I’ve worked with countless CEOs of companies big and small, famous venture capitalists, and founders of startups that beat the odds and went public. What I did to be so lucky I have no idea, but observing their behavior has always been sort of a hobby of mine.
After 30 years of interaction with these remarkable people, I can tell you with great certainty that they all have one characteristic in common: absolutely nothing.
The popular search for traits that predict business success is inevitably and fatally flawed for one simple reason: it’s not personal characteristics that make businesses successful, but their products and services that beat the competition.
None of the great business leaders I’ve known and worked with over the decades are defined by who they are. They are defined by what they do. They are defined by their work. Simply put, they are better at their jobs than the vast majority of their peers.
Other than that, they are each unique in their own unique way. And they certainly don’t fit any of the popular notions we hear about these days.
They spanned the spectrum from painfully shy and introverted to classic icons that exude executive presence. Some were so boring they could put you to sleep while others could captivate an audience with their engaging stories. They ran the gamut from geeks with Ph.D's to marketing and financial wizards.
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While they didn’t fit any particular model, I can certainly share some interesting observations and insights that may have influenced their rise to such lofty positions in the business world.
For one thing, they were all brilliant. They were all hungry for knowledge and experience. They all had common sense. That’s the closest thing to a common intrinsic characteristic I can offer. I don’t really think of it as unique because – well, there’s simply no way to sugarcoat this so I’m not going to try – smarts are a necessity.
That said, they didn’t generally strike me as particularly emotionally intelligent, at least not according to the popular definition. While some were perhaps more self-aware and empathetic than most, others were so singularly focused on their work, their products, and the business at hand that I don’t think there was much room left for anything else.
With rare exception, they all worked their tails off and rose through the ranks to become executives at bigger companies before starting their own ventures, being chosen to lead others or becoming VCs. I wouldn’t say any of them were born to be or set out to be entrepreneurs. It was more a result than a goal.
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By the time I came to know them, they were all business savvy. They each had a clear and visceral, if not pragmatic, understanding of finance, competitive markets and how companies operate. Some may have learned it by osmosis while others made it their business to understand business, but sooner or later it does come with the territory.
While some were more impetuous and egocentric than others – to their detriment, I may add – they were generally a mature bunch. They were comfortable in their own skins, didn’t take themselves too seriously, and had a sense of humor and humility. They usually welcomed constructive debate as a means to effective decision-making.
That said, one of the heralded attributes of great leaders – their passion and vision – is often a double-edged sword that can cloud perspective and lead to myopia or nearsightedness. This is a common problem that I believe caused many of those I worked with to be less successful than they might have been.
Finally, and this is perhaps the most noteworthy point, I’m certain they would all agree that business and entrepreneurial success is based primarily on developing products and services that are far better at meeting critical customer needs than the competition. If you want to step into their shoes someday, that’s where I would start.
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