How Competitive Are You?

There’s a fine line between being competitive and overly competitive, between winning when it counts and when no one’s counting-and successful people cross that line with alarming frequency.

The reason I devote so much energy to identifying interpersonal challenges in successful people is because the higher you go, the more your problems are behavioral.

At the higher levels, all the leading players are technically skilled, smart, and up-to-date on the technical aspects of their job. You don’t get to be the CFO without knowing how to count, how to read a balance sheet, and how to handle money prudently.

Behavioral issues become so important in upper management. All other things being equal, your people skills (or lack of them) 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 smart people? Or a brilliant accountant who’s inept with outsiders and alienates all the smart people under him?

Not a tough choice. The candidate with superb people skills will win out every time, largely because he will hire people smarter than he is about money and be able to lead them. There’s no guarantee the brilliant accountant can do that in the future.

Think about how we perceive other successful people. We rarely associate their success with technical skill or brainpower. Maybe we say, “They’re smart,” but that’s not the sole factor we attribute to their success. We believe they’re smart and something else, and we give them the benefit of the doubt on skill. We assume, for example, that our doctor knows medicine, so we judge him on “bedside manner”—how he tolerates our questions, maybe even how he apologizes for keeping us waiting too long. None of this is taught in medical school.

We apply these behavioral criteria to almost any successful person—whether it’s a CEO or a plumber. As we become more successful, the attributes on our resume recede into the background, and more subtle attributes come to the fore. Jack Welch has a Ph.D. in engineering, but I doubt if any problems he encountered in his last 30 years at General Electric were even remotely related to these skills. When he was vying for the CEO job, the issues holding him back were strictly behavioral—his brashness, his blunt language, his unwillingness to suffer fools. General Electric’s board of directors didn’t worry about his ability to generate profits. They wanted to know if he could behave as a CEO.

When people ask me if the leaders I coach can change their behavior, my answer is this: As we advance, behavioral changes are often the only significant changes we can make.

Life is good.


Adapted from Leadership Excellence, “People Skills”, April 2007

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