The Anatomy of Success

As many of you know, I’m in the research phase of my second book, Talent Rules! ? Playing the Hiring Game to Win. The theme of the book is an examination of the global, economic, and cultural forces shaping the workforce of tomorrow, and what must be done today to address the massive changes ahead.

Part of this will be a macro perspective and part micro. On the micro level, one chapter will address the evolution of individual success. The point of this is to isolate any predictive patterns of how successful people in different walks of life move ahead in their careers and what paths they take.

This information will allow managers to look for these critical success factors during the interview. This same information can provide guidance for those who want to accelerate their career growth.

During my search career, I’ve had an opportunity to track hundreds of people for extended periods of time, in some cases over 25 years. From this, it’s obvious that there are some common things the best people do to distinguish themselves at each major career step. Here are the quick highlights:

Early Stage

For these purposes, early stage is generally defined as the first five to eight years of a person’s career. During this phase, learning and applying technical knowledge is the focus of the work. Those who excel in this phase tend to learn the work more quickly, they proactively expand their knowledge, they consistently do more than required, they ask to take on bigger jobs, or they do whatever is assigned better, or do it in some unique or creative way.

While doing this work, the best people are demonstrating their work ethic and reliability. They are also learning how to work effectively on cross-functional teams and starting to appreciate the roles of other people and functions in achieving project success.

The strongest people at this level learn how to plan and organize their work and to deliver what’s promised on time and on budget without making excuses. Getting the job done regardless of the obstacles is one way the best separate themselves from the rest. Those destined for management also begin thinking about improving processes, organizing people, and expanding the use of technology to improve productivity.

The bottom line for those who get ahead at this early stage is a consistent pattern of delivering results exceeding expectations. To do this, they look beyond themselves to accomplish any task. As you dig into a candidate’s background, look for evidence of these trends and patterns.

Balance is the key here, so look for growth on all of the critical dimensions described above, including application of technical skills, working on and leading cross-functional teams, attitude and work ethic, project management skills, a focus on process improvement, and the application of technology in accomplishing much of the work.

Supervisory and Mid-Management

When the right people get promoted into management, it’s because they have provided evidence of being able to effectively organize, plan, and manage people and resources (i.e., money, time, equipment, and technology).

Sometimes the wrong people get promoted, either due to political reasons or the fact that the person doing the promoting didn’t understand what it takes to be a successful manager. The best managers seek out larger projects with bigger budgets, more people, more deadlines, more challenges, and more responsibility.

During this phase of growth, the most successful managers learn how to execute, delivering consistent results despite the normal problems and challenges. They learn the importance of staff selection and team development, they become strong users of complex IT systems, they focus on process improvement, they learn how to use budgeting and planning tools to meet business objectives, and they become expert at project management.

Mid-level managers and supervisors destined for more senior management spots (directors and vice-presidents) do even more. For one thing, they demonstrate a pattern of overcoming bigger problems and unusual challenges and still deliver the results without making excuses.

Part of this is due to an ability to start thinking strategically and multi-functionally. They anticipate problems before they occur and they obtain the resources needed to solve the problems without regard to functional barriers.

Look for this combination of breadth of thinking and the organization of resources when interviewing people for management roles and assessing their potential for bigger jobs.

Senior Management

Managing managers, developing plans and tactics to implement strategies, and making sure they happen are the core activities of directors and functional vice-presidents. Getting consistent results through and with people across the whole business enterprise separates the best senior managers from the rest.

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Those destined to move into the executive ranks not only manage their function (i.e., accounting, engineering, operations, marketing, sales) or department extremely well, but they also have a chance to demonstrate their broad business perspective and capabilities.

This includes an understanding and shaping of the business strategy, solid business judgment and complex decision-making, the ability to use and manage financial information, and a multi-functional perspective with an ability to break down functional walls to achieve significant business results.

Whether it’s running or growing the company, the best people have demonstrated the ability to gather and mobilize all of the required resources (e.g., IT, financial, equipment, people in a variety of business functions and levels, externals including vendors, contractors, and consultants) and manage them successfully to achieve major business objectives.

Bad hiring decisions start happening here because the assessment process is compromised in some way. In some cases, executives hire in their own image, or they give undue weight to industry reputation or the person’s “experience.” Sometimes a person’s intelligence, and an ability to think and articulate a plan, is overvalued in comparison to executing and delivering comparable results.

Understanding what it takes to be a successful senior manager and assess the potential to become a senior executive is hard work and takes time. In the rush to judgment, too many executive managers pompously go with their gut or their intuition.

Bridging the Gaps

Those who get ahead and successfully deliver results at each stage in their career demonstrate common patterns of personal growth and development. Interviewers and managers can use this information to assess a person’s ability to handle the current needs of a job as well as the person’s potential for growth. Individuals can look at these same patterns to determine what they need to do from a personal-development standpoint to get ahead.

Problems occur when people get promoted for the wrong reasons or with fundamental gaps in their development.

As I interview candidates for more senior roles, there are a number of big gaps that seem to be most common. You’ll probably recognize these in some of the senior managers in your company who are underperforming:

  1. An inability to execute large-scale projects. All work involves three core phases: problem solving, planning, and execution. Too many people get ahead or get hired from the outside because the planning and problem-solving phases are emphasized. Digging into core results and how they were achieved takes a heck of a lot more work, but it’s the key to making the right hiring decision.
  2. Lack of an ability to select, develop, manage, and motivate their team members. This often happens when people get promoted largely for their technical or political expertise. To assess this capability, have candidates draw org charts for all of their previous jobs and then find out about each person listed. Ask why they were good, bad, selected, kept, developed, or fired.
  3. An inability to effectively implement and use technology. I remember when I was placing senior staff and mid-managers in the 1980s. One prerequisite then was the ability to use and implement systems for all phases of process improvement. This is sometimes a problem I see today in more seasoned managers and particularly in HR. Maybe this is why HR IS and candidate tracking systems aren’t as sophisticated as systems used in manufacturing, distribution, sales, marketing, and finance.
  4. Lack of a strategic and multi-functional perspective. This often happens when mid-managers don’t have an opportunity to lead complex cross-functional projects. To be successful here, the best people often need to influence others by demonstrating their business judgment and strategic vision. Look for this when assessing potential and promoting people. Offer these types of opportunities to push the development of these core traits in your best people.

The idea of benchmarking successful managers and executives is a useful way to make better hiring and promotional decisions. It also offers a practical means to develop stronger team members, build a sustainable workforce, and increase retention and job satisfaction.

While this is a micro look at personal growth and development, it raises a macro concern about the workforce of tomorrow. The massive increase in workforce mobility we’re experiencing today is eliminating many younger people from an opportunity to move into the mid-management ranks. This is the pool of people who will eventually be called upon to become the senior executives of our corporations 10 to 20 years from now.

An October 2006 article, “CEO oustings on track for record,” projected that 1,570 CEOs would lose their jobs in 2006. In many cases, it’s because of the gaps cited above and bad selection decisions. Based on current trends this could just be the tip of the iceberg.

[Note: contact me if you’d like to be part of a study group addressing this important issue in more depth.]

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


1 Comment on “The Anatomy of Success

  1. Lou:

    I really liked your view on supervisory and mid management. You have mentioned and explained the basic idea of hiring the right people in right place and promoting the right talent. I will look forward for your future articles.


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