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How successful business owners approach setbacks

One of the defining characteristics of entrepreneurs is their willingness to take calculated risks and to rebound when those risks don’t work out. Yet even business owners who have successfully navigated years of crises can freeze up, get fatigued to the point of inaction, or make bad decisions in the moment they suddenly lose their best customer, get hit with a major lawsuit or find out the critical shipment they needed is hung up in a dockworkers’ strike.

Having seen my business-owner clients come through the Great Recession in the face of substantial challenges, I noticed several defining characteristics distinguishing those who are thriving today from those who continue to struggle (or in one case went out of business).

The first success attribute is that they “own the problem.” They don’t blame the market, the government, their customers, their strategic partners or their employees. They take responsibility. The Center for Creative Leadership did a fascinating study of up-and-coming business leaders and examined what differentiated those who went on to continuing success from those who derailed. The most significant factor was not intelligence, skill, educational background or experience. It was the way they reacted to setbacks.

The managers who stagnated, got passed over for promotions or were fired blamed others for the problem, tried to cover it up and couldn’t move on by learning from the situation. Those who succeeded took responsibility for the problem, admitted their error, offered solutions and learned from the experience.

Current research on high achievers supports a second attribute of success I’ve seen in my consulting practice. When confronted with a problem or challenge, most people analyze the situation by looking at external factors, reviewing data and assessing technical factors. Truly successful people go a step further and challenge their own beliefs, assumptions and behaviors.

Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Chris Argryis calls this “double-loop learning,” which involves self-examination as well as business analyses. Because today’s business environment requires a constant reinvention of our goals and the ways we pursue them, leaders who utilize “double-loop” learning are more nimble, are more likely to find creative opportunities and prove more resilient when dealing with failures.

Finally, a third difference in dealing with setbacks is good, old-fashioned grit. Whether you call it tenacity or perseverance, several recent studies suggest this trait plays a more important role in success that had been previously thought. In fact, it is as significant as intelligence and other talents in contributing to achievement. Focusing on the long-term goal and pursuing it with determination can help get you past the short-term obstacles.

Business owners will forever confront setbacks. No matter how brilliant a planner and leader you are, you are going to run into walls. It’s the way you approach them that will determine whether you go over them, around them or smash headlong into them.

Eric Gundlach is the president of The Gundlach Group, LLC and deals with strategic transitions. He can be reached at eric@thegundlachgroup.com.

About Eric Gundlach