The traits of success

What makes a successful businessperson?

Many people have studied this question. Successful people have been surveyed. The question has been asked thousands of times over the course of years. As you review the research, the answer — in many cases — boils down to three areas: knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

When asked which of these three are the most important for truly successful people, the answer always comes down to a combination of skills and attitudes. In fact, the common conclusion is that only 15% of success is attributable to knowledge, whereas 85% factor is that combination of skills and attitudes. Here is some further explanation.


Let’s look at doctors, lawyers, IT professionals, sales professionals, bankers, accountants, engineers, manufacturing experts, educators, etc. In every case it’s obvious that a critical knowledge base is a prerequisite for success. A doctor without med school, an IT professional who doesn’t know how to write code, a sales professional who does not have a firm grasp of product knowledge — all three would not even have the necessary foundation for success in their respective professions. However, this knowledge alone does not equate to real success. It’s more like the ticket to get into the door of success. Without the knowledge base, you will not make it to the success plateau. However, once you arrive, it is not your knowledge alone that will propel you to success. You need both skills and attitudes.


Many years ago, John D. Rockefeller said, “The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee and I will pay more for that ability than any other under the sun.” Areas like handling conflict, motivating others, and delegating effectively are just a few of the skills under this headline.

Communication, whether it is being crisp and concise, effectiveness in front of a group, or listening at a deep level is also a skill mentioned in most of the research. In fact, if you’re going to be good at dealing with people, solid communication skills are a must.

Time management, goal setting, and sound reasoning are part of the success formula, as well. Successful people are the few who focus and then follow through.




The foundation attitude that supports all others is one of self-confidence. No matter how smart you are in the knowledge department, there will be many instances where self-confidence will be absolutely necessary to make a point or to dispute the conclusion of a peer. This is not to be confused with braggadocio or an inflated sense of self.

Self-motivation is also a common denominator. Successful people are not the type to do the minimum level of acceptable performance. They set the standard that others are striving to reach. There is a story about Tiger Woods practicing out in the rain before a tournament when all the other golfers were inside. When asked why, he said there was a good chance conditions would be wet the next day and he wanted to be ready.

Dale Carnegie said, “Enthusiasm was the little recognized secret to success.” He wasn’t just talking about the outward signs of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is staying late to finish a mission-critical project, making one more cold call after several rejections, even waking up at 3 a.m. to prepare for a big presentation. He said, “Give me two people of equal skill and knowledge, and I will always hire the one with more enthusiasm.”

The attitude of integrity is defined as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, or the state of being whole and undivided. In other words, it is an attitude of practicing what you preach. It brings to mind the Rotary International Four-Way Test:

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build good will and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

When added together, the three areas form a triangle with knowledge at the base and skills and attitudes making up the two sides — the “Triangle of Success.” Knowledge is the necessary foundation. The skills and attitudes are the real keys to business success. There is an old saying that sums this up perfectly: “It is not what you have [knowledge] that counts, it is what you do with what you have [skills and attitudes].”

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