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Younger Siblings, Better Entrepreneurs?

Admit it: You've taken personality surveys and tried to figure out whether you and your romantic partner are "birth order compatible." If we do it in our personal lives, why not take personality type into account when we're thinking about our business skills? Ben Dattner, a business consultant and professor at New York University,, thinks we should.

Dattner, whose doctorate is in industrial and organizational psychology, spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist a Karen E. Klein about how navel-gazing can sometimes bring clarity to more concrete goals -- like growing a company. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Corporations have increasingly adopted psychological tools, like personality testing, through their human resources departments. But smaller companies probably less often take the time to evaluate their leaders or employees psychologically. Why is it important to do so?

In our personal lives, we spend time thinking about ourselves and our friends and how our personalities help or hurt us in various areas. Given how important people think things like personality type and birth order are to their personal lives, why not extend that to the workplace? If nothing else, it's an interesting way to have a conversation about personality.

And when you're contemplating going into business, or expanding your business, or hiring a partner or a manager, it helps predict certain strengths and weaknesses and shows you where you'll probably need help filling in the gaps.

For instance, are you more extroverted or shy? Authoritarian or democratic? Do you accept the status quo or enjoy a challenge? Before you start a company, it's important to ask these questions. Or if you're already in business, you can build on your strengths and remedy your weaknesses. You may need to practice shoring up your confidence, or you may need to delegate more. You can seek out partners or collaborators who have some of the attributes you lack.

You've studied birth order and how it ties in to personality type extensively. How does that relate to entrepreneurship?

I studied this in graduate school and have posted some conclusions on my Web site. What I learned is that there is a link between birth order and personality type. There are things that tend to be easy for you if you're a first-born, say, or difficult for you if you're a second-born.

Which slot in the birth-order sequence makes for the most successful entrepreneurs?

It's not that cut and dried. There are positives and negatives -- and examples of successful business people -- from all the places in the birth-order spectrum. For instance, first-born entrepreneurs tend to be more extroverted and confident than their younger siblings.

In a business where somebody needs to maintain a high PR profile, you could imagine that it might be easier if you're naturally extroverted and confident. Especially if you'll be called on to talk to the media as the public face of your company. First-borns also tend to be more assertive and authoritarian, dominant and inflexible. They're good at executing a plan, following it, and driving others to follow it in a disciplined way. Conformist, task-oriented, disciplined, and concerned with getting things done right -- all these traits are naturally found in first-borns.

All those sound like leadership qualities that would be helpful for business owners. What about the downside of first-borns?

They tend to be concerned about and fearful of losing their position or rank. So, they might find it threatening to bring on partners, or get defensive about admitting their own errors.

What about people who are the second kids in their families?

Second-borns have a lot of the classic entrepreneur personality traits: They're creative, risk-taking, flexible, and more likely to embrace new paradigms than first-borns are. They're also more relationship-focused, more concerned about fairness and justice, less academic and more interested in the international scene than their older siblings. They may drop out of college, like Bill Gates did, who is a second-born.

Does that mean second-borns are more likely to start their own businesses, given the risks involved?

Perhaps. But sometimes they're the ones who start a company, and then hire some disciplined, authoritarian first-borns to come in and turn their creative ideas into a reality. Second-borns, who often have a highly empathic nature, are often found in the service businesses, where relationships are crucial.

Have you assessed third-borns in the family tree?

Not specifically, but there is research on middle children. Because they've got siblings on either side -- younger and older -- they tend to be diplomatic, skilled at politics and negotiation, and they are peacemakers. Middle children are good at mediation and alternative dispute resolution, for instance.

And then there are only children, who don't have to deal with siblings when they're young. They are more inclined to do something by themselves than to delegate. They might have a hard time in business with the collaboration and sharing and delegation tasks. They do tend to be high-achievers, however, and very good students.

All this is interesting, but really, how self-aware are most people?

There is something called the "self-enhancement bias." Most think they're smarter, better-looking, and more knowledgeable than other people. So people overestimate their abilities and attributes, and studies show most people don't have a good sense of their own strengths and weaknesses. There is an emotional intelligence presentation people can download for free -- it's a .pdf file -- from my Web site.

I think if people look into this, and are honest with themselves, it can help them spot areas where they're likely to have trouble with their businesses and head that off. For instance, someone may have a great entpreneurial vision, but be challenged when it comes to management. If they know that going in, they won't be surprised when it's time to hand over the company to a professional manager. Diagnosing your own strengths and making sure you spend time doing things you most value and enjoy will help increase your likelihood of success.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

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