What makes some people more successful in their careers, particularly leadership careers, than others?
It’s tempting to answer that by considering the attributes of successful people. Generally, they are smart enough to handle the complexity inherent in a senior role and to make decisions whose ramifications may not be fully understood for five or ten years. They have good interpersonal skills. They have the resilience to deal with pressure and setbacks and to cope with having their judgement subject to constant scrutiny. They have the drive, energy, ambition and determination to get to the top.
But there’s another way of looking at the question. Rather than focusing on what characteristics you might need, consider what you can actually do to increase your chances of success.
There are lots of things you can do to progress your career. Start by getting really good at your job and promoting yourself (though not too much) so that others notice. You then have to develop a completely different set of skills to manage other people who do the job you spent all that time getting good at. These skills won’t just appear by accident, you’ll have to work at them. Broaden your horizons beyond your functional area and plug any knowledge gaps. Cultivate a broad network, develop political acumen and hone your influencing skills.
All of these are important. But as a psychologist, I’d say that there’s something else you can do to advance your career which is often overlooked.
How well do you know yourself?
Developing a realistic picture of yourself is one of the most important things you can do as you progress in your career. Recognise and celebrate what you’re good at but acknowledge that no one is good at everything. Find out what your particular limitations are and figure out how you can work around them. Incidentally, if you’re thinking “no really I am good everything” then I’d suggest that your particular weak spot is over-confidence which has a number of associate risks, not least the way you are perceived by others.
Good leaders are often not well-rounded people. They may be spectacularly good at some aspects of leadership and barely average at others. Good leadership teams, on the other hand, cover all the bases. The trick is to find people who complement you, who excel at doing the bits you can’t – or can’t be bothered – to do well. But if you don’t acknowledge your limitations, how will you know who those people are? And if you get to the top with blind spots about your capability, who’s going to be brave enough to tell you?
I’ve seen plenty of senior people whose management style suits their own personal idiosyncrasies and who believe that their way is the right way. They then surround themselves with people who are just like them, creating collective blind spots and unbalanced teams. The nearer you get to the top, the more important it is that you know yourself well. There is even evidence that the level of self-awareness of an organisation’s leaders affects its financial performance.
How do you get a balanced view?
So how do you get a balanced view of yourself? Well you can start by taking a long hard look at your performance and appraising it as you would someone else’s. Are there areas where you’re letting yourself off the hook when you’d expect more from someone else?
It’s always useful to get feedback from others. The people most qualified to comment on your leadership style are the people you lead. Paradoxically, the leaders who most need feedback are the ones least likely to get it. No one wants to confront a tyrant. Get used to seeking feedback and dealing with it maturely early in your career and you’re less likely to become that tyrant.
Another way, of course, is to get an objective outside view. Using a range of state-of-the-art assessment methods, a business psychologist can not only help you identify your relative strengths and weaknesses but can show you how you compare to leaders across a range of industries and, indeed, across the world. If you’d like an independent perspective on your – or your team’s – leadership capabilities, I’d be more than happy to talk to you: email@example.com
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