How to climb the ladder without falling off
Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.
What can we learn from successful executives about how to climb the corporate ladder?
Studies of high potential executives conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership in the 1980s and 1990s provide some interesting findings. They found that the success factors are the same for men and women, although the 1980s studies found that in order to succeed at the highest levels, women were expected to have more strengths, and fewer faults, than male counterparts.
Successful executives have predictable strengths: the ability to work well with others, an outstanding track record, intelligence, and strong communication skills. But the most frequently listed characteristic may surprise you. Can you guess what's at the top of the list? Adaptability.
Adaptability: the Essential Ingredient
The ability to change and develop in times of transition is a critical asset for success in a rapidly changing work environment. Transitions can take varied forms, such as changes in jobs, career paths, cultures, or organizations. Inflexibility has never been a professional asset, but in a changing world, it can be a fatal flaw.
Adaptability can be observed in small ways and large. A childhood friend of mine decided to switch jobs and cities (though not employers) with greater ease than I was able to change hairdressers (in my self-defense, the last time I went to someone new I ended up looking like Anita Bryant's double with a bubble haircut from the 1960s).  Still, the amount of time I spent contemplating the proposed change was time that could have been devoted more fruitfully to business development or program design. Luckily, my clients don't evaluate me on hairstyle adaptability. But adaptability colors many professional judgments and has important effects on career success.
Emotional Intelligence is More Important than Brainpower
Another hidden set of requirements for success have to do with so-called "soft" or interpersonal skills. What we have long suspected has now been verified: It's not what you know, It's what you understand. Many of the critical skills for success are interpersonal. Across jobs and industries, skills related to understanding and control of emotions (emotional intelligence, or EQ for short) are twice as important to success as intelligence and technical expertise combined! In highly intellectual and demanding professions like law, intelligence is just an entrance requirement. Superior performance and leadership depend almost exclusively on emotional intelligence abilities.
As defined by Daniel Goleman in his two best-selling books, there are five dimensions of emotional intelligence. Three are personal competencies: knowing and managing your feelings, and motivating yourself. The other two are social competencies, namely empathy and social skills.
The impact of EQ is observable even on the grade school playground! Goleman describes how the emotionally intelligent child is adept at integrating into an existing group, by observing the group and slowly, carefully joining the interaction. The less skilled child barges into the group and attempts to take over and is rebuffed for these clumsy efforts. 
We see the differences in emotional intelligence at play in our work lives: the colleague who lashes out at others without the ability to control his anger, and sometimes, without even consciousness of the negative impact he has on others; the manager who imposes deadlines and tasks with greater severity when she does not get the desired results without understanding the reactions of her subordinates; the partner who is puzzled by former clients who choose to work with other lawyers because she cannot see how her sense of intellectual superiority is communicated to clients in many subtle but perceptible condescending ways; the associate so eager to prove how smart he is that he cannot listen to anyone else. Do you know anyone who exhibits these behaviors?
Women Are Not Better than Men
Lest you think that women have the edge in EQ, evidence shows that women and men are equally as intelligent emotionally, but are strong in different areas: women score higher than men on measures of empathy and social skills, while men score higher on stress tolerance and self-confidence. Research presented in a leading psychology journal shows just how tenuous self-confidence can be. When asked to participate in an obviously ludicrous experiment of completing a math test while trying on a bathing suit, women's performance was significantly poorer while men's performance was unimpaired. If an intentionally silly experiment can reduce self-confidence, what about the real workplace traumas?
Moving Up Depends on Interpersonal Skills More than Technical Expertise
Not only are interpersonal skills more important than technical skills and cognitive intelligence, as an individual moves up in an organization (corporation or law firm), success depends increasingly on interpersonal skills and correspondingly less on technical skills. Promotions increasingly lead to management roles rather than independent contributor roles, where lack of sociability or problems with relationships are less easily tolerated.
Is Emotional Intelligence Inherited or Learned?
The good news about emotional intelligence is that it can be learned. The bad news is that like any change in behavior, it is not susceptible to one-shot training. Changing ingrained patterns of behavior is a process which requires individual attention, ongoing performance feedback and coaching, clear and realistic goals, rewards and accountability for change -- plus lots of practice -- to turn good intentions into emotionally intelligent behavior. Psychologists and executive coaches can design individual and group programs to teach emotional intelligence competencies such as assertiveness skills or stress-management techniques for women or listening skills for men.
How Do You Measure Up?
Success requires many things: intelligence, high performance, good working relationships are obvious requirements. Adaptability to change and feedback and emotional intelligence are not so obvious but equally important. How do you measure up? How would you like yourself to grow and change? Can you do it yourself or would it be smart to get some help? You're worth it.
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