It's a common joke: The reason I'm an entrepreneur is because I'm unemployable anywhere else.

Actually, corporate America should be clamoring to get you on board. According to a new study jointly produced by Springboard, an accelerator for women-led companies, and recruiting firm Korn Ferry, entrepreneurs --at least female ones--have exactly the leadership qualities that big companies value the most. (They also have one trait that can make them pretty unhappy at big companies.)

The study was aimed at comparing the "agile learning" abilities of entrepreneurs with the recruits that Korn Ferry tries to place into vice-president and C-level positions. Agile learning is defined as one's ability to navigate through novel situations, and to learn from experience without becoming rigid. It's rare in the general population and only slightly more common among top-level execs.

It's also thought to be highly predictive of leadership success: A new study from Korn Ferry says that companies with the most agile learners among their executive ranks have profit margins 25 percent higher than those of other, similar companies. Korn Ferry also says agile learning is a skill that can't be taught.

So how did these female entrepreneurs do on the qualities corporate America prizes the most? They knocked it out of the park.

Korn Ferry says there are three main components to agile learning: tolerance for ambiguity, curiosity, and emotional intelligence. In emotional intelligence, the female entrepreneurs and both the male and female C-level execs scored about the same.

Tolerance for ambiguity, says Dana Landis, Korn Ferry's vice president of talent, science and analytics, refers to one's comfort level and ability to make decisions with little information. "When things are unclear or changing quickly, some people seize up or go back to known patterns," she says. "It's like they tighten their grip on the steering wheel. Other people thrive in those circumstances and enjoy figuring out what it's all about. That's a pretty big differentiator of leadership success, since there's so often so little you can control."

On average, the Springboard entrepreneurs scored in the 70th percentile when tested for their tolerance for ambiguity. Male C-level executives scored in only the 53rd percentile, on average, and women C-levels scored even worse, at the 40th percentile.

Curiosity, in this context, refers to one's attraction to complex problems, says Landis, and your willingness to venture into something new. "People who are more naturally drawn to those scenarios tend to thrive in leadership," says Dana. "Those who like to do what they're already good at tend to derail."

When tested for curiosity, the female entrepreneurs also handily outscored the corporate bigwigs. Women entrepreneurs scored in the 73rd percentile, and the male and female corporate executives scored in the 52 and 40th percentiles, respectively.

Amy Millman, co-founder of Springboard, says this explains why, when Springboard alums go in to try to cut deals with big companies, they often end up turning down job offers instead. These women know a position at a big company would drive them nuts. "People say women leave big corporations because they just can't hack it," says Millman. "We find women leave because they aren't allowed to innovate."

The big question, of course, is whether all entrepreneurs have these leadership qualities in spades, or if there's something unique about women entrepreneurs or even about those who have gone through the Springboard program that causes them to excel on these measures.

"I think there's something unique that happens with women and entrepreneurship," says Landis. "Women get hemmed in in big organizations, and they don't get the runway they want. Men can spread out sometimes in a corporate environment, so I don't know if they have the same experience that would lead them to start their own ventures. My guess is that women who start their own companies have unique qualities."

Published on: Nov 6, 2014