The Right Stuff
Why do some careers flourish while others stall?
Certainly, IQ plays a part in determining the likelihood of a person reaching a high-level position of leadership, in particular one’s ability to process a lot of information, spin future scenarios of possible outcomes, and make sound decisions. But IQ is not as much of a predictor of future success as you might imagine. A host of studies indicate that IQ only accounts for about 25 percent of the variance in job success. In other words, three-fourths of performance is accounted for by factors besides that of raw intelligence.
So what other factors really matter? Are there competencies or behaviors we can develop to help accelerate career success? In a nutshell, yes, and that is our focus.
Components of the Right Stuff
People who have the right stuff aren’t great at everything—no one is (with one possible exception, baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who could hit, field, and run equally well, arguably better than anyone in each position). But they are good at a handful of things that matter. Success is not a matter of perfection, of mastering all the competencies—the skills and behaviors needed to perform well in a job—that are laid out by an organization. People with the right stuff, those who rise up to leadership positions in their businesses, are in the top quartile of their company in no more than three to five of the ten to twelve competencies that their organizations track and use for performance development and management. But they focus their attention on becoming excellent at the right ones.
To determine if you’re focusing on developing the right strengths, ask yourself these two questions:
- Do I have the right strengths in my current position, relative to people doing similar work?
- Do I have the right strengths around which to build my career in order to succeed in the future?
To answer the first question, you must know how your strengths stack up in the competency areas that really matter in your position. And you need to know this relative to others who are doing the same type of work and competing for the same job positions. For example, if you’re a technical product manager it would be critical to have very strong organizational skills as well as the ability to communicate effectively with other departments with which you’ll be working. Are you more competent at those critical things than your fellow product managers with whom you’re competing for jobs? If you’re a vice president at a venture capital firm, are you better at networking—at combing the market and finding great new deals—than your peers at other venture capital firms? If you’re a software enterprise sales manager, do you have better selling skills, in order to close new customers, than your competitors at other companies?
Second, you want to work on developing the right strengths—ones that will allow you to succeed in the future. Research shows that people with the right stuff exhibit three strengths in particular that allow them to succeed in increasingly challenging assignments.
And third, they have tremendous perseverance and drive for results. They establish stretch goals, focus on the work that provides the greatest return on investment, and take personal responsibility for the outcomes of the group.
In terms of all the competencies organizations use for employee skill development, having these three surpasses all others in gauging the likelihood of a person becoming a top performer over time.
Understanding Your Motives
We’re motivated when we work by the five fundamental factors of achievement, affiliation, power, autonomy, and purpose. Profiles vary significantly from person to person: while one might be highly motivated by affiliation and purpose and very little by power, another might be highly motivated by power and achievement and not as much by affiliation.
Achievement is the need to constantly improve your performance and to accomplish challenging goals that are meaningful to you. If you’re highly motivated by achievement, the chances are good that you prefer working in environments with clear performance indicators, where your progress is tangible and can be seen on an ongoing basis. You are likely a person who seeks feedback in order to improve and advance. You are probably a person who sets clear goals, organizes your work effort, and measures your progress.
Affiliation is the need for maintaining close, friendly relationships with people; the desire to belong to a group and to be liked, preferring collaboration over competition. If you’re highly motivated by affiliation, you are probably a team player who is a good listener and sensitive to perspectives of others. You are likely skilled at building team spirit to accomplish goals. Your boss may see you as a good barometer for the cultural climate of the team or department and utilize your inclusive nature to further develop the team’s esprit de corps.
Power, the need for having an influence on others, can be expressed either personally or institutionally. People oriented toward personal power generally seek status and recognition and try to control others, while those with an institutional power drive try to organize the efforts of a team to further the company’s goals. If you have a strong power motive, at your best you seek to empower others and work to accomplish group goals. You are effective at influencing others toward your end goal and are able to work through organizational hierarchies to figure out how to complete complex, cross functional initiatives. At your worst—if you’re more driven by personal power—you seek work that has the primary purpose of further enhancing your position of power, thinking “What’s in it for me?”
Autonomy is the desire to have control over your work and the ability to determine what direction to pursue. If you’re highly motivated by autonomy, the chances are good that you prefer to have discretion over your task (you decide what needs to be done), your time (you determine how to spend it), your method (you figure out how to do it), and your team (you choose with whom to work). Having an orientation toward autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll do everything yourself—that you’ll be a Solo Flier who is completely self-directed. It means you’ll have a high degree of discretion over how you structure and complete your work: what you do and don’t do; who to bring in, when, and why. As Seth Godin, author of Tribes and Purple Cow, said, “The art [of autonomy] is picking your limits. That’s the autonomy I most cherish. The freedom to pick my boundaries.”
Purpose is the need to be part of something bigger than yourself. If you are highly motivated by purpose, you are likely drawn to organizations and assignments that have a guiding mission that connects your work to some social good that aligns with an important personal value. You are drawn to a place where the purpose is bigger than the product—a place that uses its resources and profits to offer assistance to those in need, a place that provides scarce resources to the underresourced. As Dan Pink, author of Drive, says, people who are purpose-driven seek companies “who use profits as the catalyst rather than the objective.”
Different jobs appeal to the different motives of individuals. You’ll be happier in your career if you can work your way into positions where the drivers of job performance match your own inherent motives. For example, according to research by Hay Group, successful management consultants are typically high in the achievement and power motives and lower in the affiliation motive. Consultants are under tight timelines to deliver insightful findings to clients (the achievement motive), and they must have the ability to influence their clients to understand and embrace their findings (the power motive). Entrepreneurial founders usually have a very high achievement motive, too (they need to create and launch something out of thin air) but are also highly motivated by a sense of purpose (they’re on a mission to create something that the world must have) and are much lower than consultants in the power motive.
By better understanding your drives and motives, you can work your way into positions that match your inherent needs. And when you find those positions, the chances are good that you’ll perform well.