“The chief executive who knows his strengths and weaknesses as a leader is likely to be far more effective than the one who remains blind to them.” — John Adair

Passionate. Determined. Hardworking. Visionary. Competitive. Resourceful. Optimistic.

These are the often-noted key characteristics of successful entrepreneurs. Given the importance of entrepreneurship in creating innovation and jobs in our society, there has been much interest in and research into the inherent characteristics of successful entrepreneurs.

Whoever can find the secret sauce that explains the success of serial entrepreneurs has a potential advantage in finding ways to encourage these qualities in society in order to build the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovation.

I’ve written in the past about my favourite of these studies, “Five Minds for the Entrepreneurial Future.” It found that entrepreneurs possessed special cognitive abilities, referred to as the “five minds,” which included the abilities to recognize opportunity, to skillfully manage risks, to be extraordinarily resilient, to be especially action-oriented and to design a business, product or service by integrating many different facets of it seamlessly into a whole.

The skills most entrepreneurs lack

Bill Bonnstetter of Arizona-based TTI Success Insights recently shared the results of a new study of entrepreneurs called “The Skills Most Entrepreneurs Lack,” which measured 23 key traits of serial entrepreneurs and compared them with a control group of 17,000 working adults.

Where did serial entrepreneurs score high? No surprises here—traits including persuasion, leadership, personal accountability, goal orientation and interpersonal skills were notably higher in the entrepreneurs than in the control group.

More interesting are the skills in which entrepreneurs measured lower than the control group, notably: analytical problem solving, empathy, planning and organization, and self-management.

I thought, at first, that understanding the skills that entrepreneurs tend to lack would provide insight into how one might bolster these skills to better compete with other businesses. Interestingly, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the “lack” of these skills might also explain the success of entrepreneurs in the early days of their businesses, since being the sole founder of a venture involves being a jack-of-all-trades who can’t possibly be great at all things.

Let’s take a look at the skills that entrepreneurs are supposed to lack, according to the study.

Analytical problem solving

A lower score on analytical problem solving reflects the day-to-day realities of an entrepreneur. Lack of time and (often) lack of money mean that quick decisions must be made and that action is valued over “analysis paralysis.” This can often be a positive trait in the early days of a business when the entrepreneur must try different things and iterate quickly to find a product/market fit and to learn what works best in other areas of his or her business.

Entrepreneurs may view numbers and analysis as getting in the way of their vision and may be understandably skeptical of them. However, what works for a business in the beginning changes over time. As a business grows and more decisions need to be made, entrepreneurs can play to their strengths by focusing on their vision and mission, and shore up their weaknesses by bringing in skilled people to collect and analyze data for the growing number of decisions that need to be made.


The Startup Genome Report and other studies have found that the impact of an entrepreneur’s business on people and society as a whole is often a key motivator. However, this study suggests that a commitment to impact is often on more of an intellectual or market-driven level rather than on an entirely personal level.

Bill writes: “Entrepreneurs build things and solve problems for people… This is often, however, also tied to the entrepreneur receiving a return for their time and effort, which people with high empathy do not generally expect.”

Again, this is a useful trait to have during a company’s genesis: a laser focus on results and return in exchange for the hard work of the entrepreneur. However, since the greatest leaders are often notable because of their emotional intelligence and empathy, it will become necessary for successful entrepreneurs to balance the importance of their relationships (both inside and outside of their company) with their natural focus on results and return as their business grows.

Self-management, planning and organization

By the very nature of their work—that is, trying to do many projects at once and not having much help to do so—entrepreneurs often struggle with day-to-day self-management. They’re easily pulled away from small details to focus on larger, more critical company initiatives and goals. In fact, dealing with details might actually derail them from more important matters, so, once again, the skill that the study found lacking might actually be a strength for entrepreneurs who are beginning new ventures.

There simply isn’t enough time in the day to do everything that needs to be done and small details can hold you back. However, as their businesses grow, entrepreneurs are well advised to hire someone, as soon as they can afford to, to help them with day-to-day management and details so that they can continue to focus on the bigger picture themselves.

What it all means

The secret to success is playing to your strengths and being aware of and shoring up your weaknesses where appropriate. For some people, that might mean working on building up areas of weakness and for others it means bringing in people who have complementary skills. However, it also means knowing that circumstances will change and so will the skills that are required.

While not all entrepreneurs will lack the skills indicated in this study (and indeed we can argue that these so-called “lacking skills” are necessary in an entrepreneurial environment), those who find a reflection of themselves are now better equipped to recognize their strengths and weaknesses at different times in the evolution of their company and to find others who have complementary strengths to ensure the success of their businesses in the long term.

Keri Damen

Keri leads the strategic design, development, marketing and expansion of cutting edge business programs in the areas of entrepreneurship, innovation, marketing, HR, management and leadership at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. See more…