During my career I have had the privilege of working with a number of extraordinarily talented individuals. Some have been in academia (both teachers and students), some in business leadership roles, some in the arts, some in consulting, and quite a few in safety. My collection of expert friends and colleagues is quite diverse. But I see some common denominator characteristics clearly visible among the most competent and successful of them, regardless of their profession. The following skill sets are distinctive of leaders in their fields, and defines the kinds of top-notch associates that others want to work with.

1 Cognitive skills

People who succeed tend to be generally pretty smart. Their intelligence may be the conventional “book smarts” measured by IQ tests, or cleverness and creativity, or political acumen/”street smarts,” or a combination of the above. Whatever form their intelligence takes, they are smart, quick, interested, thoughtful, inquisitive people. They want to know more and to get better at the things they do. They are deeply curious.

Cognitive abilities are harnessed to become good problem-solvers and decision-makers. Certainly mistakes will be made (leaders are, after all, human). Still, they are right much more often than they are wrong. They read and watch and listen, and take in the world around themselves. They store and learn from experiences. They are mindful. They are able to think both strategically (long term) and tactically (focused on the here and now), as needed.

2 Self-management skills

Identifying goals and creating (and following) steps to achieve those goals are marks of success. Leaders are able to delay gratification, and to make short-term sacrifices (e.g., work through the weekend to meet an important deadline rather than take the weekend off and miss the deadline) in service of longer-term gains. In short, they have self-discipline, deliver on commitments, are dependable, honest and ethical, and have personal integrity. They don’t cheat, even if they might get away with it.

3 Drive

We’re talking active, energetic, “big motor” types. Self-starters, focused and relentless in the pursuit of excellence. You might worry about how to aim them, but you don’t have to worry about how to get them going.

4 Relationship skills

 Do you work well with others? Are you a good communicator, not only in terms of clear and persuasive speaking, but also in terms of listening? Leaders are influencers. They keep others in the know, appropriately. I can’t overstate the value of good communication skills.

An area of strength is emotional intelligence (EQ), being aware of your impact on others, reading others’ nonverbal signals, etc. Successful people are not hard to read. They don’t send mixed messages. They don’t allow their emotions to get the better of them; no meltdowns. Stable and steady, in the best sense they are predictable. They inspire trust.

They may naturally like people. More to the point of career success, leaders skillfully build and maintain close relationships. Team-oriented, comfortable providing leadership and direction, the successful are just as comfortable working as a member of the group, following the lead of others.

Talented, competent people tend to be generous with their knowledge; they are prone to coach and help others. They also tend to be generous in giving deserved credit to others, and careful in giving negative/corrective feedback, when necessary, in ways that are supportive, not demeaning.

Of the traits identified here, relationship skills, starting with communication, might be most crucial. They can compensate for lower horsepower in other skill sets. You don’t need to be the smartest guy in the room if you can find the smartest people and have them on your team, committed to working with you.

5 Flexibility and adaptability

Less successful counterparts tend to have more trouble handling change. The talented and competent accept, adapt to change, and move forward. They may even initiate constructive change for themselves. They are not unduly upset by the reality of unrelenting change.

6 Resilience and optimism

It’s critical to frame failure or disappointment in ways that motivate rather than devastate. When things go wrong, don’t spend a lot of time feeling sorry for yourself or looking for others (or cruel fate) to blame. Tend to your own the problem, fix it, and make sure not to do that one again. Spend more time moving forward than ruminating on mistakes of the past. To use a favorite phrase of mine, “big windshield, small rear view mirror.” Have an attitude that underlies positive self-fulfilling prophesies. Your “self-talk” (we all do it) should be more positive (“I can do this!”) than negative (“Oh no, I really screwed it up this time!”).   

7 Depth and breadth

Successful people tend to be deeply engaged in a few areas of expertise. Some stop there. But others combine great depth of expertise with breadth of interest and focus. I have borrowed from other writers the term and the concept “deep generalist.” I know that some authors tilt strongly towards depth alone (captured in the “hedgehog concept,” popularized in the blockbuster book Good to Great.) Still, many of the successful experts I have worked with are not just on a single track. They combine deep expertise in a few areas with broad interest in other areas, and sometimes a great number of them.

So, are the most successful among us born that way, or are such attributes learned?

As with any psychological/behavioral characteristic, the attributes identified here result from an interaction of heredity and environment. Some successful people mostly have it in their DNA (lucky them). But whatever gifts come with the genetic wiring, mindful experience combined with focused effort can enhance those gifts to their highest level. Indeed, even if nature has not been overly generous with laying the foundation for these attributes of success, all of us can build muscle in any of these areas.

Technical expertise and job knowledge are obviously important to prosper in the world of work. I would not minimize them. The work of the safety professional requires a great deal of technical know-how. But the most technically adept are not automatically the most successful. The personal qualities of competence outlined here are the great multipliers of technical ability. They are the difference makers, other things equal.