Book Excerpt Part 5: Instinct

Instinct Excerpt Part 5: Thinking like an Entrepreneur

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The Critical 50 Percent: Doing Your Genetic Inventory

Continued from Page 4


None of these traits is an unmixed blessing. Depending on the situation, each can help, hurt, or simply be irrelevant. Even if you read the description of, say, Agreeableness and think it sounds like an admirable personality trait, it can also be problematic. Each one, taken to an extreme, can become a problem.

For example, Openness to Experience sounds like a great idea for an entrepreneur, right? But Openness without some balance of Conscientiousness can mean you leave a lot of things unfinished, distracted by whatever bright, new shiny idea crosses your path. Someone who is highly agreeable may automatically defer to others, unwilling to trust his or her own judgment. And Neuroticism may sound awful, but if you never feel anxiety, anger, or depression, you may seem a bit robotic to other people.

To understand how these traits can help you be successful, let’s think about the role of a CEO. I believe there are various types of CEO. Some are what I call “builder CEOs.” These are the folks who have the great idea, launch companies or divisions, shift those ol’ paradigms, and try to change the world. Chances are a builder CEO would probably be high on Openness to Experience. Then there are the “maintenance CEOs.” These are people whose strength is in brilliant execution rather than a novel strategy, and who are in established companies in relatively stable industries (if there is such a thing anymore). Their personality profile might be even stronger on Conscientiousness than a builder CEO’s. There are “turnaround CEOs”; I would guess their traits are probably closer to those of the builder CEO, since they need to choose a new course for the enterprise.

Each can be successful at the right time in the right place—if there’s a good match between personality and opportunity. A maintenance CEO in a company that really needs a builder CEO can leave the company trailing its competitors. A builder CEO can get so caught up in moving forward that the core business gets neglected. A turnaround CEO would probably get bored at a company that doesn’t demand Herculean efforts to succeed.

Another thing to remember about your answers is that how you behave is affected not only by individual traits but by your combination of them and how your environment affects their expression. For example, let’s say you feel angry much of the time—an important component of Neuroticism. If you’re also highly agreeable, you may not express that anger because you want to avoid confrontation. Without a good dose of Agreeableness, someone who’s highly conscientious may get too wedded to a rigid system and have difficulty accommodating other people’s needs. And of course, behavior can be modified by adopting specific behaviors and mental attitudes; it’s called learning (duh!).

The interactions remind me of the building blocks of chromosomes, which are organized in what are called “base pairs.” The nucleotides A and T are always paired with each other; so are C and G. In the same way, the human expression of two combinations of personality traits seem to be especially powerful.

* Openness/Conscientiousness: A good balance between the two of these allows you to be receptive to new ideas, yet gives you the discipline to pursue a goal. I scored high on Openness, but I’ve always remembered—and lived by—something my dad said to me: “Tom, never start anything that you don’t finish.” That’s the best advice he could have given me; it helped bring out my natural Conscientiousness.

* Extroversion/Agreeableness: Balancing these two gives you the energy that entrepreneurial thinking demands, but offsets it with the ability to work with others.

In each paired-up combination, one trait helps counteract the potential problems that a strong dose of the other trait can create. That’s why I call these two combinations Power Pairs. Just as base pairs are the building blocks of our DNA, Power Pairs are the building blocks of success.

Entrepreneurial thinking can benefit from certain aspects of all four of these qualities. However, most people won’t score equally highly on all of them. Knowing which ones affect you most powerfully helps you understand which ones you need to balance in another way. For example, many people who start their own businesses are high on Openness, but they need to partner with someone who can supply the Conscientiousness required for operational effectiveness.

The trait that presents the greatest challenges for thinking like an entrepreneur is Neuroticism. If you’re naturally anxious, you may have difficulty taking risks. If you’re easily upset and lack the ability to rebound from the punches life throws, you will have more difficulty persevering in the face of obstacles. And being easily overwhelmed by a negative outlook or emotions—for example, when a potential customer says “Not interested!”—makes it more difficult to stay on forward focus and spot new opportunities. If you scored high on Neuroticism, you may be saying to yourself about now, “Well, I should just give up; it’s hopeless.” Keep on reading. There are habits and structures you can develop for yourself that can help you tackle challenges that might otherwise swamp you.


Now what? What if you’ve taken the test and you don’t like your results? If you scored low on Extroversion, does that mean you might as well give up and hide out in your one-hundred-square-foot noisy cubicle forever?

No way. Genes aren’t fate. If genes were all there were to it, you could stop reading this book now. Even people with great genes can’t be successful if they don’t do something with what they’ve got. And great genes are no guarantee of success. No one ever got to the corner office by attaching a map of their DNA to their résumé. You have to know how to use your own combination to your best advantage.

The way a gene delivers its instructions is called its expression. A gene produces a result only when it gets expressed. How the gene is expressed determines how those genetic instructions get implemented. Events can interfere with or promote that expression.

Though it’s not a formal scientific process, I like to think of personality traits as functioning in much the same way. How a personality trait gets expressed makes a difference in the impact it has on your ability to succeed. And just as there are things that can promote or interfere with genetic messages, so there are behaviors, attitudes, and techniques that can make the most of what you start out with. In upcoming chapters, we’ll talk in more detail about those behaviors and attitudes. Using them to unlock the hidden power of your own set of personality traits can help you overcome the challenges we all face in thinking like entrepreneurs.

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Copyright © 2005 by Thomas L. Harrison

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