When country singer Tim McGraw sang, "Always be humble and kind," his lyrics led to a hit song. It's also good advice if you want to make a winning startup pitch.
A recent study in the Academy of Management finds that entrepreneurs who show humility are nearly twice as likely to get funded. In short, humble entrepreneurs are attractive to investors and teams.
The researchers behind the study recently shared the details with me. Laurent Vilanova, a professor of management at the University of Lyon, says that the popular image of an assertive, boastful entrepreneur who swaggers into a room doesn't match the personality type of people who win over investors.
In fact, the 57 venture capitalists (VCs) in the study said that ambitious entrepreneurs who do not show humility come across as arrogant, overconfident, and stubborn--not the type of people investors were interested in backing.
So what does it mean to show humility? Follow what I call the 3 L's: listen, learn, lead.
Listen to feedback.
Humble entrepreneurs listen to feedback from others who have relevant experience. And they are willing to accept and act on that feedback.
One VC in Vilanova's study put it this way: "The first question that I ask myself when I meet an entrepreneur is whether he/she is capable of listening and following advice. If not, I know I cannot work with them, whatever the project or their other qualities."
This observation is consistent with what I've heard from venture capitalists where I live in Silicon Valley, as well as hiring managers and CEOs.
When I was writing The Apple Experience, the first book to pull back the curtain on the Apple retail store, I interviewed senior hiring managers who admitted they often throw in a question that is nearly impossible to answer.
An overly confident job candidate will come up with an answer--usually the wrong one. A humble candidate--the kind of person Apple wants to hire--is more likely to admit they don't know the answer, but they'd like to find out so they can do their job better.
Humility is not a weak trait, according to the study. Instead, it takes a strong, confident person to admit when they don't know something and are willing to listen to another perspective.
Learn it all.
One reason why VCs admire humble entrepreneurs is because those individuals are more coachable, a quality that is increasingly important in a range of fields.
In early-stage startups, especially, investors take an active role in guiding the company. They spend countless hours with founders and teams--and expect to encounter failures, setbacks, and hurdles.
Here's how VCs spot a coachable entrepreneur from an arrogant personality. According to the study, a humble entrepreneur would make a statement like this during a pitch: "I admit there are still some uncertainties about the sustainability of our business model and our capacity to monetize our offer."
The arrogant entrepreneur would say: "Personally, I believe in the sustainability of our business plan and our capacity to quickly start making money out of our offer."
Arrogant entrepreneurs feel like they know it all. They're not coachable or willing to learn from setbacks.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella once said he looks for "learn-it-alls" and avoids "know-it-alls" in new hires. Why? The world is simply too complicated a place to think you're ever done learning. Smart investors know it and look for people willing to learn.
Lead with humility.
The results of the entrepreneurship study confirms what other research finds among the most admired corporate leaders.
According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has spent 50 years studying and writing about leadership, humility is a key trait that separates great leaders from bad ones.
Goodwin says leaders who make a difference are confident and optimistic, but they know what they don't know. As a result, they surround themselves with people who make up for their weaknesses.
Humility, says Goodwin, is having the courage to recognize your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses.
The secret to winning people over is to show confidence and humility. It's not an easy balance to strike, and that's why few entrepreneurs are successful at building winning teams.
Show some humility and you'll stand apart.