Though there’s no one-formula-fits-all recipe for career success, there are common ingredients in the form of behaviors and skills.
Here are the basic components, though the proportions can vary.
Your challenge is to cultivate the needed skills and bring them to life in portions that align your abilities and your organization’s culture and needs.
1. Gray-zone leadership. Gray-zone leaders are adept at building coalitions to solve vexing problems that often lurk between functional groups. The issues are important, but no one owns them. Gray-zone leaders identify those items vital to a firm’s or unit’s success and use their influence to bring the right expertise to the situation. Once successful, they dispense credit liberally, enhancing their influence and widening their visibility to senior leaders.
2. Power listening. “You’ll go as far as you can communicate,” was the guidance offered by an early career mentor. He was right, yet of all the communication skills you might develop, listening is the most important. Great listeners convey respect—the essential ingredient for trust—and get to core fears and aspirations in their exchanges. Effectively, power listeners gain an advantage because they can tune in and co-design approaches that serve their counterparts’ interests.
3. Control in challenging communication situations. Everything important in our work and personal lives takes place via one or more challenging conversations. Learning to maintain control and avoid the fight-or-flight responses will position you as calm, collected and, frankly, a leader, regardless of the pressure. However, success in sticky situations demands that you override your brain’s natural programming. It’s doable, but it takes practice and discipline.
4. Political sense. Though many decry the presence of politics in our organizations, anywhere humans gather and organize, a political environment emerges. That’s reality. Those with power decide what gets done and who does what. Successful career climbers come to grips with their need to assess and engage in their organization’s political environment. The most successful focus on developing clean power by cultivating influence.
5. Self-confidence. The most limiting factor in those who under-succeed is a lack of belief in their abilities. If I could, I would liberally wield the proverbial magic wand to imbue great people with just enough self-confidence to know they can and must wade into challenging situations and survive and thrive.
6. Altitude control—forest and trees. Most people view their situations at ground level, focusing on the proverbial trees and the immediate next step. The most successful professionals can adjust their altitude. They connect the big picture of their markets, industries and customers to the ground-level activities inside their organizations, all in pursuit of optimal results.