11 'Habits of Successful Business Leaders' You Probably Haven't Heard Before

11 'Habits of Successful Business Leaders' You Probably Haven't Heard Before

By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire
9-minute read

In short:

  • Entrepreneurs seek out habits with a proven track record of producing success. Much of the advice they receive, however, is stale and lacks specific action.

  • Grow Wire examined the habits of legendary business leaders for practices we haven’t heard about often, then checked those against research and opinions from other business experts.

  • From batching your schedule to reviewing a shortlist of goals before bed, the 11 habits below promise progress for both you and your team. And you can start practicing them today.


If your goal is to become a successful entrepreneur or advance a corporate career, then it's wise to study the habits of legendary business leaders. But instead of cookie-cutter habits (Get a good night’s sleep! Exercise! Create a routine!), you need actionable habits that produce real results. 

The 11 habits below belong to some undeniably impressive business leaders, and all are backed by either other business experts, scientific research or both. Consider applying them to your life if you’re looking for career momentum or to take your company to the next level.


1. Become a “deep practitioner” in a business skill. 

Gary Vaynerchuk, the chairman of VaynerX and CEO of VaynerMedia, recommends going deep in a particular business skill until you become an expert. An award-winning internet personality, he’s sent each of his tweets -- which now number over 170,000 -- himself.  When he was growing his agency VaynerMedia, a deep knowledge of the social media landscape gleaned from firsthand experience gave him a huge advantage, Vaynerchuk wrote on his blog. It allowed him to provide exceptional service to clients, which now include corporations like Chase and AB InBev.

As a business leader, developing your own specific expertise can help your company stand out from the competition and allow it to charge premiums for goods and services, business coach David Finkel writes. Most importantly, expertise allows you to deeply understand the problems you encounter and craft better solutions for your customers.

Gary Vaynerchuk credits the success of his media agency to his deep, firsthand knowledge of social media.


2. Audit your 7 p.m. - 2 a.m. 

Here’s another hint from Vaynerchuk: The time between the end of the workday and when you fall asleep is the white space in which to further your career. Vaynerchuk cites staying late at the office or “building out your cooking blog” as examples of smart ways to use this time. Whether you’re improving your existing career or starting a new venture, the hours after your “day job” ends are the prime time to develop value. 

“Shark Tank” investor Daymond John advises keeping your day job while launching a new business, he told Inc. The logistics may play well for your brain: Findings from a 2011 study published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning indicate that creativity may be higher in your “off-peak” hours

  

3. Take a “fake commute.” 

Develop a daily habit that gives you the time and space to do your most creative thinking. For Spanx founder Sarah Blakely, this means driving around in the car. She takes a “fake commute” that allows her to drive around Atlanta for a full 45 minutes before getting into work, she told CNBC. After all, she came up with the name Spanx while driving.

Similarly, you can use creativity-boosting activities to bring in game-changing business ideas. Try physical exercise, getting into nature, doodling or taking a power nap, all of which are proven to boost creativity. Business icons like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are said to rely on simply going for a walk

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4. Batch your week.

For Blakely, Monday is “think/creative” day, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she meets with her product and creative teams. Wednesday is for meetings, and she uses Friday as needed, she told Inc. 

Other entrepreneurs have also found productivity in batching activities. Modular Robotic CEO Erik Schweikardt groups all his meeting into a single day of the week. Anna Wood, CEO of Brains Over Blonde, batches her week into time blocks for writing, emailing, running errands, housework and more. 

Research shows that maintaining undivided attention on a task can increase productivity, as switching between tasks interrupts the brain’s information-gathering and absorbing process. The American Psychological Association notes the mental costs associated with switching tasks can eat up 40% of your productive time. Achieving a state of deep work, as explained in Georgetown professor Cal Newport’s book of the same title, is a better alternative.

Spanx founder Sarah Blakely reserves two days per week for meetings with her product and creative teams.


5. Listen for as many minutes as you speak.

Richard Branson doesn’t think he has all the answers. The business magnate is constantly listening and learning, his daughter Holly told CNBC. It wouldn’t be surprising if Branson’s desire for feedback were tied to his life goal of making the planet and its people better, happier and healthier.

This habit of listening can have massive benefits in an organization. In the Harvard Business Review, researchers Guy Itzchakov and Avraham M. Kluger summarize research that suggests good listening results in more trust between employer and employee, higher job satisfaction and more creativity. According to the authors, there are six keys to being a good listener: Give 100% of your attention; don't interrupt; limit judgements; avoid imposing your solutions; ask good questions; and reflect on your listening skills after each conversation. 


6. When ideas arise, write them down. Then, take action.

Branson has practiced this simple yet effective habit since childhood. Considering the Virgin Group consists of over 60 businesses serving 53 million people and over $16 billion in annual revenue, it has clearly served him well. 

Psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews has done extensive research on goal-setting. Her 2015 study found that writing goals down versus simply thinking about them leads to a higher rate of accomplishment. Matthews’ study also found that adding action commitments, sharing goals with a friend and providing regular progress updates further increases the rate of accomplishment. 

Richard Branson has long espoused the merits of writing down notes, advice and goals.


7. Read everything.

Legendary startup founders like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Elon Musk take reading very seriously. Gates reads 50 books a year. Buffet estimates he spends 80% of his workday reading and thinking. Musk is said to have read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica by age 9 and claims he learned to build rockets via reading.

It’s no secret that reading catalyzes continuous learning. And broader knowledge can directly produce advantages in your personal and professional life: Mark Cuban, who reads up to three hours a day, credits the habit as his main method of staying competitive in the ever-changing technology industry. He takes in “everything [he] can,” from newspapers to email newsletters to, at one point in his career, computer programming manuals, Goalcast reports.


8. Ruthlessly prioritize.

Arianna Huffington, the founder of HuffPost and CEO of Thrive Global, touts the importance of ruthless prioritization in her business activities. According to Huffington, relentless prioritization means “relentlessly asking ourselves what’s essential to be completed today,” eliminating distractions until it’s done and refusing to worry if “nonessential” tasks must wait until tomorrow.

Huffington notes that this type of prioritization allows her to call an official end to the workday, making time for out-of-office activities. While most of us innately know these activities are critical to happiness, research confirms that cultivating a life outside of work contributes to satisfaction both outside and inside the office.

Arianna Huffington "ruthlessly prioritizes," allowing for out-of-office activities like hanging with her daughters.


9. Review your goals before you start work and before you go to bed.

“Shark Tank” investor John doesn’t just set goals; he reads them twice a day. The founder of apparel company Fubu reads over his goals at night and in the morning, he told Business Insider. John’s list includes short-term and long-term goals, with specific action items to help him achieve his objectives. 

Scientifically speaking, your brain responds to repetition. Neural pathways strengthen based on what you think, feel, act and do. Reviewing your goals and desires daily will strengthen new neural pathways and influence your outlook on your career, success and goal achievement.   

"Shark Tank" investor Daymond John reviews his written goals twice daily.


10. Trust your gut. 

When pitching the idea to sell coffee drinks -- instead of just beans -- in Starbucks stores, former CEO Howard Schultz was courageous in his conviction that Americans would pay more for high-quality coffee and see the coffee shop as a communal gathering space, much like they had in Europe. Trusting his gut allowed Schultz to plant the seed for his Starbucks empire, which today has over 22,000 stores worldwide. 

A gut feeling is what scientists call a predictive processing framework, a way of sense-making during which the brain makes judgments based on stored knowledge, memories, emotions derived from experience and more. Although we must assess the validity of our assumptions and be aware of cognitive bias, it’s important to realize that our gut instincts do indeed have basis in reality.   


11. Focus on what’s going right. Then, inspire your teams to tackle problems. 

As CEO of companies including Hewlett-Packard and eBay, Meg Whitman helped companies scale and inspired morale by focusing on what the businesses were doing right before addressing their faults.

"The tendency when you come in from outside is to prove yourself by finding what's going wrong," Whitman said during a talk at Stanford University in 2006. 

Instead, Whitman recommends focusing on positives, learning about company culture and building morale prior to addressing larger organizational issues. 

These concepts apply whether or not you’re new to your role: Rewarding a team for making progress is more motivating than threatening punishment if they mess up, neuroscience professor Tali Sharot writes in the Harvard Business Review. 

When she started as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Meg Whitman intentionally focused on the business's positives.


🌱 The bottom line

Legendary business leaders used actionable habits, not magic fairy dust, to achieve and maintain their status. The habits follow a general arc: First, ensure you’re at the top of your game by becoming a “deep practitioner” in a business skill, auditing your evenings and batching your week. Then, extend this leadership to others by listening well and focusing on positives. Ensure you’re constantly growing by reading and making space for creative ideas to appear. Write down each new goal, review it frequently, ruthlessly prioritize its action steps, and trust your gut in the execution.