The Success Potion: A Little of This and a Little of That

What makes the difference between success and failure?  Years of research has told us all about competencies, conditions, and processes needed to achieve success.  Years of research has pointed to specialized skills ranging from general intelligence to social intelligence to emotional intelligence.  We’ve been pointed to leadership traits, specialized expertise, or the power of communication above all else.  Everywhere you look there is a theory offered regardless of being rooted in actual research or grounded in common sense without empirical evidence.  

For every type indicator imaginable there are thousands of pieces arguing for the perfect personality mix when seeking success.  How is anyone supposed to make sense of this mess?  What is the perfect mix?  Because as far as I can tell the recipe for success is something my Cuban grandmother would call “arroz con mango.”  That’s right—rice and mango!  Unappetizing and illogical to say the least.

So what is the right mix for success?  The answer to this question lies not in the ingredients but rather in the desired product.  In HR, this means finding an HR leader who can drive results while maintaining competitive advantage with potential talent.  Simply put, the goal is to be the flag bearer for employers while driving your organizational strategy.  This means you attract talent, you grow talent, and you retain talent better than others in your industry and beyond.  Succeeding calls for the right mix of skills making this desired state a reality. 

So I ask again what is the right mix for success?  Many of you may have seen my works on the destructive habits of HR leaders or my research on the core competencies needed for success.  So it should come as no surprise that I’d argue success is two parts competencies and one part personality.  Achieving an employer brand of distinction calls for HR leadership consisting of three qualities:

1) Focus! Focus! Focus!  There is no question the best leaders bring a strong need for achievement.  The very best leaders do more than bring a need for achievement though.  They bring an almost maniacal ability to focus on even the most minute of details.  By now, we have all read the stories about Steve Jobs and endless focus on the Mac’s mouse or Bill Gates’ interminable desire to put Windows on every single computer in the world.  In sports, this focus is materialized as the “zone” and no one ever focused better than Michael Jordan.  Each of these is an example of a successful leader even if not viewed as a great team member.  Daniel Goleman, the father of emotional intelligence, calls this the necessary lever for achieving success.  In fact, his latest book is devoted to it.  Developing that killer focus may make you less popular but it is likely to make you more successful.  Just remember results matter as much if not more than popularity.

2) Change-Loving Stick-to-itiveness!  Focus is only the first part of success.  The next part is stick-to-itiveness and willingness to embrace change.  Think back upon every major change in your life.  If you’re like me, you probably hated it every day for six months.  Then something amazing inevitably happened.  The new normal was better than the old normal.  I’ve learned change is paralyzing because of the unknown but each example comes with countless growth opportunities.  The most successful leaders not only embrace change but they look forward to it.  I am fortunate to work with very successful leaders and almost all of them relish change. 

In an informal poll, it became clear that they view change as the opportunity to drive innovation and improvement with dogmatic resolve.  I’m reminded of something a close colleague and successful leader once told me—“Everybody fears change but I thrive upon it.  It is my best shot at aligning people with strategy.  Change is the fast track to success and the taste of success after change is unmatched.”  She draws the link between change and success as a fast track.  So do other success stories.  Don’t fear it; take it by the horns.

3) Courage and All That Jazz!  Like you I roll my eyes whenever I hear terms like “managerial courage” or “credible activism.”  Actually, I cringe to the point where I feel bodily pain as if someone were scratching Freddy Kruger’s nails on the longest chalkboard imaginable.  That said, I have asked countless HR success stories for their take on courage and other touchy-feely buzz words.  The truth is they all point back to one core concept—conscientious leadership in the face of challenges.  The most successful leaders in HR do something that other business leaders sometimes don’t.  They succeed through courage with strong ethical fiber.  This is what makes a great CHRO or CHRE.  It is the ability to drive home difficult perspectives and strategy while rising to a challenge rather than shrinking behind an arbitrary policy or some obscure law. 

I’ve seen several cases of this throughout my career.  I’ve witnessed the person who blames a “third party” for instituting a new rule closing opportunities to many qualified candidates.  I’ve seen the leader who says she will stick to her perspective ultimately leading to a more talented workforce.  You can disagree with someone’s perspective but still respect them.  You cannot lack respect and really agree with their perspective.  Human nature almost exclusively prevents it.  Stick to your guns and trust yourself.  Fewer might like you but just about everyone will respect you.

Each of these traits makes for the ultimate success cocktail.  Mixed in just the right proportion they may be akin to the sweet nectar of my grandmother’s homeland—a mojito.  What is your success elixir?  What traits are needed?  How many parts of this or that do you need?  I bet whatever the mix it is only made sweeter by the buzz derived from success.



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