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The Secret Drivers of Career Success


What makes a successful senior executive? Competence and leadership are clearly necessary but are they sufficient in the long run? If status and money are your yardsticks of success, the answer is probably yes.

Competence is about industry knowledge, know-how, best practices, relationships, and flawless execution. Leadership has three component. First, analytical skills, i.e., cutting through the noise to see important facts and patterns. Second, capability to work through a complex array of stakeholders—clients, providers, direct reports, bosses, shareholders, or regulators. Third, learning agility and acceptance of critical feedback.

What's missing from this picture is the understanding that while status and money are important, they can only provide temporary satisfaction but no long lasting sense of accomplishment and balance.

If, like many senior executives I meet these days, you are equally concerned with meaning, legacy, and long-lasting satisfaction, you should add three more drivers—authenticity, resilience, and perspective—to your list.

Authenticity is about honesty, ethics, generosity, and trust. It is built on courage and clarity about your own values. Many competent leaders lack authenticity not because they are morally corrupt but because of fear. The fear to be open, to admit ignorance or failure, is a great barrier. They resort to white lies (hint: remember your last performance appraisal), use corporate BS that can be smelled from miles away, and paint a fake smile on their face. They encourage schizophrenia by claiming values that do not align with how they manage the business. For example, saying that “our company is all about collaboration and teamwork” when compensation is driven by individual performance, is schizophrenic.

Resilience is to the marathon runner what a burst of energy is to the sprinter. Resilience allows you to survive by managing physical and mental energy levels. This includes staying fit, managing stress, getting enough sleep, laughing at yourself, controlling emotions, demonstrating patience, and staying focused. Executives who lack resilience burn out, freeze during a crisis, or lose their cool. They make stupid decisions under pressure and blame others. They alienate their families.

Perspective is the wisdom that allows you to see the big picture. This is not about competitive positioning or balance sheet structure. Rather, perspective is understanding cause and effect, your place in the ecosystem, and the complex interactions between your actions and their long-term and sometimes far-reaching unintended consequences. For example, you recognize that bullying a supplier at the other end of the world will eventually impact how clients judge you at home; or how you handle employees at work may affect how your kids are treated in school. With perspective, you think about your business’s next 10 years, not the next quarter.

Competence and certain leadership qualities are easy to build. We are supported in this endeavor by the education system, professional training, trade conferences, online courses, mentoring, and executive coaching. In contrast, it is the role of our partners, friends, and spiritual leaders to help us develop authenticity, resilience, and perspective. Therefore, we only talk about competence and leadership in the professional context but authenticity, resilience, and perspective equally apply to our personal lives.

For in the end, the three secret drivers of career success are also those that govern our life’s success.


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