The Biology Of Success

There are more than 150 companies in Omnicom’s Diversified Agency Services group. Virtually all of them were acquired over the past 20 years. Many of them are run by the people who started them. Add to that the number of companies we looked at but didn’t acquire, and it’s fair to say that DAS’s management has had an unusually high degree of exposure to entrepreneurialism, making us by experience, if not by training, experts on the entrepreneurial phenomenon.

Many business studies have shown that certain personality traits are common among successful entrepreneurs. Recent scientific literature indicates that as much as 50 percent of one’s personality—likes, dislikes, attitudes, predilections, outlook, mood—may reflect our genetic coding the same way we get our blood type, eye shape and hair color. Could it be that success in business is built into our biological structure?

I’ve been intrigued by this question for years, and not only because it’s important that DAS associate itself with “winners,” which, by and large, we have. On the day I took my first step into the business world, I did it from the cell-biology lab of a major university, where I was pursuing a post-graduate degree. And my business career is somewhat unusual since it includes a significant stint as an entrepreneur, starting, managing and ultimately selling a successful advertising agency.

Through it all, my academic training has given me a surprisingly (for a corporate type) scientific-method approach toward analyzing the world around me. Once a lab rat, always a lab rat.

Over the years I’ve observed that some people have an innovative bent—certain work habits, problem-solving skills and a tolerance for risk that together seem to contribute mightily to success in business. Given the evidence that so much about these traits is inborn, a case can be made that some people have an instinct for success.

One widely accepted model for assessing personality structure is called the “five-factor model,” or the “big five.” A handy mnemonic, first used by researchers at the National Institute of Aging, for remembering these traits is OCEAN, which stands for: openness to experience; conscientiousness; extroversion; agreeableness; and neuroticism.

There are numerous facets or subtraits under each of these main captions, and it is possible to take an inventory of one’s personality-trait holdings and see how they match with the character profile common to many entrepreneurs. This survey will tell you whether you have a head start on the road to success, but it’s more descriptive than predictive. Even though some of us may have been born with a genetic “advantage,” that only, if anything, makes success easier, not inevitable.

In fact, a comparison of one’s own profile with the one common to entrepreneurs can serve as a guide toward beneficial behavioral changes. For example, someone who shows a high degree of conscientiousness probably has an easy time controlling impulses that could interfere with achieving a goal. On the other hand, someone who scores lower, while he or she may be more likely to be spontaneous and free-spirited, may also be inconsistent and unreliable. From the point of view of business success, one end of this scale is obviously preferable to the other, but even people without an inborn drive can direct themselves toward goal achievement if they buy into the need to do so.

Serious research on the links between genetics and personality and between personality and business success is still in its early days, but it seems undeniable that such linkages exist. Understanding them can be profitable to an agency in many ways—in the ability to be and remain relevant to clients; to think or to allow others to think entreprenurially around a client’s business; and to foster insight into the brands and consumers we represent.

Perhaps some budding entrepreneur will crack the code and use it to predict who will succeed or, even better, show anyone with the urge to undertake an entrepreneurial challenge how to lever their inborn advantages and overcome inherited handicaps.