA, Ph.D., is an entrepreneur and business executive with 25 years industry experience. He has studied and researched entrepreneurial psychology to doctorate level, and continues to conduct extensive research in the area. He is the Irish associate for PI Europe, an adjunct member of faculty at Trinity College Dublin, and a member of faculty at the Ryan Academy for Entrepreneurship.

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