Can You Teach an “Old Dog” New Tricks?

Business Leader Post, June 6, 2013

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

Yes you can!

The entrepreneurial personality is a dogged one. The word “no” does not mean the same to an entrepreneurial personality as it does to you or me. What it means to him or her is that this way isn’t working, and s/he has to find another way.

Although there is no research to support it, anecdotal evidence suggests that the presence of ADHD is higher in the entrepreneurial personality than in the average population. Entrepreneurs have a hard time adjusting to structures created by others, so they frequently leave and/or don’t survive in bureaucratic systems. Consequently, they develop their own that make sense to them. Their systems are generally creative and effective. Underneath their sometimes confusing and curious behavior lies a very powerful intellect, one that is less conceptual and more intuitive and emotional.

The first step to teaching “new tricks” to entrepreneurial personalities is to address their emotional side head on by asking questions. Answering those questions may be the first time they have articulated why they do what they do. The process forces them to make explicit what has until then been implicit in how they run their family and business.

You can then take their stories and present it back to them in a way that they understand, since you are reflecting their thinking and logic. You then have the opportunity to introduce additional logic to the system by appealing to the same intellectual process that you have just sent them through.

The next and biggest step for them is to have their intellect override their emotional responses to daily situations. Once they understand this concept, they do it because their goals and drive for being successful, along with their intelligence, allows them to change their behavior.

I was working with a father and three sons. The father understood that his sons had to pick the next CEO. We all knew that the middle son was the most talented, and the oldest son was not competent. We prepped the father for the meeting, and he understood that his role was to keep silent. They chose the middle son. I looked at the father who had remained silent and saw that his lower lip was bleeding.

P.S.  I have found the entrepreneurial personality in many generations of a family owned business, not just in the founder. I have seen it from the second generation as far down as the sixth. The latest thinking is that the entrepreneurial spirit can be passed down. Hence the current term, “entrepreneurial families.”  How that occurs is a discussion for another column.