The answer could fill a book and it has, thousands of times, if not more. Myriad experts claim that career advancement is a function of everything from extreme self-confidence to extreme humility (or both at once). Still others make the case that big-time professional success derives from more sinister behaviors, such as callous ambition or unfettered narcissism. And then there is the whole “positive thinking” bandwagon, which claims that getting ahead is primarily a function of believing you can. In sum, there’s so much contradictory advice out there about the core components of success that it’s enough to reduce you to a weary sigh of: “Whatever.”
Which is just fine. Because we’d suggest that you can’t really manipulate yourself into success with personality tweaks or even major overhauls. In fact, we’d say just the opposite. The most powerful thing you can do is, well, be real. As in not phony. As in grappling, sweating, laughing, and caring. As in authentic.
Yes, yes, we know the upper echelon of the corporate world has its share of slick super achievers who appear simultaneously all-knowing and unknowable. They’re cool, poised, almost digitally enhanced in their affect. But such bloodless executives, even the most technically skilled ones, rarely reach the highest heights. They’re just too remote to move people. They can manage, but they can’t motivate.
Now, we’re not saying that authenticity is the only quality you need for professional advancement. Everyone knows that to succeed in today’s competitive global marketplace, you also have to be smart, curious, and highly collaborative. You have to be able to work with diverse teams and ignite them as a manager to excel together. You need heaps of positive energy, the guts to make tough yes-or-no decisions, and the endurance to execute—get the job done. And, indeed, you do have to possess self-confidence and humility at the same time. That combination is called maturity.
We would also add two other qualities to the must-have list. One is heavy-duty resilience, a requirement because anyone who is really in the game messes up at some point. You’re not playing hard enough if you don’t! But when your turn comes, don’t make the all-too-human mistake of thinking getting ahead is about minimizing what happened. The most successful people in any new job always own their failures, learn from them, regroup, and then start again with renewed speed, vigor, and conviction.
The other quality we’d mention is really special but quite rare: the ability to see around corners, to anticipate the radically unexpected. Now, practically no one starts their career with a sixth sense for market changes. It takes time to get a feel for what competitors are thinking and what product or service customers will eventually want - once they know it exists. But the bottom line is, the sooner you develop this acumen, and the more you hone it, the farther you will go.
But not if you’re not real, too. Think of authenticity as your foundation, your center, and don’t let any organization try to wring it out of you, subtly or otherwise. That happens. Companies have a way of tamping people down, particularly early on. Not that it happens with any kind of conscious planning, of course. But too many organizations manage to surreptitiously nudge people toward a generic type who keeps it all pretty well tucked in.
Meanwhile, if you put your whole self out there, bosses can complain that you act too emotional or get too close to teammates or become too worked up in meetings. Your performance reviews will note: “Tom has some potential, but he just doesn’t fit in.” Or “Sally has some rough edges, but with coaching, her intensity might even out.”
In time though, if you have everything else you need in terms of talent and skill, your humanity will come to be your most appealing virtue to an organization. Your team and your bosses will know who you are in your soul, what kind of people you attract, and what kind of performance you want from everyone. Your realness will make you accessible; you will connect and you will inspire. You will lead.
So, getting back to the original question of this missive: Yes, the modern marketplace does demand that people possess a wide range of skills to achieve success. Most of them you have to acquire, develop, and refine. But one of them - the most important one - is already inside you, ready to be let out. Don’t get in its way.
A version of this column originally appeared in BusinessWeek Magazine.
Jack Welch is Founder and Distinguished Professor at the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University. Through its executive education and management training programs, the Jack Welch Management Institute provides students and organizations with the proven methodologies, immediately actionable practices, and respected credentials needed to win in the most demanding global business environments.