The Traits That Lead To Success–And How To Tell Who’s Got Them

Being a good leader often means approaching situations with a rookie mindset. Here’s how to tell if you are up to the challenge.

The Traits That Lead To Success–And How To Tell Who’s Got Them
[Photo: Flickr user BLM Nevada]

Technology changes quickly. Companies implode and people switch jobs every few years.


If 30% of information in some fields becomes obsolete in a year, how long does expertise last? says Liz Wiseman in her forthcoming book, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.

It’s not that expertise isn’t helpful, but success comes from constantly approaching work as a “perpetual rookie,” Wiseman writes, someone who is “living and working perpetually on a learning curve.” People who can do that will thrive. Here’s how to recognize someone who’s always in back-to-school mode:

1. They ask good questions.

Rookies have the ability to see things differently than those with too much skin in the game. They can “step a layer out of something and question it,” says Wiseman.

Of course, in a job interview, people ask the questions they’re supposed to ask, which is why it’s great to meet people in other situations, like at a conference, when someone you’re talking to asks questions about your business that you’ve never thought of.

You can encourage this mindset in more veteran employees by allowing those who’ve taken new roles to spend a few weeks really talking to everyone and asking what people think. Sometimes organizations do things for good reasons. And sometimes, they’ve simply stopped asking why they do what they do.

2. They are interested in other people.

We’re all fascinated by ourselves, but we only know so much. “Other people’s brains, other people’s thoughts–that’s where learning is going to come from,” says Wiseman.


One way to judge this? How long a potential leader can talk about her colleagues and her team before talking about herself.

Those who can go for a while–who find other people genuinely interesting–can better tackle different situations. They are oriented toward the unknown, rather than the known.

3. They are willing to be (intellectually) uncomfortable.

“Learning is painful,” Wiseman says. “All true learning comes with some form of discomfort. We learn when our scripts fail us, when the world doesn’t work the way the world is supposed to work.” In someone’s work history, has she sought out jobs that challenged her? In someone’s personal life, it can mean “a willingness to go into foreign territory,” says Wiseman.

Does someone vacation in the same place yearly, or venture around the world? News feeds can be revealing too. Someone who looks only at news sources that confirm what she already believes is willingly missing out on a lot. The world is messy, and truth can come from many places.

4. They are agile.

Leading is good, and building something that works is good, but Wiseman recommends looking at “how willing is she to back out of it and let someone else take the lead?” In the corporate world, there’s often a mindset that “Once you take a leadership role, a management role, that it’s kind of yours to keep.”

But someone willing to work on a start-up brand, or to move across functions, probably has a rookie mindset. “Does she have a track record of not only taking those roles, but being successful?” Sure, there have been high-profile cases of executives entering new industries and failing, but those who succeed realize that “you need to approach this the way you approached work when you were 23 and right out of school,” Wiseman says. In a way, you’re young again–and eager to learn.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at