What makes people successful in their careers? I’m using the idea of success in the loosest sense, because your version of success may differ from mine. These people might be inspiring leaders, outstanding senior candidates, rising stars with an exciting future, or the person everyone wants to work for.
Although this article is anecdotal rather than scientific, I wouldn’t be writing it if I didn’t think there are some qualities, behaviours and traits that many successful people share. I’m fascinated by what it is that unites great professionals. What makes them stand out?
If it’s at least a little subjective, why is it so important to talk about this? Firstly, because candidates can learn to develop some of these behaviours and evidence them in CVs and interviews to gain competitive advantage. Secondly, although some employers hire with these exceptional behaviours in mind and are careful to assess potential where they can, I wonder whether assessment criteria and methods focus enough on predictors of high performance. The notable exception is assessment centres, which can be excellent if done right. Nonetheless, hiring managers are often pressured into matching candidates to job specs first and foremost.
Hard to assess, but priceless?
Here are the qualities I’ve noticed, which most often stand out in great professionals.
They have a habit of making problems go away. This is not just about being tenacious when it comes to solving problems, it’s about simply being unable to turn a blind eye to anything that’s not great. An imperfect process or frequently-raised customer issue is an itch they have to scratch, and in the project economy, employers are looking for people who will grab hold of things.
They are a proactive member of a team. I know of one hiring manager, renowned for building great teams, who likes candidates to have a good (but not necessarily exceptional) degree gained while they also threw themselves into a productive team activity. They may have joined a sports team or worked with others to support a cause; regardless, they had the energy and passion to sustain the activity throughout university, the logical pragmatism to balance their life to accommodate things they enjoy, and the ability to work with a diverse set of strangers to solve problems. They also recognise that the team’s success is their success; something that augurs well for future leaders, when they make the challenging shift from doer to enabler.
They are driven to develop themselves. A great manager we interviewed for a blog once said, “It’s easy for employers to say they bring people in and develop them, but most actually don’t. They haven’t the money or the time. What you really need is for candidates to possess a drive and passion to develop themselves, and the opportunity and environment that enables them to do it. The will to learn, grow and succeed comes from people; the tools and framework comes from the employer.”
They’re highly organised. It’s simply essential to be organised in a world where a volatile economy and rapid technological innovation means you never know what might come at you next.
They’re emotionally intelligent and self-aware. This is a huge subject that we may deal with in future newsletters or blogs, but suffice to say, self-awareness is the foundation for so many other skills and good behaviours, especially in leaders.
There’s a time and place for all skillsets, levels of ambition and definitions of success. Possessing these qualities in spades is no guarantee of success, just as evidencing qualities different from these won’t prevent you from progressing. This is a subjective list and I’m sure you have others, in which case please share them in comments under the newsletter.
Are we asking the right questions...and are questions the most useful tool?
In the hiring process, some forms of assessment are especially focused on identifying and measuring behaviours and traits. Assessment centres are a great way to foreground candidate behaviours in contrast to learned subject matter expertise. For some hirers there’s a trade-off, with a minimum level of technical knowledge required, but potential carrying more weight. This depends on the organisation, its ability to discern such things at all, and the purpose of the hire. Do you need specific skills right now, or are you hiring for the future?
Many employers concentrate on assessing education, technical skills and knowledge when the reality of culture within their company may require something more ineffable—like, say, creativity—which could have more bearing on success than any of the above. When facing the demands of sizeable graduate intakes, it’s not easy to find ways of identifying those rare skills and behaviours that often make for a successful career.
When you hire, are you hiring a person or a job? Because if you’re hiring a job, you’re hiring something that is finite. If you hire a person, you’re investing into a project that could change the business.
What caught our attention this month
The UK automotive sector has received a boost from Nissan, as the carmaker confirms three electric models for its plant in Sunderland, discusses plans for another battery cell factory in North East England and pledges £billions in investment.
In an attempt to ensure safe deployment of autonomous vehicles on British roads, the UK's new Automated Vehicles Bill shifts responsibility for self-driving car incidents from users to manufacturers.
Digital nomadism: recruiting from a VW campervan
When Gerrell & Hard took the decision to embrace optional remote working, little did we suspect it would lead to one of our team working from a VC campervan as he travelled across Europe with his family! But it did, and you can read Johnny’s story in our blog.