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Friday, April 29, 2016

The Grit Factor in Business

Over the last few years, there has been much made of “grit” as being an important factor in an individual’s success. Psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania defines psychological grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.”

For years, we have talked about athletes or soldiers with grit. Now, it is taking a more prominent place in discussion of the business world. Success books have often touted IQ, natural talent and social intelligence as keys to success. Yet, people with grit appear to be different. They somehow find a way to create their own future regardless of obstacles.

The world is full of talented people. Yet, few really succeed. Many have great promise and an almost instinctive skill at certain fields. They are not lazy but do not throw themselves headlong in to the project. To me, they just do not love it enough and are not willing to devote the time and energy to break through the pack and stand out.

Grit is what sets many successful people apart in the business world. The best definition that I have seen from several sources is: “Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in an effort toward very long-term goals. It equips individuals to pursue especially challenging aims over years and even decades.”

People with grit seem to be content to pursue something against all odds. They seem to love what they are doing, do not complain and are flexible when setbacks occur. Senior managers often tell me that their favorite employees are those with grit. You cannot spot that in interviews--it shows itself on the job and may take a while to make itself evident. Some years back, I was involved in a new business pitch that involved three offices of a company. We worked like hell to put together a great pitch and it was genuinely good. The business went elsewhere. One of my colleagues, whom many would consider a tough guy, was depressed for weeks. Another associate, told me after a beer, “Okay, we did not get it. Next month, we have prospect X.” Several days later, we all met in tough guy’s office. He was still ranting about the lost business. As we left, my gritty partner said, “Can you believe how Mr. Big is still sucking his thumb over the loss. Let’s move on.” And, we did!

People with grit are fierce competitors. My best example from sports is the legendary golfer, Ben Hogan. He came from a tough background in Texas. Allegedly, his father committed suicide in front of eight year old Ben. Many said that made him quiet and introspective. A small man, he struggled to make it on the PGA Tour. He had an incurable hook and had to crawl back in shame to Fort Worth three times flat-broke after unsuccessful attempts to make a living as a pro golfer. Finally, after more practice than anyone in his era, he straightened out his drives and began to win. Then, a tragic car accident almost cost him his life. Doctors initially doubted that he would walk again. That did not stop Ben. He came back to win a total of nine PGA majors and, in 1953, he won the Masters, British Open and the US Open. Walking was painful but he never gave up. When asked what his secret was, he said simply, “It is in the dirt.” In other words, practice. Late in his life I saw a TV interview where he said he just loved to practice.

Some have grit and quietly have great success. I met a man over 30 years ago who asked me about my philosophy of investing. We talked over a long lunch. He told me that he purchased utilities--electric, gas, water and telephone. His rules were only buy those that raise their dividends each year and only add when their price has dropped 20% or more. He told me years later that he stopped talking to people about it as they told him he was too conservative. Well, he missed the dot.com crash and even in the 2008-2009 debacle, his dividend income continued to rise. Today, he sits on a mini-empire of utilities and sleeps soundly. You will never see his name in the press as he does not own more than 5% of any publicly traded company. He lives in modest elegance but is low key about everything he does. He stubbornly stayed the course for three decades and besides his wife, the IRS, and a few friends such as I, no one knows of his spectacular success.

The day we first had lunch, he asked me what my favorite book was. I was mildly embarrassed and told him that it was “The Little Engine that Could.” He laughed and said “I like that one, too, but my favorite is The Tortoise and the Hare.”

If you meet someone or hire something who has authentic grit, follow them. You are very likely to benefit.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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