What Kind of Smarts Do You Have?

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

Twelve specific and very important cognitive functions begin developing in the brain at birth. These "executive skills” are built in to every individual and are fully developed—and unchangeable—by adulthood. Everyone has these same capabilities, but to varying degrees. And it is this unique and unalterable combination of one’s strengths and weaknesses that determines success or failure in any given role. The 12 executive skills are:

1. Self-Restraint. The ability to allow time to evaluate a situation before speaking or acting on it. If you’re strong in this skill: you gather information and consider all the angles before committing. You take a methodical approach to problem solving. If it’s your weakness: you’re impulsive. You tend to shoot your mouth off and bite off more than you can chew.

2. Working Memory. The ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks. If you’re strong in this skill: you keep your eye on the ball, regardless of how many balls you’re juggling. You never need a shopping list. You can be counted on to follow through. If it’s your weakness: you can’t remember directions. You routinely lose your keys. Friends kid you about being absent-minded.

3. Emotion Control: The ability to manage emotions in order to direct behavior and achieve goals. If you’re strong in this skill: you go with the flow and keep cool under pressure. You’re resilient in the face of setbacks and not easily discouraged. If it’s your weakness: you’re extremely sensitive to criticism. You’re quick to lose your temper and slow to recover from negative comments.

4. Focus: The capacity to maintain attention to a situation in spite of distractibility, fatigue, or boredom. If you’re strong in this skill: even in a noisy office, and even if you’re tired, you can concentrate on an important proposal. You don’t get derailed by interruptions. If it’s your weakness: you’re easily sidetracked by office gossip. You often find yourself daydreaming.

5. Task Initiation: The ability to begin projects in a timely manner. If you’re strong in this skill: you’re action-oriented and self-starting. Given an assignment that’s due in three weeks, you delve right in and begin working immediately. If it’s your weakness: you procrastinate. You need several reminders to do tasks and chores. You go back to sleep after the alarm goes off.

6. Planning/Prioritization: The capacity to develop a road map to reach a goal, knowing which are the most important signposts along the way. If you’re strong in this skill: you develop step-by-step processes to tackle huge tasks. You plan your vacation months ahead of time. If it’s your weakness: you have a problem with commitment. You agonize over deciding which kind of restaurant to go to.

7. Organization: The ability to arrange materials or tasks according to a system. If you’re strong in this skill: you create a schedule to manage the week’s work. You have a place for everything. You pay attention to detail. You always keep your desk neat. If it’s your weakness: you habitually misplace or lose items. You double-book events. You’re used to being called messy…and worse.

8. Time-Management: The capacity to estimate the time required for a task, allocate it effectively, and meet deadlines. If you’re strong in this skill: you pride yourself on being punctual. You know how to delegate and stick to a tight agenda. If it’s your weakness: you’re frequently late for appointments. You often rush to finish a report needed for a meeting that is just about starting. You tend to lose track of time.

9. Defining and Achieving Goals: The ability to set a goal and follow through, despite competing interests. If you’re strong in this skill: You always finish what you start. You’re known for being reliable. If it’s your weakness: you’re super at start-up but struggle with sticking with projects. The goals you set for yourself tend to be vague and you quickly abandon them when obstacles arise.

10. Flexibility: The ability to revise plans due to setbacks or new information. If you’re strong in this skill: you quickly adapt to unexpected changes in plans. When the first solution doesn’t work, you try alternatives. You can work with ambiguity and uncertainty. If it’s your weakness: you can’t vary from schedule without feeling rattled. You have trouble listening to others’ points of view and incorporating their input.

11. Observation: The capacity to stand back and take a bird's eye view of yourself in a situation and make changes in approach to problem solving. If you’re strong in this skill: you’re self-reflective and impartial. You learn from watching how others do things differently from you. If it’s your weakness: you have difficulty seeing the big picture and trouble reading reactions to your behavior. When problems arise, you frequently decide they can’t be solved due to factors beyond your control.

12. Stress Tolerance: The ability to thrive under fire and in the face of uncertainty. If you’re strong in this skill: you see unexpected obstacles as interesting challenges to be overcome. You are emotionally steady in a crisis. If it’s your weakness, when things happen too fast or too many things happen at once, your anxiety level rises. You lie awake at night worrying about what stressful scenario might happen next.

Different kinds of work call for different skills. For example, any task that requires a lot of attention to fine detail, such as constantly tracking disparate pieces of information, would be best done by someone strong in two executive skills: organization and working memory. Here are some other types of work and the requisite executive skills:

• Strategy. An activity or position that requires innovative, out-of-the-box thinking calls for a creative spirit high in the executive skills of observation and flexibility.

• Troubleshooting or crisis management. An activity that requires dealing with constant turmoil, high pressure, and uncertainty would be best suited for someone strong in three executive skills: stress tolerance, flexibility, and emotional control.

• Working alone. If you are considering a situation that routinely requires working alone, such as out of a home office, high executive skills should be task initiation, focus, and time management. Otherwise, you might find yourself spending much of your time drifting through the day without getting much accomplished.

• Highly interactive. Jobs that involve a lot of highly participative teamwork or dealing with many people within short spans of time require one critical executive skill: flexibility.

• Customer service. Whether you work in a call center fielding customer inquiries and complaints, as a customer service agent and last line of defense before losing a client, or a pro-active customer care professional, your job depends on a quartet of executive skills: self-restraint, flexibility, emotion control, and task initiation.

• Marketing. To excel in this specialty, you need to be able to deliver results in a less rigid environment and stay open to, as well as generate, new ideas. This takes strength in three executive skills: flexibility, planning/prioritization, and observation.

• The bottom line. If you’re drawn to a numbers-driven career, you better come prepared with a portfolio of high-performing executive skills: defining and achieving goals, focus, and planning/prioritization.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from target=_blank>Smarts: Are We Hardwired for Success by Chuck Martin with Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. Copyright 2007, Chuck Martin, Peg Dawson, and Richard Guare. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. Click here for more information about this title. For information about other AMACOM books, visit http://www.amanet.org/books/