First, let me dispel a commonly believed myth of entrepreneurship. No one needs a college degree or MBA to succeed. Everyone talks about education as a foundation to become an entrepreneur, but it is by far the least important factor as proven by so many billionaire college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. I have heard it claimed as many as forty percent of highly successful entrepreneurs and billionaires have never graduated from any college. These are the out-of-the-box thinkers, risk-takers and people who are driven to learn for life and get better every day, not just for a few years.
Personality traits like the ones listed below are far more indicative of success, and most are within the control of the individual to some degree, with effort. A year of real-world experience can be better than four years of college, and even better than an MBA from a top university in the right environment. Most professional recruiters and most larger companies get this all wrong, even though the data screams it is inappropriate. It is really easy to keyword match titles with degrees but also the worst possible indicator to find the best people. This is just being lazy and trying to put off on others (universities) the screening of your employees. It had little reflection on someone’s abilities many years later. Any company, in this day and age of specialization, rapid change and the need for life-long learning, that insists on an MBA, or degree in anything for a business position is living in the dark ages based on traditions, not the real-world of data that proves this idea wrong. Elon Musk speaks about this as do many others saying “I don’t care what degree you have”.
Raw intelligence, drive, people skills and so many other things trump these trivial few years of education that can be replaced with one year of good work experience. I see job descriptions that say things like “Required experience in Microsoft Office” for senior executive and management positions. This is just insane and plain stupid as it takes decades to develop the most important skills, really arts, needed for senior positions and anyone can pick this skill up in a day or two. Of course, with low level positions where there is high turnover some basic skills may make sense, but I am talking about management and entrepreneurs here.
Unlike an MBA the following qualities are necessary, not optional like a degree, to be a very successful entrepreneur and build any company of substance that will be sustainable and grow to create significant impact and wealth:
- Prepare by learning from experience in the real world. It takes at least eight years of experience to be ready to found a company and expect to grow it well. I have never found a real exception to this though people falsely believe there are these “instant successes”. And I eliminate personal service businesses (really jobs, not companies) where you are a freelancer, or companies with seven or less employees as a goal. And even Amazon and other “resellers” who call themselves entrepreneurs but are just buying and selling at a markup. These are merchants, not entrepreneurs, and not substantial businesses or innovative. When you look closely you learn successful entrepreneurs have 5, 10 and even 20 years of experience and real-world learning to get to the point of starting their business. And they hired experienced managers to correct for their lack of experience when they didn’t have it. Data also shows being over the age of forty increases your chances too, though the press love to do stories on boy/girl wonders because it is good clickbait. It is also usually very misleading. Do not be fooled, nothing will ever beat experience.
- Persistence – It is never, ever easy and there is always failure along the way to building any significant company. Trial and error are necessary to learn and adjust constantly, never become complacent or satisfied in the pursuit of better, faster and cheaper. People who cannot handle rejection and failure will not do well. Failure along the way is guaranteed. How many Space X rockets exploded? I know of four so far and Elon also says if you are not failing you are not innovating enough.
- Critical thinking skills - You must think and separate your past beliefs from reality and watch the data objectively to steer any organization, especially after reaching 10–20 people when you become more separated from the customer and day to day. Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE once said the most important quality in an executive is the ability to “See what is, not what they want to see”. This is self-control over a powerful psychological principle called “cognitive dissonance” which all managers, executives and CEOs must master that we teach at The CEO Boot Camp.
- Be a life-long learner - Most people stop learning after finishing school. These are not the big winners in life or business. Entrepreneurs continue learning every day and are constantly asking “How can we make that better?”. They are curious, analytical and objective with a drive to improve constantly. Not just themselves but also their people, products, company and processes. This is called Kaizen, a constant and never-ending improvement philosophy and culture. Peter Senge’s book The Learning Organization is a must read.
- Control of your own ego, especially by listening to others well - Entrepreneurs (all managers really) need to make decisions from a company perspective in a fair way. This is a “Fiduciary responsibility” to shareholders and employees too and creates a culture of creating value for customers, not just the Founder or with a focus on making money. It requires balanced and longer-term thinking. Companies that service customers best in a niche grow more rapidly and will eventually be more profitable. This results in more market share, economies of scale and more investment to continue to move ahead of the competition over years and eventually leads to domination of a market.
- Learn to hire the best - This is art that comes only from many years experience. You must balance technical skills, experience, personality, ethics and drive based on the particular position. Never hire someone without a job description and seriously think about how they match that including the required personality. Too many people hire people they “like”, as opposed to the most qualified that will fit in the desired culture you are building.
- Read, read, read. Cheapest way to learn what you need now and over the next year. And make you think about applying these ideas and skills to your business at the time. Entrepreneurs must understand marketing, business operations and whatever industry technical skills their company delivers to customers (though not always technical details as that can be delegated). However, they must always help drive innovation or have a co-founder that does.
- Having a co-founder also greatly increases your chances of success based on research. And takes a load of stress off while allowing you to focus on what you are best at. Typically, you need very experienced and smart people in innovation, marketing and managing the business and you should try to hire the best everywhere you can and pay top dollar as one person can be worth two or even ten sometimes. Having a co-founder means they care as much as you do, put in the time and effort needed and bring a complimentary skill set to your own.
- Have a mentor and/or coach that has achieved what you wish to achieve. I suspect every successful entrepreneur in history has had multiple mentors as they grow through their career. I bet most have had at least three or four at different times. I can count seven in my life and career. At any given time, you need a mentor that has done before exactly what you want to accomplish in the next few years (i.e. built a $10M company as a CEO of a startup if that is your goal).
- Confidence and Optimism – I have never met a successful person who has negative attitudes. A positive psychology not only allows you to try new things and avoid paralysis from fear of failure, it is also, something that attracts other people to want to be around you and help you achieve your mission. There is an area in the brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). It acts as a traffic cop for incoming information, which is massive via our seven senses. It determines which stimuli are important enough to be passed on to the conscience (cerebral cortex) for further processing. In other words, get notice you and the 'you' inside that is your conscious mind. When we set a positive goal or focus on a specific task, the RAS is activated and helps us to tune out distractions and stay focused on what is important. It will also alert you to opportunities that would normally be noise and pass unnoticed if you have programmed it to do this. I always use the example of test-driving a car. After you leave the dealer, you suddenly start seeing those cars everywhere. This is because you programmed your RAS that type of car was important to you. This is why goal setting, affirmations, manifestation and even prayer work. They focus the unconscious mind on seeking solutions. This can help to increase productivity and ultimately lead to success in life and business. You can never achieve what you do not believe you can achieve, so optimism and confidence go hand in hand to create opportunities. Some will fail but others will become big things.
Check out my blog with hundreds of posts and articles based on 30+ years as an entrepreneur, and also my 40 courses on entrepreneurship and scaling here: https://entrepreneurshipu.com/ including The CEO Boot Camp which has trained thousands of CEOs from 40+ countries since 2004.
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