In the 1980s and 1990s I placed hundreds of people in management positions. A few dozen got quickly promoted multiple times. I met up with one of them last week who's now an EVP with an F250 company. Many of the hiring managers who hired these people had similar track records of success. Coincidentally, I was at a business conference with a number of them last month. These two events got me thinking about all of these people – the hundreds and the dozens – and what they had in common.

The big aha was that once the person passed a reasonably lofty threshold of technical ability, his or her soft skills are what drove their upward success. In fact, since soft skills are so critical to personal performance, “soft” is too soft a word to describe them. Regardless of what one calls these “non-technical” management and business leadership skills, here’s what those who progressed the fastest had in common.

  1. Focused Work Ethic. Part of this is working hard, taking the initiative, doing more than required and going the extra mile. The other part is working smart. Working hard needs to have some purpose and direction to it. Consistently achieving the required results is the primary bigger purpose.
  2. Operational Leadership. I wrote a post last year titled Leadership = Vision plus Execution. In summary, it means you need to have a clear vision of what needs to get done and then you need to marshal the resources to do it. Then you have to do it.
  3. Strategic vs. Tactical Worldview. When I was sitting in a boardroom many years ago as a rookie financial analyst, the CEO of an F50 company lambasted a group president saying, “Strategy drives tactics. Your strategy is flawed, so the quality of your tactics doesn’t matter.” Those who got ahead the fastest seem to naturally understand this.
  4. Zooming. This has to do with the ability to zoom in on a problem to figure out the root cause and then zoom out to see all of the possible solutions.
  5. Multi-Functional Thinking. This might also be called business acumen. Despite a functional expertise, the best people could see beyond their own department’s requirements to balance the needs of growth (sales, marketing and product development) vs. operational efficiency (operations, engineering, IT, HR and finance/accounting).
  6. Persistence. As Winston Churchill said, “Never, ever, ever give up.” Sometimes things go wrong, so following the PM’s advice is essential.
  7. Influence. This is the ability to convince those in authority to agree to their proposals (the vision part of leadership) and the ability to get the people working with and for them to agree to willingly participate. This is related to team skills and EQ, but influencing others is the visible outcome.
  8. Proactivity. This has to do with anticipating a problem before it becomes a problem and then taking overt action to address it in a logical and businesslike manner. It’s more than planning, but planning is part of this.
  9. Leveraging Team and Resources. This has to do with efficiency, achieving more with less, figuring out how to avoid or overcome unnecessary obstacles and getting more from their team than would be considered normal.
  10. Organizational Skills. Whether they’re individual contributors, part of a team or running a team, the best people can organize the resources to deliver the results on time and on budget on a consistent basis.
  11. Responsible and Committed. When the best people say they’ll do something, they do it. And when things go wrong, they don’t make excuses or blame others. Getting it done is typically more important than perfection, which is a common flaw of the over-techie.
  12. Ability to Select and Develop the Right People. A-Team leaders don’t compromise on whom they hire: the A-Team. My big win as a recruiter: I got them to first define the job as a series of performance objectives rather than listing a bunch of generic skills. Then I found people who could deliver the results required. Surprisingly, those who made the A-Team had the traits listed here.
  13. Comfortable Swimming in the Deep End of the Pool. Throw people in over their heads and see if they can swim. The A-Team can not only swim, they don’t mind being thrown in over their heads since it builds confidence. In fact, they ask for these types of assignments.
  14. Courage in Decision-Making. Not only does a person need to make the right decisions, he or she often needs to make them with limited information or lack of time. Which, surprisingly, is most of the time.
  15. Situational Fit or Adaptability. Sometimes these people were not successful but were savvy enough to extricate themselves proactively. Circumstances play a big role in any job, most often they’re dependent on the quality of the relationship with the person’s peer and manager. Sometimes it’s a mismatch on culture or values or a disagreement on focus.

These characteristics, and the few that might have been missed, can all be assessed using the most significant accomplishment question in the Performance-based Interview I advocate. The idea is to look for these characteristics in the person’s major accomplishments and map the accomplishments to the actual performance requirements of the job. Done properly, this is how you hire people for the A-Team.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. His new video program provides job seekers inside secrets on what it takes to get a job in the hidden job market.