Contributed Column

The Manager’s Corner

by Emily Morrow

Workplace superstars: abilities that sort the wheat from the chaff

Frequently, I am asked by clients to interview job finalists for key positions in a firm. Not surprisingly, these finalists typically have undergraduate/graduate degrees from prestigious educational institutions and impressive job histories. When the applicants appear at an interview, they usually present as capable, bright, well-dressed, and personable.

My role is to evaluate their non-technical skills — assuming they all have the technical skills and training to do the job — to determine which will most likely succeed personally and professionally in the firm and in the larger community long-term.

With this in mind, I make a point of only cursorily reviewing their resumes; what I am looking for is not likely to be found there. On what abilities should I focus? What are the critical intangible abilities that the most successful, highest performing people have in common and how do they manifest these abilities in the workplace?

This is a question I’ve often asked myself in over 30 years of working with entrepreneurs, executives, managers, professionals, rising stars, and established superstars — in for-profit and not-for-profit sectors both in the U.S. and overseas. Gradually, I’ve progressed from simply identifying individual success stories to focusing on the critical abilities that most of the high performers I’ve worked with have in common.

I have consistently noticed that the “best of the best” do the following.

1. They influence others.

They are able to obtain superior results with individuals over whom they have no direct authority, but whose actions directly affect the success of the organization.

2. They synergize.

They work effectively with their peers to obtain better organizational results across divisions rather than just operating in their own silos.

3. They enable others.

They manage individuals for whom they are responsible by managing, leading, and coaching them forward rather than relying on authority for motivation.

4. They energize.

They obtain superior results by creating an inspirational culture in which individuals are motivated by opportunity rather than fear, anxiety, and the like.

5. They create trust.

They create the belief, among direct-reports and others, in the reliability of the organization through the consistency of its leaders — that is, leadership “walks the talk” in terms of the organization’s core values — thereby giving everyone the confidence to act optimally in their roles.

As you might expect, when the economy is strong, if an individual lacks one or more of these abilities, the system is more forgiving and the deficiency less obvious. However, during an economic downturn, the deficiencies manifest themselves quickly, intensely and counterproductively. I frequently work with clients to identify which of these abilities they or their employees lack, how to learn them, and how to incorporate them into the workplace quickly and reliably.

Fortunately, like technical or professional skills, these intangible skills can be developed with a bit of attention, practice, effort and insight. Similarly, in the context of interviewing job candidates, consider focusing on how the individual approaches a task rather than what he/she has accomplished.

For example, if the applicant is describing supervising others, listen carefully. Is his/her focus primarily on the exercise of authority or on the subtle use of influence to create an environment in which employees are enabled and energized and trust the system? Watch carefully for that powerful blend of humility and self-confidence, which is often associated, I find, with high performers who intuitively have the five abilities I’ve described. •

Emily Morrow provides tailored consulting services to business owners, executives and HR professionals in a wide variety of industry sectors including retail, financial services, web-based businesses, manufacturing, professional services, and nonprofits. She can be reached at

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