career planning, spirituality and work


Nicholas W. Weiler, in collaboration with Stephen C. Schoonover, M.D.

"Filled with practical, researched advice that is simultaneously both spiritual and profoundly down to earth." -M. Scott Peck, M.D., author of The Road Less Traveled

Excerpts from YOUR SOUL AT WORK, by Nicholas W. Weiler in collaboration Stephen C. Schoonover, M.D., copyright © 2001 by Nicholas W. Weiler and Stephen C. Schoonover. Used with permission of Paulist Press.

Critical Success Behaviors

An Example of the problem: Being Right Can Be Irrelevant

While most universities are good at teaching the important rational, scientific processes for solving problems, most schools, especially the highly technical ones, spend far too little time on teaching their students to communicate and sell their ideas. The students are not taught to build understanding and consensus among people with different personalities, work specialties and agendas (e.g., sales, finance, and engineering) whose cooperation is required if their ideas are to be implemented.

Several years ago I saw a classic example of how important communications and interpersonal skills are for anyone who wants to accomplish something - or negotiate a career - in organizations. I was reading a report about an unusually bright individual who had attended a large corporation's talent-assessment program. During the program participants worked in group problem solving exercises while a staff of psychologists and operational managers observed them. Afterwards participants received written feedback on their performance.

The feedback on this individual said he was so intelligent that he frequently had reasonable answers before the rest of the group had even defined the problem. Then the report made a statement I'll never forget. It said that his "being right was irrelevant".
How could his "being right" be "irrelevant"? It was irrelevant because he could never communicate his being right to the rest of the group, and all the problem solutions required their cooperation. At the end of each exercise he watched the others move off in the wrong direction because they never listened to him. He seemed oblivious to some of the important non-technical success behaviors and competencies we've observed in people who are effective at getting themselves heard and having impact.

Critical need for core non-technical performance and leadership competencies

After interviewing over 5000 people with multiple career specialties in over 60 Fortune 500 and other companies we identified a series of core non-technical performance and leadership competencies that distinguished successful performers at all levels. Our self-diagnostic tools listing specific success behaviors based on this research are currently being used in numerous national and international companies (GE, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Sun Microsystems, Apple, Citibank Hewlett-Packard etc). Various types of communications skills appear repeatedly in the behaviors people use to exercise these competencies. To illustrate the importance of these competencies, we'll start with a very common myth that hinders many in their efforts to become effective.
Myth: There is a right answer to every problem--and I should have it.

Much to the surprise of many, particularly younger recent college graduates, the right answer to most any work or career question (or problem) is also - like life - not a destination but a journey. The highly technical president of a major corporation made this point very forcibly one day when I heard him address a gathering of deans from top engineering schools. His opening comment brought the group instantly to attention.

When they asked why they were not, he said their graduates usually had excellent technical skills but they were naive in that they defined success as finding the right answer to technical problems. He told the deans that getting the students to break that mindset was very difficult and they could never succeed if they continued to think that way.

Then he described some important success behaviors that were very consistent with what we found in our research. He said that, in the real world technical leaders have to decide which one of many problems to work on. Once they have decided, they usually have to build consensus among a group of colleagues who often don't agree with them and want to pursue other problems. Once the leaders have consensus they have to negotiate resources, often competing with other groups seeking the same resources to pursue other problems.

His message was that in addition to their technical skills people have to learn a variety of non-technical behaviors (e.g. consensus building, effective communications, admitting and learning from their mistakes) if they want to be heard and have impact in the real world.

A research-based head start

As we said earlier, we have already conducted over 5,000 competency-focused interviews across many career fields. …In this section we will briefly outline some of the core competencies our interviews have identified as important in just about any career specialty. We will also show you a sample of a diagnostic tool you can use to assess yourself against these competencies.
From the research we have specified 12 core competencies that are critical for successful performance in nearly all career specialties. When we introduce these to our workshop participants it gives them a solid base to build on. They use this data base as a starting point, and then build from there by conducting Investigative Interviews to identify what additional specialized technical competencies are important in their individually chosen career fields.

This process of observing and interviewing managers and non-managers in both large and small organizations has taught us a great deal about what successful people do. It has also taught us about how they do it. Our interviews and focus groups have identified numerous things that successful and unsuccessful performers have in common - many behaviors both groups display regularly. But our analysis has focused on identifying a narrower, more practical set of distinguishing competencies and behaviors - things successful career strategists do that less successful people typically do not do.

If you know what these critical few are, you can focus your efforts on developing them - and eliminate much wasted time and energy spent on scattered and random personal development pursuits that have far less impact. Our research shows the 12 core competencies can be very powerful assets in the pursuit of any career strategy…

Three Competency Groups

There are three groups of competencies you need to explore in career planning. Our research can provide you with significant information on two of these three groups before you even begin your Investigative Interviews. The three groups are:

Functional/Technical Competencies. These are function-specific technical competencies required on a given career path (e.g., finance, engineering or computer systems). Training is usually readily available in these competencies. They are typically taught in local universities and technical schools. Our undergraduate major or trade school gives us a basic foundation of competence in the specialty we choose. Because knowledge is moving ahead very rapidly in many of these specialties (e.g., physics, psychology or automotive mechanics) we usually have to keep ourselves up-to-date through ongoing reading, graduate studies, or periodic participation in specialized courses offered by local schools or professional societies. Often our work organizations offer a variety of in-house training to keep employees up to date in the specialized technical competencies required for their work.

Core Non-Technical Competencies. In our experience this is a frequently overlooked, underestimated and ill-defined competency group, particularly among individuals who don't aspire to managerial positions. In current flatter and less hierarchical work environments anyone who wants to get his/her ideas heard and implemented will require a set of core competencies (e.g., communication, influence, planning, organizing and customer responsiveness) that in past, more hierarchical organizations have often been associated primarily with managerial positions. We call these core because they are not technical or function-specific. Those who want or need others to listen to, fund, act on, or support their ideas will require these core competencies no matter what technical/functional career specialty they pursue - and whether or not they ever aspire to formal managerial positions.

Leadership Competencies. In addition to the core competencies, the research shows there are some further supplementary competencies required for success by those who aspire to positions involving leadership of other people. Like the core competencies these are generic across all career specialties. These leadership competencies are important in both formal managerial positions and in informal non-managerial leadership positions. For instance, in today's organizations people often serve as team or project leaders directing the technical work of others who do not administratively report to them. The people whose work they lead report administratively to other managers and move in and out of their groups depending on when various projects need their expertise. While the core competencies are required by everyone at all organizational levels, the supplemental leadership competencies evolve and change depending on the level of leadership involved. Figure13 shows some examples under each of these competency groups.

Figure 13

We focused our research on the identification of what specific competencies will be required for success in the current and predicted future career environments.

Functional/technical competencies varied, of course, depending on the specific business or technologies different organizations were pursuing. They were absolutely essential, but most organizations we interviewed thought they were at least competing on a level playing field in these. They could define what was required and usually had ready access to training resources equal to those their competitors were using.

The Critical Difference

However, the core and leadership competency requirements presented a different story. Most felt these were harder to identify and define than the functional/technical competencies and that the universities and trade schools were doing very little to identify, define, or teach them. Because most organizations were having difficulty identifying and defining these competencies in any coherent and focused fashion, it was also difficult to learn much by tracking or benchmarking what other organizations did. Interestingly, most also felt these were the competencies most likely to give their organizations a competitive edge - or keep them alive if organization survival was an issue.

Core and leadership competencies were seen as critical catalysts. These provided the rare spark that was typically required to ignite innovation and new technology. These provided the energizing motivation that could steer innovation through the many roadblocks and tedious details required for successful implementation. Because the core and leadership competencies are often fuzzy and ill defined, those organizations that can identify and focus on teaching them to their people will have a performance edge that can tilt otherwise level global playing fields in their favor.

But what makes the critical difference in the core and leadership areas? When we brainstorm in focus groups with top leaders in almost any specialty, we've found most can paper the walls with chart sheets listing competencies they feel are important in their fields. It is like choosing doors. The problem is not that we can't identify enough, but that we can speculate on too many. How do we focus?

To help answer these questions we conducted in-depth interviews with identified top performers…. We focused on their specific observable behaviors on the job and looked for patterns the successful performers had in common. Based on that, we have identified a manageable number of core and leadership competencies we believe make the distinguishing difference in performance across different technical specialties and organizations.

The Most Important Few

Because the functional/technical competencies differed significantly depending on the type of organization and specific career specialties involved, the findings on those are too diverse to report here. Your own Investigative Interviews can identify those for the specific career field that interests you. Here we will focus instead on 12 core and a small number of supplemental leadership competencies that have emerged as most important for success across most career fields and organizations…

Twelve Core Competencies

Figure14 shows the twelve core competencies identified in the research as important for everyone. The competencies are organized in three sections: personal, team, and operational.


Of all the competencies identified in the interviews, these 12 are the core 20% that contributed most to the successful interviewees' effectiveness. When you have limited time, these 12 give you a highly leveraged starting point for identifying your own personal competency strengths and development needs.

Beyond the Labels

As shown in Figure 14, of course, these competencies are only labels. What do they mean? Labels alone are useless. You need to know how successful people act out these competencies in their behaviors. Here again the key is focus. You could take full semester courses on each of these individual competencies. You could learn a hundred different behaviors for each. However, with limited time it helps to know the distinguishing few. What are the three to five most important things the interviews showed successful people do to demonstrate each competency? Our research concentrated specifically on what these few most important distinguishing behaviors are. For example, Figure 15 shows the 5
most highly leveraged behaviors we found successful people demonstrate in performing the Communication and Influence competency.


We define these as observable behaviors because each describes a specific action or behavior you can perform - and you can readily observe whether you yourself and others are really performing them. These are not mysterious psychological traits. These are simple actions anyone can consciously choose to perform or not perform. If you rate yourself - or others rate you - as low on some of these behaviors that doesn't mean you're defective. It simply means you are not remembering or choosing to do them. The simple solution is to start doing them. You always have that option if you want to improve things. Practice can bring significantly increased skill in exercising each of the behaviors.

On the surface, many of these behaviors may seem obvious. When they are spelled out this clearly, most people would agree these are things we should be doing. When I first read one of Steve's competency models my immediate reaction was "so what's new?" After years of working with competency models myself - and seeing the positive results others have gained from working with them - I now realize that what's new is having the most important competencies spelled out clearly and succinctly, and having a readily available checklist to remind me to do them. What's also new is knowing what few of the hundreds of good things I might do are most likely to have the highest impact.

When less successful people read through the key behaviors for the competencies they
usually agree these behaviors are important, but typically they don't really do them and their excuse is they don't have time. Successful people acknowledge the importance of the behaviors and agree it's difficult to find time to do them. Typically, however, successful people tell us they force themselves to take the time because they've learned that doing these things saves much more time in the long run. It eliminates much wheel spinning and repetitive false starts which less successful people waste time on because they won't take time to rise above day-to-day fire fighting and find a way to prevent the fires from starting.

Learning by Observation

Successful people interviewed in the research said they learned the critical competency behaviors by:

  • Observing other successful people and copying what they did (i.e., productive behaviors)
  • Observing and learning from the mistakes (i.e., critical behavior omissions and counter productive behaviors) of unsuccessful people

Observation Checklist

Few of us are intuitive observers. We watch others' behavior but in the daily rush it isn't so easy to isolate what specific actions are making others successful - or unsuccessful - in their performance.

For instance, if I had the opportunity to observe a world class surgeon perform a complicated operation, when it was over I'd have a hard time saying what he or she specifically did or did not do that made the operation successful. On the other hand, if a medical student with a written checklist of key surgical behaviors for that operation watched, he or she could continually compare the surgeon's actions with the checklist and learn a great deal about what the surgeon was and was not doing to succeed.

Most of us could benefit from a similar checklist of core competencies - something we can carry around in our day planners and glance at to diagnose what's happening when we see others performing successfully or unsuccessfully. The checklist can help us learn in real time what works and doesn't work. It can also be a valuable self-assessment tool. When we succeed or fail at a leadership or communications attempt, we can later sit quietly at our desk and pinpoint what we specifically did or failed to do that influenced the outcome.

Core Competency Self-Assessment Form

Figure 16 illustrates the format we use for a competency assessment form designed to help you observe your own and others' behaviors. Here you see just one sample item from the three page Core Competency Self-Assessment Form we use in our workshops. The workbook has a complete copy of the full form for your personal use later when you do the workbook exercises.

Figure 16.

Our workshop participants use the full form to assess themselves against the core competencies. Then they focus even further and identify the top three observable behaviors they consider to be their greatest current weaknesses. These are those they most want to strengthen and develop further, either because they're weak (i.e., got low scores) or because they believe they're especially critical for immediate growth on the career paths they've chosen. The following meditation can give you a quick idea what that's like.

Brief Reflection

Read through the 5 critical behaviors listed in Figure 16 under the Continuous Learning competency. Which one of these behaviors are you performing best today? Which one or two do you perform least well today? Can you benefit from improving your performance on these?

The Career Strategies Workbook contains the complete self-assessment form you can use to complete your own self-assessment against all 12 core competencies when you do the workbook exercises later.

Focus and Multiple Uses

Reading through the competencies in the profile can be informative in that it gives you a quick overview and probably some new insight. However, just reading through the competencies is unlikely to have much lasting impact on your personal growth. If you're like me, by the time you get to the last competency in just reading a list like this you may not remember much of what you've read.

The competencies only come alive when we assess ourselves against them. You can use the self-assessment profile to identify the few behaviors you want to focus on first. Then you can take action to improve your performance in those areas. We can't learn all the behaviors simultaneously.

Again, the key word - and the antidote to being completely overloaded with busyness - is focus. We suggest you carry a copy of the profile in your brief case. You can use it on a day-to-day basis to help identify and maintain focus on precisely where you want to concentrate your personal improvement efforts. The profile has multiple uses that can help you maximize the limited time you have available for self -development by directing your energy to more highly leveraged areas with the greatest potential payoff. For example:

Observing Successful Performers

Like the medical student, you can use the profile to sharpen your real-time observations of various successful performers in action. In meetings, for instance, you can occasionally glance at the profile in your briefcase to help pinpoint what these performers are doing - or avoiding doing - that is making them effective. As we said earlier, this type of observation is how people we interviewed told us they learned from many mentors who never knew they were their mentors. Having a tool can help those of us who are not always intuitive observers do the same thing.

  • Diagnosing Problems - When you observe unsuccessful performers failing you can glance at the profile to diagnose what's causing the problems in real time - or you can go over it later to identify what happened.

  • Self-Diagnosis - You can better analyze what went wrong in your own performance failures. After a specific incident where you have not been effective, you can sit quietly in your office or at home and use this tool to take a few minutes and identify what you can do better - or avoid doing- to be more effective next time.

  • Getting and Giving Focused Performance Feedback - The profile provides a tool to solicit feedback from others about your own performance, or to give more objective feedback to others who solicit it.

  • Identifying Personal Development Needs - With limited time and resources available for personal learning, you can use the profile to determine your most critical competency gaps and seek out and negotiate appropriate training and on-the-job development experiences to fill the gaps.

Organizations we have worked with often use a tool like this to focus their performance appraisal programs on more relevant and actionable feedback. They also use the profile to help people in their training programs pinpoint their most important improvement needs.

Many do what has come to be known as a 360-degree feedback. Individuals give copies of the profile to a sampling of their managers, peers, customers, and subordinates (if they have any). These people rate them anonymously on the behaviors and fax an answer sheet to our office. Then the individual being rated gets a confidential (i.e., no one else in his/her organization sees it) computerized profile showing the averages of how various groups (e.g., customers or peers) evaluated each behavior. The feedback report also highlights participants' top ten behavioral strengths and weaknesses, and identifies those areas where their own self-assessment differs most from the averages of how others rated them.

Most people say this is the most objective, relevant and useful feedback they have ever received. They particularly like the profile's emphasis on specific behaviors they can choose to perform or not perform, as opposed to other more fuzzy or personality trait oriented feedback they've found to be less useful in the past.

Leadership Roles

The research showed that individuals who aspired to and succeeded in positions requiring leadership of other people moved through a series of progressive leadership roles as they took on increasingly higher levels of leadership responsibility. There are four generic roles that leaders passed through as they moved from team member (i.e., individual contributor) positions to increasingly more demanding levels of ad hoc leadership and/or administrative managerial responsibilities. These are:

  • Team Member - (Individual Contributor)
  • Team Leader - (Coach)
  • Mid-Level Manager - (Multiple Team Integrator)
  • Executive - (Strategist)

The Workbook contains a Role Determination Form. When you do the workbook exercises later you can use this form to determine which role best fits your current responsibilities and which (if any) additional roles you might aspire to. If you aspire to one or more of the leadership roles the workbook also contains a Leadership Competency Self-Assessment Form, you can use to assess yourself against those few additional competencies required for each role.

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