What is the Most Significant Characteristic that Defines Future Success?

During a business conference I attended a couple of years ago, the facilitator asked, “What is the biggest characteristic that contributes to future success?”

Think for a moment about how you would answer that question. Would you say intelligence? Strategic thinking? Vision or subject matter expertise? Why do you think you’ve gotten where you are?

The presenter suggested the number one trait people needed to succeed was “grit.”  This term, coined by American psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, refers to the passion and perseverance some people have to go after long-term goals, even when up against significant obstacles or setbacks. 

Grit, they explained, wasn’t just something we need in business, but something we need to cultivate in our children from an early age. As a parent, I know my instinct is often to protect my kids from this crazy world. But the presenter said we should be thinking instead about how we prepare our kids for the future. 

Instead of solving problems for our kids and running interference, we need to help them learn the inevitable lessons of failure and disappointment. We need to help them see why failure is a sign of courage. And we need them to learn how to cope with disappointment in a healthy way – better now when we’re right by their side than years from now when they’re out on their own.

Researchers can actually measure how grit contributes to achievement. For example, according to Duckworth’s studies, grit is an indicator of which cadets will make it through training at West Point – better than test scores and athletic ability. Grit can help predict who will graduate from University, who will make it in stressful jobs, and who will reach the highest ranks of leadership.

Business owners understand grit, even if they haven’t heard the term before. After all, what is entrepreneurship but the strength to strive for a big goal and to stick with something difficult? 

But the fact is, some organizations are grittier than others. Unfortunately, we’ve seen many businesses crumble under the pressure of the pandemic – an extraordinary hurdle indeed. And yet some businesses faced the last year and a half like they were just waiting for walls to run through.

Gritty organizations are willing to innovate and take risks. Their people will stick their necks out and say, “What if we tried this? Or this?” Gritty organizations believe that hard work can make things happen and challenges are an opportunity to learn. 

As business owners, we can try to hire for grit – targeting people with a track record of overcoming challenges, exceeding goals, and leaving roles to move forward. But we can also work to cultivate it on our existing team. 

We can encourage calculated risk taking and embrace failure as an inevitable part of growth. We can create time and resources for continual learning, and we can reward people for trying new things over status quo productivity. 

When challenges happen, we can’t treat our businesses like we treat our kids. We can’t just give it a hug or buy it an ice cream to make things better. 

Preparing our business for the future means teaching our teams to be adaptable. That way, when we find a roadblock in our path, we won’t give up on our goals, we’ll just find a new path forward.


Jim Friesen, MBA, CPA, CMA, CM&AA

Partner | M&A Advisor