Attributes that will help you at the top

In our series of personal development columns, we ask careers and coaching experts for their advice for HR directors on getting ahead in 2018 and beyond

HR leaders require many traits to lead the people agenda of an organisation. Consider one much-admired attribute variously described as ‘staying power’, ‘resilience’ or ‘grit’. Grit is defined as self-control; the ability to push through setbacks and difficulties. For some it is seen as the most important predictor of leadership success.

But is grit really essential in business? An entrepreneur who has put his or her home, family and welfare on the line might display grit in the face of financial ruin, and still be willing to start again. But in established companies grit is much rarer, many believe. Naomi Shragai, a psychotherapist and business consultant, believes large companies are “a haven for insecure or emotionally-fragile individuals who need the assurance they receive from managers to compensate for their lack of self-belief”.

This assessment may seem a bit unfair. There are plenty of cases where grit is required in an organisation. When two companies merge, for example, HR leaders have a thankless task trying to fuse working cultures and roles. There are also plenty of scandals, harassment claims and whistleblowing incidents that require toughness from HR.

But grit is far less important than other attributes. It alone won’t ensure you succeed at the top. Instead, at the Financial Times|IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance we have identified seven other attributes that might.

Enthusiasm: If, as Churchill once said, “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm” then there’s no shortage of opportunities to develop this skill in a corporate world littered with pointless innovations and jettisoned investments. Don’t take setbacks personally. Instead embrace the next challenge with undiminished spirit.

Luck: Luck manifests in many ways. You might be lucky to have benefitted from family contacts, an expensive education or you might enter the workforce at the start of an economic boom, gaining valuable experience and assets early on. For some so-called luck increases in relation to hard work. Perhaps luckiest of all are those able to pursue a passion.

Passion: Genuine passion is not grinding through each day until the mortgage is paid off. It is about showing that rare quality of total absorption in your job. Chasing the dream isn’t always straightforward. When British-Asian comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar told his mother he wanted to become an actor she responded: “Son, we pronounce that doctor”.

Family: It’s a commonplace view, but much career success is rooted in strong family bonds. Families don’t have to be conventional, but a supportive partner and emotionally-stable family life from an early age anchors long-term ambition and creates resilience against failure. Too much ‘grit’ is wasted on divorce and familial bitterness.

Tolerance for the mundane: As an HR director you’d like to think you’ve been hired because the company wants ‘the best brains’. It doesn’t. Companies do want leaders with above-average intelligence, common sense, reliability, competence, and so on. But much of your work will still be dull and repetitive. It will, however, help you gain what’s known as ‘experience’.

Physical fitness: It’s not unusual to discover your CEO once enjoyed success on the sports field. Even for those less fleet of foot, the gym has become an essential feature of working life. There’s a reason for this. Flying around the world to manage remote offices requires an athlete’s stamina. It also helps prevent illnesses that can undermine the most determined high flier.

An ethical perspective: It sometimes seems only psychopaths make it to the top. But the absence of ethics often presages a far more dramatic fall. When no-one can call the leader to account, and the company’s conduct is ambiguous, everything depends on the leader’s own sense of right and wrong. As an HR leader you need to represent the moral dimension of the organisation.

Paul Lewis is editorial director of the Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance