What Separates the Extremely Successful from the Pack?

Marcie Schorr Hirsch

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Marcie Schorr Hirsch for Harvard Business Review’s “The Conversation” series. To read the complete article, check out other resources, and sign up for a free subscription to HBR email Alerts, please click here.

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Most people dream of succeeding. What success means is highly personal, but as a veteran career coach, I can honestly say that no one has ever come to see me with a goal of anything but success.

The vast majority of my clients want “extreme success” — that is, a career that advances them to the most senior echelon of an organization. Obviously there are more people aspiring to those top slots than there are opportunities. Some individuals will make it; many won’t.

To better help my clients reach their goals, I wanted to understand what differentiates those who succeed in attaining senior executive status from those who do not. A review of the literature on success revealed myriad correlations between particular variables and success in the workplace. These variables were discipline-linked — the educational researchers explored the relationship between academic choices and career achievement; the psychologists looked at the connection between personality types and success; the sociologists’ inquiries examined issues such as the impact of family birth order on career achievement — but this seemed limiting. Real lives are multidimensional. Each career will include elements related to many different disciplines, and individuals pursuing success will make choices in many areas that may influence their careers.

What’s more, the research tended to treat success as a monolithic entity. It did not define success by degree, but rather as a binary phenomenon: success or failure. For my purposes, I was not seeking to understand simply why some people succeed and others fail; my clients are not likely to be total washouts. They are generally intelligent, hard-working, and highly motivated — in short, likely to succeed in a broad sense. What I wanted to understand was “the secret sauce.” What was operating in the careers of those who made it to the top versus those who got stuck in the middle ranks?

So I embarked on researching this issue myself. Using a matched-pair design, I worked backwards to examine the careers of a dozen sets of executives: Each set was comprised of two individuals who had started at approximately the same time in the same organization and shared the same educational achievement, as well as being of the same age, sex, race, and education level. (Note: all pairs were made up of white males; at the time of the research, I was unable to find people of color or women in top-level roles with identical matches in the mid-level roles in their organizations.) The main difference was that, after the same number of years in the same organization, one member of the pair had reached “extreme success,” while the other rose only to the middle of the executive ranks.

Quantitative and qualitative data were collected from these participants on over 60 variables frequently cited as relevant to career success members. Every man was asked whether a particular variable was present in his background, and, if so, to rank it in degree of importance in creating his success. Interestingly, with regard to the “facts of the case” — the simple presence or absence of various success-variables — the groups remained indistinguishable. And even in their assignment of importance to these different variables, no separate pattern emerged. In other words, highly successful executives did not appear to be distinguished from moderately successful ones based on visible events or explicit strategies.

But a difference between the two groups did emerge when participants were asked to say how each variable had affected their career outcomes. It seemed that extremely successful participants understood the value of individual elements of their careers in different ways than their only moderately successful counterparts. Take, for example, their marriages. Fully 22 of the 24 participants reported that they were married, and all 22 put “being married” in the category of factors that were highly important to their career achievement. But when asked to explain why being married had been helpful, moderately successful participants offered responses such as, “I always have a clean shirt in the closet,” or “I never have to interrupt my work to take the kids to an appointment.” They expressed appreciation for the contributions made by their partners by offering examples of the ways in which their wives functioned as helpmates in coping with the logistical demands of life.

The highly successful group’s answers had a different character. “My wife taught me everything I know about interpersonal skills” and “I never make an important business decision without consulting her” are representative of the explanations offered by the participants from the top group. They valued their wives for educating them in important areas, or for helping them see different angles on complex issues. This tendency to see beyond efficiency leverage in the value of a spousal relationship is just one way in which the highly successful executives thought differently about working in partnership. Instead of defaulting to generic, role-based expectations, they recognized particular talents or strengths in their partners and identified opportunities to benefit from them

Time and time again, the qualitative responses suggested that the two executives in each of my sample’s matched pairs held different understandings of the meaning of comparable situations, decisions, and people in their careers. And they differed in consistent ways. The members of the extreme talent group — from their optimizing of other relationships without adhering to the limits of job descriptions (why couldn’t a comptroller offer creative ideas?) to their continual reinvention of their career path as unexpected opportunities came along — showed a propensity for creating value in non-obvious ways. They seemed to have a different lens through with they viewed what was going on around them. Perhaps this is why they made different choices that led to different outcomes.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Marcie Schorr Hirsch, EdD, is a principal at HirschHills Consulting, a boutique management consulting firm in Newton Centre MA. She consults and writes on workplace strategy and career dynamics. Marcie’s private career coaching practice is in Belmont MA. She is also is a prolific writer on workplace issues and has co-authored and contributed to several books including: Roads Taken, Workplace Diversity: A Manager’s Guide to Solving Problems and Turning Diversity into a Competitive Advantage, Educating Managers, and Managing Your Maternity Leave. She has been a regular contributor to People Management (a UK publication) and a writer for the management column in Working Women magazine.



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