Nice Guys Can Finish First

Your people skills become more important the higher you go — so behave yourself!

Imagine a world where technical skills, educational pedigrees, even professional achievements and track records no longer matter. Everyone is blessed with equal brains and talent. Everyone is highly skilled, well educated at the same school, and locked in a dead heat of accomplishment, posting exactly the same "lifetime batting average."

Now, imagine that you lead an organization in this world. How would you hire people? How would you decide whom to promote and whom to cast aside?

Chances are you would start paying very close attention to how people behave — how they treat colleagues and clients, how they speak and listen in meetings, how well they extend the minor courtesies that either lubricate daily work life or create friction. Welcome to the real world at the higher levels of organizational life.

We apply these behavioral criteria to almost any successful person, whether it's our CEO or our plumbing contractor. But sometimes we forget to apply them to ourselves. And in turn, we forget that our behavior may be holding us back.

All other things being equal, your people skills (or lack thereof) become more pronounced the higher up you go. In fact, even when all other things are not equal, your people skills often make the difference in how high you go. Who would you rather have as a CFO? A moderately good accountant who is great with people outside the firm and skilled at managing very smart people? Or a brilliant accountant who's inept with outsiders and alienates all the smart people under him?

Not a tough choice, really. The candidate with superb people skills will win out every time, in large part because he will be able to hire people smarter than he is about money and he will be able to lead them. There's no guarantee that the brilliant number cruncher can do that now or any time in the foreseeable future.

We all have certain attributes that helped us land our first job. These are the kinds of achievements that go on our resumes. But as we become more successful, those attributes recede into the background and more subtle traits emerge. It's not enough to be smart. You have to be smart — and something else. At some point, you get the benefit of the doubt on skill issues. For example, we assume our doctors know medicine, so we judge them on their bedside manner. And not many people remember that Jack Welch has a PhD in chemical engineering. That's because none of the problems he encountered in his last 30 years at GE were in any way related to his skill at chemical titration or formulating plastics. When he was vying for the CEO job, the attributes holding him back were strictly behavioral: his brashness, his blunt language, his unwillingness to suffer fools. The soft behavioral skills came to the fore only after he delivered profits and ascended the GE ladder. That's when the GE board wanted to know if he could behave as a CEO.

What if you had to prepare a resume where you couldn't highlight the elite college you graduated from, or your five years at McKinsey, or even your title at your current job? You can't boast about the profits you posted, the sagging division you turned around, or the product you launched and turned into a stand-alone brand. The only data you can put on your resume are your interpersonal skills (which, for the purposes of this exercise, must be documented and authentic). What would they be?

To be able to listen?

To give proper recognition?

To share — whether it's information or credit for a success?

To stay calm when others panic?

To make midcourse corrections?

To accept responsibility?

To admit a mistake?

To defer to others, even (especially) those of lesser rank?

To let someone else be right some of the time?

To say thank you?

To resist playing favorites?

You see where I'm going? This quick list of attributes, while attractive in a junior employee, is not the sort of thing that junior employees get lauded for. But further along in your career curve, when it's time to step up into a leadership position, you're going to need these qualities in spades. Stripped of your technical mastery and your hall-of-fame-quality lifetime batting average, what are the interpersonal skills that will make you rise above the leadership pack? Pick one, any skill that you feel you're lacking. And start developing it . . . now.

Marshall Goldsmith is corporate America's preeminent executive coach and founding director of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership.

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