Top 4 Traits Of Successful Business Owners

What separates the good from the great? Guardian research unveils keys to success for entrepreneurs and business owners.
What separates a good entrepreneur from a great one? Innovation? Maybe. Creativity? Couldn't hurt. This question was at the crux of a recent study conducted by the Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute, which engaged more than 1,100 respondents in an effort to get to the bottom of this question.

In a webinar, Guardian research advisor John Krubski and Guardian special academic advisor Patricia Greene shared insights uncovered by the research. According to them, the most successful entrepreneurs/business owners have these four traits in common.

1. Self-Fulfilled

If you're running a small business and find yourself counting down the minutes to quitting time, chances are pretty good that your company is running low on staying power. Key No. 1 to being wildly successful in business is doing something you love. Common sense? Perhaps. For noteworthy entrepreneurs, "there's very little difference between what's gratifying to them and to their business," said Krubski. "Also, they tend to have a lot of self-respect, giving themselves ample downtime to recharge their batteries. Ultimately, self-fulfillment starts with self."

Think of anybody who's very successful, whether a Hollywood celebrity or your next-door neighbor, and I bet they're not dragging themselves to work every day. As the saying goes, do what you love and the money will follow.

-- Visualize the result of being a successful small-business owner. (For me, this evokes "The Secret." Envision success and you will achieve it.)
-- Surround yourself with people more successful than yourself.
-- Work hard and play hard.

2. Collaborative

This one involves a few different things, and it can be especially challenging for early-stage-business owners. One aspect of being collaborative is delegating effectively. During the webinar, Greene talked about something she encounters frequently in her dealings with small-business owners; it's called "I'm the only one" syndrome. "I'm the only one who can do a first estimate." "I'm the only one who can get through to that particular client." If you don't surround yourself with people you can trust to do the work that needs to be done, your company is going to be at a disadvantage, and your efforts to grow could be futile.

But what happens if you're not a particularly "collaborative" sort? One webinar participant brought up the question. Krubski's response: "Then you're doing more work than you need to. If you want to be a truly successful entrepreneur, you need to create some kind of mechanism within your organization that allows collaboration to occur."

Another part of being collaborative is creating opportunity for others. Making your company a great place to work is a win-win for everybody. You attract and retain talent; your employees, in turn, give their all because they know that they're appreciated.

Then there's collaboration that takes place outside of the company--with suppliers and customers, partners and other businesses. "The goal is to connect with others who have a vested interest in your success," Greene said.

-- Hire to meet your objectives. You should have people in your organization to whom you feel comfortable delegating responsibility.
-- Teach and empower employees.
-- Network with intentionality. Always keep "social capital" in mind. Think about who you want in your network and how you'll get them there.
-- Know and understand everyone inside and associated with your business.
-- Partner with integrity.

3. Tech-Savvy

According to Greene and Krubski, this isn't just about having tech toys and knowing how to use them. The most effective entrepreneurs make informed decisions about which technologies to implement, deploy tools aimed at making their businesses more efficient, and figure out when to invest in technology. Greene said she met a jeweler with one retail location who invested $100,000 in CAD equipment her staff could use to design jewelry. To some, this might sound like a foolhardy move--to spend so much money on so small an enterprise--but this jeweler said her investment was the best thing she's ever done for her business. In other words, do what works for you.

Be open to new technology, but don't do something just because you "should." Don't start using social networking just because every other business owner on the block is doing it. Use social networking if it's truly going to open doors for you and make your company more productive. Another point made by Krubski and Greene: Recognize that technology can be invasive or disruptive. Knowing when and where to deploy it is key.

-- Invest in a professional, searchable website. Make use of SEO, blogs, and newsletters.
-- Recognize that the future is in mobile technology. Smartphones are everywhere, and they're increasingly being used for transaction processing, inventory management, and calendaring.
-- Research different technology products and decide which ones you don't want to deploy. That's just as important as deciding which ones you do.

4. Future-Focused

"About 20 times a year, I get an opportunity to sit in a room with 10 or 15 small-business owners," said Krubski. "When I ask them to define 'the future,' almost all of them say something about it being what happens next. Even the brightest ones view the future as a set of circumstances [imposed on passive bystanders]. To be successful, you should recognize that you have control over your future."

Krubski said a hallmark of successful entrepreneurs is that they have a plan. Actually, they have at least two plans--a short-term one and a long-term one. He said the long-term plan should be a strategy that remains relatively stable over time. (He cites the U.S. Constitution as a great example; it just happens to be a road map for a country instead of an organization.) With a plan in mind, you can decide what resources you need to get where you want to go.

-- Anticipate how your industry will change.
-- Develop a COP, or Central Operating Premise. This is about cutting through the clutter and coming up with a core objective for your company. For Coca Cola, Krubski said, the COP has remained the same since 1946: to put a coke within arm's length of everyone on the planet. A COP should reflect focus, clarity, awareness, prioritization, diligence, commitment, and action.
-- Create a long-term business plan.
-- Be clear about your intentions for the company and realistic about the energy available (from you and everyone else involved with your business) to meet your goals.
-- Find someone in your organization who can help you stay future-focused.

It seems to me, though, that developing a COP may not be as easy as it sounds. How exactly would one go about doing that? At least one of the webinar participants must've been on the same wavelength as I was, because they asked about the process involved in creating a Central Operating Premise for one's company.

Krubski said a COP begins with a series of statements. "This is done collaboratively, by asking people in the company, 'What is our business about?'" he said. "Make a list of the answers and reduce those comments to no more than seven statements. Then reduce those seven to three. Out of that, the COP will emerge."

Although those were the main traits discussed in the webinar, Krubski and Greene mentioned two others that are often found in very successful business owners: curious and action-oriented. Business owners, they said, tend to be curious--and not just about their business, but about a bevy of topics. "Read what interests you," Krubski said. "Curiosity energizes you and gives you ideas for innovation."

As for being action-oriented, it makes perfect sense that this would be a common characteristic among entrepreneurial sorts. "A lot of business owners I work with are very concerned about protecting their ideas, their business intelligence," said Greene. "But it's not as much about the uniqueness of an idea as it is about the ability to execute on it. A cocktail party entrepreneur is someone who keeps talking about their ideas but never does anything about them."

One of the more interesting questions that came out of the webinar--at least to me--was whether you're born with these traits or you learn them. When it comes to the nature-nurture debate, I'm a firm believer that both our genetics and our environment play a role in shaping who we are. I definitely don't subscribe to the theory of "tabula rasa"--that we're all blank slates just waiting to be scribbled on. When it comes to these four (or six, rather) traits, it seems that Krubski and I are pretty much in agreement. His thoughts on the matter: "You can't create these traits, but you can unleash them. Every entrepreneur has a common genetic code that predisposes them to be this way, at least to some degree."

How do you measure up in these areas? Do you have what it takes to be a top-notch business owner? Stay tuned for more insights from the Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute.

Michele P. Warren, a freelance writer and editor, has 15 years of experience covering technology and the channel. She spent 9 years at CRN and was formerly the managing editor of VARBusiness, Long Island Press, and Long Island Business News.

Employees have more ways to communicate than ever, but until the mishmash of tools gets integrated, productivity will suffer. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek: A buyer's guide to enterprise social networking. Download it now. (Free registration required.)