What makes an entrepreneur successful? Anthony Tjan, CEO and managing partner of venture capital firm Cue Ball, interviewed company founders and top executives to learn their secrets, and discovered that the best leaders embrace four key traits: hearts, smarts, guts, and luck. “All four of these traits are required for success at some level,” says Tjan. But most people are dominant in one or two areas – and understanding your tendencies can be a major competitive advantage: “You really need self-awareness to understand the biases behind how you make decisions in business and in life.”
In his new book Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck: What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur and Build a Great Business, written with co-authors Richard Harrington and Tsun-Yan Hsieh, Tjan says successful business-builders can lead with any of the four traits. (To see where you land, take the Entrepreneurial Aptitude Test, developed by Tjan and his colleagues.) But he cautions that smarts, lauded as a virtue from elementary school on, “is often overrated. You need a baseline of smarts, but most people have that.” When it comes to entrepreneurship, it’s easy to overthink and create elaborate spreadsheets and projections that never materialize. “Of the businesses [in our survey] that successfully exited,” Tjan says, “less than 30% started with a formal business plan.” Adaptability matters a lot more than “book smarts.”
But while smarts is sometimes valued too much, an area that’s often overlooked when it comes to business success is luck. Why focus on it, the thinking goes, when you can’t control it? But Tjan argues that in some cases, you really can create your own luck. “Luck is often mislabeled in business,” he says. “In many instances, when we talk to people who describe themselves as lucky, it’s really their outlook toward relationships that helps them create the circumstances for luck, and their attitude helps them take advantage of it.”
So how can you build your own lucky network? Tjan recommends adopting three attitudes: humility (so you’re open to new people and learning from them), curiosity (because genuine interest creates connections), and optimism (which sparks energy to dive into new opportunities). Of course, it’s important for professionals to think about the relationships they’d like to develop and seek to cultivate those connections. But there are limitations to that strategic approach, says Tjan: “There are plenty of times when you’re going to conferences or cocktail parties, and you’re thinking about where there’s a fit [in making a connection]. You’re trying to quickly assess and screen value, and we all fall prey to that.”
Instead, he says, it often pays to chill out a little. “People who are laid-back and luck-driven are the ones who discover the wallflowers,” he says, “and they benefit disproportionately later in life from some of those relationships.” After all, not every future success is obvious: “There are many great leaders who, if you met them at a cocktail party, you’d just skip over because they have a different personality type.” If you have a tendency to talk to the same types of people, one way to break your habit is, following the example of one self-described “lucky” individual interviewed by British psychologist Richard Wiseman, to only speak with people wearing a particular color. Seeking out the folks in pink or green is likely to yield an interesting cross-section.
Says Tjan, “Lucky people have an openness, an authenticity, and a generosity toward embracing people – without overthinking ‘what’s the value exchange’? It’s just, that’s an interesting person. It might be someone working in a restaurant, someone in an unrelated industry, or a taxi driver, and 10 years later when that person becomes somehow critical, people say, that’s so lucky – they happened to meet someone in college or they were on the same boat with them.”
But luck alone doesn’t explain it. Of the leaders they surveyed, 25% were luck-dominant – “and the other 75%, if they were on that same boat, next to that same person, probably wouldn’t have realized that opportunity because of their attitude,” says Tjan. “They probably wouldn’t have embraced that moment.”
You can become a successful entrepreneur or business leader, regardless of your dominant perspective. But all of us could benefit from a little more luck. Do you consider yourself lucky? Are there ways you’ve been able to increase your luck? How did you do it?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on August 6, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.