10 Important Factors for Career Success
10 key factors for a successful career according to business leaders.
Drake Business Review | Volume 3, Number 2 | drakeintl.com
The executive center for global
Competitiveness at the University of Toledo conducted an executive development program several years ago with a group of senior managers from a host of manufacturing and service industries.
A discussion on career development became heated when talk turned to the factors considered to be most important for career success and survival in their various enterprises. Opinions were strong and varied about how to keep your job, how to get promoted, and how to get ahead.
All of these leaders seemed to have their favourite three or four success factors to champion, including:
- Be able to make the tough calls
- Surround yourself with the best people you can get
- Take care of the bottom line
- It all comes back to whom you know and the connections you’ve got
- You’ve got to be willing to pay the price
- Get as much diverse and cross-functional experience as you can
- You need a mentor or sponsor to help show you the way
- Keep developing yourself and keep up in your field
- Get your systems and processes working in concert
- Get involved in high-profile projects
To explore this important issue in greater depth, the Executive Center surveyed over 6,000 managers across North America. These included top, middle, and front-line managers in nearly every major industry, including high-tech, mining, chemical, health care, automotive, banking, financial services, steel, retailing, telecommunications, and transportation.
We asked all these managers to identify and rank the factors they considered to be most important to their personal career success and survival and to offer some qualitative input as well. From our analysis of their tabulated rankings emerged a top-ten list for career survival and success in the 21st century, along with a wealth of comments and wisdom.
The words of one study participant made a very strong case for the importance of this review: “While everyone wants to be successful, we don’t always take the time to think about what it is going to take to be there!”
Key research findings
In reviewing the top ten career success factors that emerged from this study, think about how you stack up as a business leader:
#1: GETTING DESIRED RESULTS/CREATING A STRONG PERFORMANCE TRACK RECORD
The single most important factor for career survival and success across every industry and organisational level is a leader’s ability to get results. While other factors in this study were critically important to career success, getting desired value-added results for one’s organization is the key to both keeping your job and getting ahead.
Creating a strong performance track record is predicated on a leader’s ability to clearly define important performance issues, including:
- determining what you are being paid to achieve;
- clarifying your value-added role in the enterprise; and
- establishing goals and metrics that can be used as performance targets
Once these results-oriented issues are addressed, a business leader can build a behavioural game plan to achieve the desired outcomes. If managers fail in this, they might be exceedingly busy in their position, but they may be failing to create the
focus necessary for success.
Bottom line lesson: Career survival and success are predicated on a leader’s ability to deliver desired results in an appropriate and ethical fashion. Failing to get results can be a career buster regardless of how busy or hardworking a manager is.
#2: EMPLOYING EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION SKILLS/TALENTS/PRACTICES
Close behind getting results is the ability to communicate effectively, with a 360degree mindset. Business leaders must have exceptional communication skills, and be able to communicate effectively with their their many constituencies – superiors, co-workers, peers, customers, suppliers, and direct reports.
The Executive Center’s previous research makes it clear that ineffective communication skills and practices are a top cause of managerial failure. And when you look at the challenges of being an effective leader in a rapidly changing environment, it is easy to see why.
Managers need to develop the art of listening to know and understand what is going on. The same can be said of sharing information – communicating direction, clarifying performance expectations, providing feedback and coaching, and keeping people informed. Written communication talent is also needed, given our dependency on emails and other written media. Communication talents and practices can easily become ineffective when managers are moving at a breakneck pace, as the faster leaders move, the greater the chance their communication skills become degraded – at their own peril.
Bottom line lesson: To keep one’s career on track, the ability to effectively communicate is paramount in nearly every activity leaders perform.
#3: NURTURING STRONG WORKING RELATIONSHIPS AND NETWORKS
Business leaders must develop strong working relationships with people all around them if they are to achieve high performance. Without this talent, their career survival and success can easily be called to question. At the same time, they must demonstrate the ability to work, team up with people, and build strong networks both inside and outside of their organizations. If a manager is unapproachable, aloof, rude, detached, and distant in their relationships with people, their ability to get results is significantly diminished.
Much research has been conducted in the area of “emotional intelligence”: Being able to foster strong working relationships is infinitely more important than possessing
position power, raw intelligence, and extensive experience. Business leaders who do not know how to nurture strong working relationships, operate effectively in teaming
situations, and build business networks with people greatly limit their career success potential.
Bottom line lesson: Since no one wants to work with a person with poor people skills, leaders who lack talent in this area are setting themselves up for failure. Developing people skills and emotional intelligence must be a high priority for business leaders with an eye on success.
#4: POSSESSING A POSITIVE PERSONALITY AND ATTITUDE
Key to fostering effective work relationships is the leader’s personality and attitude. Managers in our study made it clear that these can play a significant role in their ability to get ahead, as personality and attitude influence many of the practices necessary to effectively lead people. If a manager has a personality that is overbearing, arrogant, caustic, cynical, sarcastic, and negative, people will not want to work closely with them.
If they have a negative, pessimistic, gloomy, or unenthusiastic attitude, their ability to inspire and motivate employees is frequently negated. When all other things are equal and a downsizing decision is required, leaders with negative personalities and attitudes are the first to go. Taken together, a leader’s personality and attitude can be either career enhancing or career busting.
Bottom line lesson: For leaders to maximize their performance and the performance of their people, they must possess a positive personality and attitude. Lacking these factors can have grave consequences on a manager’s career.
#5: ABILITY TO STAY CURRENT AND DEVELOP ONESELF TO MEET THE DEMANDS OF ONE’S JOB
To be effective, managers must not only clarify desired results but also identify the behaviours and practices necessary to achieve them. Therefore, they must ensure they have the requisite skill and talent to perform these behaviours and practices with great precision and effectiveness. With the rate and pace of change, it is easy for managers to find themselves lacking a critical skill or talent necessary for success and even survival.
The managers in our study made it clear that they must take responsibility for keeping their skill sets current and developing themselves to meet the demands of their jobs. Managers must identify areas needing improvement and develop a game plan for acquiring and refining the skills necessary to get desired results. To not do so can be a career killer, as leaders are attempting to perform their duties without the requisite talent.
Bottom line lesson: Managers must take responsibility for their own skill development and both develop and implement plans that ensure their ongoing learning. Business leaders serious about their long- term success take the time, effort, and energy regardless of how busy they are with the more pressing needs of the business.
#6: LEVERAGING WORK EXPERIENCE
Participating managers placed a high value on work experience as a career success driver, but only when it was properly leveraged. Managers leverage their work experience when they focus on two things. First, they learn from past mistakes, faux-pas, missteps, and failures. In our busy world, it is easy for managers to repeat ineffective behaviour when they fail to take the time to reflect on what they are doing and how well they are doing it.
Failing to learn from past is throwing away a learning opportunity that can help one’s career in the long run, but is a common mistake that managers can make when they are moving too quickly and/or lack feedback and reflection. The second way they leverage their experience is by making sure they apply the positive lessons of experience to their daily leadership leadership practice. Most managers have a list of key practices they know will help them get results. They make sure they are savvy enough to apply the lessons to their working relationships, planning activities, problem solving, and the like.
Bottom line lesson: Work experience is a career enhancer only when lessons are played forward and applied. Failing to learn from one’s past virtually ensures that ineffective behaviour and decisions will rear their ugly heads again, with highly negative consequences.
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#7: ABILITY TO HANDLE PRESSURE/STRESS AND STAY POISED
The modern workplace is a pressure cooker for leaders, regardless of level and/or industry. Some managers can handle the pressure much better than others, but it is
critical for them to know and understand how workplace pressures affect them. Pressure can cause managers to make poor decisions, plan ineffectively, fail to solve problems, negatively affect work relationships, and display a host of other pathological leadership behaviours. Managers must know and understand how workplace pressure affects their behaviour so that they can develop an action plan to deal with this stress. They need to develop an approach to performing their jobs that minimizes unnecessary stress and pressure.
Improved planning, effective delegation, time and priority management, and personal reflection are all tools that can help managers deal with workplace pressure and stress. Managers must lead by example, as their people will emulate their behaviour, so staying poised and in control is critical for career success.
Bottom line lesson: Managers must effectively manage stress, knowing that failure to do so will have a negative impact on their effectiveness as leaders. Managers must demonstrate poise and composure and be proactive in managing workplace pressure to have an appropriate influence on leading their people.
#8: DEMONSTRATING DECISION-MAKING/ PROBLEM-SOLVING PROWESS
Career success requires business leaders to continuously change and improve their operations. A key enabler is a leader’s talent for making good decisions and solving
problems on a timely basis. The managers in our study made it clear that decision making was a major component of their jobs and when good decisions were made, good things happened, with the converse also being true. At the same time, leadership requires great prowess in problem solving.
Our study participants emphasized the importance of leaders improving and developing their problem-solving prowess. This can include improving their skills in identifying, diagnosing, analyzing, brainstorming, solution selection, implementation planning, and implementing solutions in a timely team-based fashion. When managers are ineffective at making decisions to solve problems, their career potential is greatly limited, to no one’s surprise.
Bottom line lesson: Leaders must improve their decision-making and problem-solving talents to get better results, and it is imperative that they learn how to do so with greater speed and acumen.
#9: ABILITY TO USE POWER AND RESOURCES EFFECTIVELY
When a business leader takes over any position, they are granted a power and resource base from which to operate. Study participants made it clear that this is critical, as managers are being asked to do more and more with fewer resources. Some managers are very effective at using their power, influence, and resources to create followership and to get things done.
Others are ineffective at marshalling and applying the same resources, which can greatly limit their ability to motivate and equip the people for higher levels of performance. Some managers use their power base to overcontrol employees, crushing their spirits, diminishing teamwork, and stifling creativity and initiative. Over-controlling and micromanaging can be a career killer.
Other managers fail to properly apply their power and influence altogether, allowing their employees to drift off course and become ineffective. Managers must use their power and resources with great care, and especially the critical resource of time – theirs and their employees – to build the strong performance track record needed for success.
Bottom line lesson: As workloads increase and resources decline, business leaders must become more proficient at effectively using their power and resource base to get results. Failing to apply these critical leadership assets properly is a surefire way to limit one’s career success.
#10: FOSTERING A MEANINGFUL MENTORING RELATIONSHIP
Our study participants made a strong case for continually developing themselves to compete at a higher level. While development plans can include formal education,
attending workshops, cross-training, special assignments, and receiving on-the-job coaching among others, mentoring can magnify these efforts. Mentoring is easy to
talk about, but these managers made it clear that it is sometimes difficult to establish meaningful mentoring relationships for any number of reasons. Lack of time, unclear
purpose, lack of mentor talent, and unclear expectations are all barriers.
At the same time, effective mentoring relationships are necessary to provide three critical development accelerators: providing counsel, creating accountability, and delivering emotional support for the mentee. These three qualities of a meaningful mentoring relationship help leaders improve their development and performance much faster than if they work alone. At the same time, managers can greatly enhance their own leadership skills when mentoring others.
Bottom line lesson: Having a meaningful mentoring relationship takes time, effort, and energy, but is critical for a leader’s long-term development and success. Every manager needs the counsel, accountability, and support that come along with this key relationship.
A call to actionThe participants in our study identified ten very important, yet fairly obvious, factors they believe most critical for long- term career survival and success. These findings should give the reader a few things to think about as we assess how well each of us stacks up against these key factors. At the end of the day, leaders are paid to deliver results; and this key factor cut across organizational levels, industries, and even countries. The other nine factors provide the vehicle for getting better results as leaders. So how do you stack up?
It might be well worth your time to assess yourself and develop a game plan for improvement around these key factors. Your career survival and success just might depend on it.
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About the Author: Dr. Clinton O. Longenecker is an award-winning business educator,researcher, author, motivational speaker, business consultant,executive coach, and the Stranahan Professor of Leadership andOrganizational Excellence at the University of Toledo. He has published over 150 journal articles and is co-author of the bestsellingGetting Results: Five Absolutes for High Performance and Two Minute Drill: Lessons on Rapid Organizational Improvement from America’s Greatest Game. He specializes in rapid performance improvement and leadership development in both his research and consulting and can be reached at email@example.com.