By Tom Frank, CFE Executive Director
I’m going to start off with a little confession. The people who know and love me – specifically my family, the CFE staff, Student Group leaders and random service providers – all say I can be difficult and demanding sometimes. I tend to expect the absolute best in all people and in the performance of any task. In fact, when I published my previous blog post the first person to text me was the mother of my children. Her comment read simply “I loved the post, but there is a grammar error in the last sentence Mr. Perfect.”
I love having the best and being the best. But does my quest for perfection in seeking a better way, a faster way, an easier way to do just about anything make me better? Absolutely not. Sometimes I come up with really cool solutions to problems by stubbornly refusing not to quit until I find an answer. But sometimes, being a self-described perfectionist makes me an unreasonable pain in the butt.
The dominance of both of these personality traits is part of what makes me an entrepreneur.
Recently, I attended two different meetings that caused me to reflect on these traits in myself. After the first meeting, the moderator commented, “I really admire your passion,” and I left that room feeling good about myself. The next day, following the second meeting, one of my trusted lieutenants said, “you were really intense today.” I knew he didn’t mean this as a compliment.
At the first meeting I was patient and attentive and tried to be a good listener. I contributed to the discussion when I felt like I had something relevant to add to the conversation. I participated in this meeting, but did not run it. I was crystal clear in my point of view, but I didn’t present it as the ONLY solution.
I was “passionate.”
At the second meeting, I was definitely in charge. I was also not in a great mood and suffering from a lousy night of sleep. I thought I was compensating adequately for how bad I was feeling physically, but clearly I failed. I was demanding and forceful and started many sentences with the phrase “I want…”
I was “really intense.” And that’s bad.
There are many successful entrepreneurs who are also “passionate” and “really intense.” Names like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk come to mind immediately. These rock stars have built empires and received many accolades for their unwavering commitment to follow their vision and realize unthinkable success.
But sometimes, in great success we can be guilty of celebrating the passionate behavior and excusing all of the less desirable intense behaviors. Must an entrepreneur possess the ideal blend of personality attributes where he or she knows when to be a passionate contributor and when to be a demanding perfectionist?
In a word, yes.
Recipe for Success
Almost anyone who seeks to be a catalyst for change has to eventually draw other people to their vision. He or she has to be committed and persuasive to attract talent, funding and media attention.
Ideal entrepreneurial personality attributes are often referred to as “soft skills.” Are you friendly and open around other people or are you an introvert who hates looking other people in the eye? Do you live for the thrill of addressing a crowd or do you dread going into a room full of strangers? (I dread it.) Your soft skills, in essence, are how you present yourself to and interact with the world. For some entrepreneurs, soft skills will be more important than what they create or build.
Why? Many people create similar solutions to problems or better ways to do things, but the individual with the best technology doesn’t always end up winning the market or mindshare of customers.
I was the Chief Operating Officer for the first streaming media company to be valued at several billion dollars. The company is still around, but you probably haven’t heard of it. The technology should have been YouTube, and it’s not. One important reason the company didn’t grow into a YouTube or Netflix is because the founder lacked many critical soft skills. It was his way or the highway. Unfortunately, some really talented people chose the “highway” rather than work in that environment, and many went on to launch incredible technologies that could have stayed in-house.
This is why you often hear Venture Capitalists make funding decisions based on “evaluating the team.” If the folks writing big checks don’t think the founders have the ability to communicate effectively with one another, customers, and future employees, they are much less likely to invest. A company has more potential if its leader is someone who customers trust and who people want to lead them.
So, how do you successfully develop the right soft skills? It’s different for every person. If you want to be a great entrepreneur you will have to figure out the recipe that best and most authentically represents who you are and what you care about. Then, continue to improve upon that recipe as you grow and change as a person, as you get access to more “ingredients” or life experiences.
More important, you will need to figure out which skills you don’t have and where to find them, and which ones you will never have. Find ways to compensate for those lacking flavors.
Act it out
I am often told, for example, that I am a really solid public speaker. Confession #2: I hate public speaking. I truly dread it. But if you didn’t know this about me, you would think I was born with a microphone in my hand. In fact, I still get physically anxious when I have to speak in front of any audience of more than 5 people.
At an early point in my career, I was smart enough to realize I didn’t have the soft skill of speaking in public and that I needed it to be successful. Over time, I figured out a way to fake this “ingredient.” I show people how to fake skills all the time – the good old “fake-it-til-you-make-it” strategy. This is not an inherently bad thing to do, unless it involves being inauthentic or operating heavy machinery.
To be clear, I prefer to encourage people to practice and acquire soft skills rather than pretend to have them. But often, acting out what its like to have those skills repeatedly over time can lead to them becoming habit. Select an entrepreneur you feel exudes confidence, or the skill you are lacking, and act like them. Imagine you’re portraying them as an actor in a movie. As you continue to do this, soon you won’t have to “act” anymore. In my case, I copied the easygoing speaking style of my entrepreneurial hero, Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson, and I over time I became a better speaker.
Strength in others
If you lack a soft skill that is never going to happen regardless of who or what you pretend to be, then surround yourself with smart people who own the skills you don’t have. It’s an interesting life hack that can work quite well, especially when building a team. (Team building is going to be another post later in the year).
If you think you may be lacking a key personality trait to be a successful entrepreneur, don’t let fear hold you back from following your dream. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and find a team that compliments you and each other.
Sometimes it is difficult to identify what makes us passionate or intense, or both. My veteran team at CFE and I are here to help. We know what we’re talking about, because we do this for each other.
CFE has many practical ways to train you and allow you to practice your soft skills. I have a few tricks up my sleeve as well to show you how to improvise for what you feel like you are lacking. To start, it is far more likely that something you don’t feel or see in yourself today I will see quite clearly in you (we tend to be our own worst critics).
I’m here to help you find your own perfect recipe, or get in tune with your own “soft side”…just be cautious on those “really intense” days.