The top 5 characteristics of highly successful executives & professionals


I’ve worked with thousands of senior clients over the years, (including high profile executives and professionals), to help propel their career. Most of my clients have been fabulous, occasionally brilliant and even more occasionally (in fact very rarely) a PITA. What I’ve found, is that generally speaking, the higher up the career ladder, the easier the client is to work with. Yes, they have complex work histories and yes, it does take longer to create an effective brand, but they are easier to work with, because they are more willing to invest their time and energy into the process, making my life easier as a career writer.

So anecdotally, I thought back to what my most successful clients had in common and I came up with this list:

  • They take action
  • Their communication and interpersonal (soft) skills are generally way above average
  • They generally possess a large network of contacts
  • They are prepared to invest in themselves
  • Their careers are never stagnant

Then based on this list, I started researching the characteristics of successful executives and professionals. And while the characteristics were different, depending on whether I was reading a Harvard Review, a psychologist report, or an article in Forbes, the characteristics I described above, did ring true in the majority of sources I reviewed. And the good news is, most of these traits can be learned, in spite of different personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values, and beliefs of individuals.

They take action

The bulk of my clients are big action takers and this is reflected in their work history and attitude when working with me.  Just through the simple act of doing and taking swift and responsible decisions, they achieve. They don’t tend to procrastinate and over-think things.

  • They don’t spend months getting data back to me – they schedule time out and get invaluable information back within a very short period of time.
  • Their work history reflects a pattern of asking what needs to be done, developing action plans, taking responsibility for decisions and seeing that it is done. I’m often left amazed at what some of my clients achieve within a very short period of time – I’m literally bowled over by them.
  • They are always up for the next challenge.
  • They quickly delegate tasks and once they have made up their mind to appoint me to write their career documents, they don’t second-guess my expertise, as they understand that they are not a genius at everything.
  • They don’t sweat the small stuff, understanding that an ongoing exchange in relation to what ‘font’ to use is not going to advance their career.

All of my top clients, take action, make decisions and delegate effectively.

Their communication and interpersonal (soft) skills are generally above average

Having worked with former Senators, Directors at the highest level, and all sorts of professionals (you name a profession, and I’ve worked with someone from that profession) and I’ve discovered that generally speaking those at the lower level tend to have less effective interpersonal and communication (soft) skills. Now, this broad generalisation is just that – broad and not an accurate portrayal of reality, as there are also people at the top level with questionable interpersonal skills. But I’ve discovered over the years, that the higher up the career ladder, the better the soft skills tend to be.

  • Yes, their correspondence tends to be brief and to the point, but it is always impeccably polite and respectful.
  • Yes, they are paying me, but they always acknowledge the work that I’m doing and thank me for my efforts.
  • When I talk with these high-level clients, they are generally receptive and many can be a lot of fun.

Now, not all of my clients have been charismatic, extroverts, easy going, or generous. However, they have all learnt the art of being effective, through excellent communication skills and taking responsibility for that communication and engagement process. The good news is, that it is something that you can learn and you don’t need to be a natural extrovert, to master these skills. A good starting point is the age-old classic How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.  Apparently Warren Buffett took the Dale Carnegie Course and attributes it to his ability to influence and successfully communicate with people.

They generally possess a large network of contacts

A good portion of my most successful clients possesses a large network of contacts that they tap into. Most of these networks have been developed over a long period of time and through these connections they make life hum, whether seeking out opportunities, securing advice, or in the case of many of my clients, giving back to the community and helping others. Networking works, if done effectively and the compound effects of networking can be significant and long lasting.

They are prepared to invest in themselves

The most successful clients I work with, are prepared to invest in themselves, simply because they value themselves.  

  • They work with and seek out mentors, or are happy mentoring others.
  • They are continually learning and hence enrol in courses, or are avid readers, to ensure that they are at the top of their profession.
  • If  they want to learn something, they just go directly to the best in town and learn directly from them.
  • They don’t blink an eye, when investing a couple of thousand on themselves, as they see it as an investment and understand it will result in better positions, better offers and a faster career transition.

By investing in themselves, they generally shape a life that they want!

Their careers are never stagnant 

Most of the successful clients I work with don’t have stagnant career. Rarely have they remained in the same place for more than a few years. Instead of taking the career ladder, one step at a time, they are looking at the broader picture and comfortably switching companies to secure experience and exposure. That is, they are generally more open to risk and realise that a career is not linear or straightforward.

I’ve had clients from within government that have exposure across multiple Government agencies and skipped classification levels altogether. With such exposure across different Departments, they have become primary decision-makers in whole-of-government approaches and leveraged the experience from one Department and used it with great effectiveness in another Department. They are continuously evolving and moving and taking career risks. 

From the private sector, I’ve had clients get exposure across multiple industries and if they are not getting exposure across multiple industries, they are happy to change organisation. Rarely does a person make massive progress within the same company, they tend to switch to a different company. Staying in the same company might appear to be a safe option and it does work in some circumstances, but those that move, tend to accelerate their careers. Sometimes the move is sideways – sometimes the move involves massive growth and enormous challenges. But these moves are what propel careers along with going for a promotion at every opportunity.    

These are my general observations over a period of 14 years. Of course, these are just anecdotal and not based on surveys, or facts, but I believe the list provides an important starting point, if you are looking to unlock the secrets to having a highly successful career.

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