The modern marketplace demands that people possess a wide range of skills. But what core qualities are truly essential to career advancement, regardless of industry or job?
—Nyasha Dhliwayo, Harare, Zimbabwe
The answer to your question could fill a book, and it has thousands of times, if not more.
Myriad experts claim that career advancement is a function of everything from extreme self-confidence to extreme humility (or both at once). Still others make the case that big-time professional success derives from more sinister behaviour such as callous ambition or unfettered narcissism. And then there is the whole “positive thinking” bandwagon, which claims that getting ahead is primarily a function of believing you can. In sum, there's so much contradictory advice out there about the core qualities for success, it's enough to reduce you to heaving a weary sigh and saying, “Whatever.”
Which is just fine. Because we’d suggest that you can’t really manipulate yourself into success with personality tweaks or even major overhauls. In fact, we’d say just the opposite. The most powerful thing you can do to get ahead is, well, be real. As in not phony. But as in grappling, sweating, laughing and caring. As in authentic.
Yes, we know the upper echelon of the corporate world has its share of slick super-achievers, who appear simultaneously all-knowing and unknowable. They’re cool, poised, almost digitally-enhanced in their effect. But such bloodless executives, even the most technically-skilled ones, rarely reach the highest heights. They’re just too remote to move people. They can manage, but they can’t motivate.
Now, we’re not saying that authenticity is the only quality you need for professional advancement. Everyone knows that to succeed in today's competitive global marketplace you also have to be smart, curious and highly collaborative. You need to be able to work with diverse teams and to ignite them as a manager to come together. You need heaps of positive energy, the guts to make tough yes-or-no decisions, and the endurance to execute—to get the job done. And indeed, you do have to possess self-confidence and humility at the same time. That combination is called maturity.
We’d also add two other qualities to the must-have list. One is heavy-duty resilience, a requirement because anyone who is really in the game messes up at some point. You’re not playing hard enough if you don’t! But when your turn comes, do not make the all-too-human mistake of thinking that getting ahead is about minimizing what happened. The most successful people in any job always own their failures, learn from their mistakes, regroup and then start again with renewed speed, vigor and conviction.
The other quality is very special but quite rare: the ability to see around corners, to anticipate the radically unexpected. Now, practically no one starts his or her career with a sixth sense for market changes. It takes years, and even decades, to get a feel for what competitors are thinking and what product or service customers will eventually want—once they know it exists. But the sooner you develop this acumen, and the more you hone it, the farther you will go. But not if you aren’t real, too.
Think of authenticity as your foundation, your centre. Don’t let any organization try to wring it out of you, subtly or otherwise. That happens. Companies have a way of tamping people down, particularly early on. Not that it happens with any kind of conscious planning, of course, but too many organizations manage to surreptitiously nudge people toward a generic type who keeps it all pretty well tucked in. Meanwhile, if you put your whole self out there, bosses can complain that you act too emotionally or get too close to teammates or become too worked up in meetings. Your performance reviews will note, “Tom has some potential, but he just doesn't fit in,” or “Sally has some rough edges, but with coaching her intensity might even out.”
In time, though, if you have everything else you need in terms of talent and skill, your humanity will become your most appealing virtue to an organization. Your team and your bosses will know who you are in your soul, what kind of people you attract and what kind of performance you expect from everyone. Your authenticity will make you accessible. You will connect and you will inspire. You will lead.
So, getting back to your question, then, yes, the modern marketplace does demand people possess a wide range of skills to achieve success. Most of them you have to acquire, develop and refine.
But one of them, the most important, is already inside you—ready to be let out. Don’t get in its way.
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work , and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, ‘Winning’. Campaign readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, occupation and city. Select questions will be answered.