If you want to know what makes a good shoe, ask a good shoemaker (if you can find one). Chefs can tell you whether a dish works or not, and why. (Chefs also know productivity.)

So, if you want to know what makes for successful leadership, it can make sense to ask successful leaders, as management consulting firm Gap International did. The firm surveyed 301 executives from companies that had at least $1 billion in annual revenue and asked them questions about what qualities were most important in employees. The options they presented were:

  • mindset/attitude
  • people skills/team building
  • industry experience
  • technical skillset/expertise
  • education

The leaders were asked to rank each of these in importance and then showed the results of the first choice picks. Mindset was on top at 34 percent, followed closely by people skills and team building, at 31 percent.

But forget that view. Instead, let's look at how the list fared when the researchers examined how often the factors were rated as either the most important or second most important:

  1. people skills/team building (64 percent)
  2. mindset/attitude (60 percent)
  3. industry experience (32 percent)
  4. technical skillset/expertise (30 percent)
  5. education (15 percent)

I'd argue that the result shouldn't be surprising, at least at the top. If you're a leader, your job is to work with people and motivate, coach, and gently direct them to follow a common goal and achieve the results that will help the company as a whole get to where it wants to. You also need the right attitude to keep going even when things get difficult.

Those two characteristics sit above all others and create a foundation for success. However, people skills and a happy face aren't enough by themselves to be a successful leader. Perhaps that's why there was a second tier, with industry experience and technical expertise. It is possible to move between industries or to learn enough to cross roles, like someone I know who was the CIO at the company before becoming the CMO. And there are multiple cases I've seen of a marketing or finance person becoming a CIO, because the job is about managing others, not about necessarily knowing how to run a network or write code.

Education came up at the rear, also for a very good reason. A particular school pedigree is going to guarantee practically nothing. I've also seen many people with MBAs who should never be left unattended around a decision making role. It's too easy to confuse book learning and classroom dictates with reality.

However, remember to take all advice with some salt. There's still that tricky issue of narcissists often emerging as corporate leaders, because the qualities to work through the politicking of getting the job aren't necessarily those necessary to do it well.

Published on: May 5, 2015