Who Will Succeed?

Published: Jul 22, 2019
Modified: Dec 20, 2021

By Emmett C. Murphy, Ph.D.

Fifteen percent of your people will determine 90% of your success. These 15% are the “talent leaders” who build a magnet of achievement that pulls 40% of your other employees toward achievement in service, innovation, and stewardship. They’re the people who translate their potential into action and set themselves and as a result, your organization, on the path to success.

What distinguishes these high achievers from others? What are the specific behaviors that predict success? How can these behaviors be developed, reinforced, and projected onto the organization as a whole? And conversely, what are the roadblocks that can cause even the most talented performers to fail?

These are some of the questions I set out to answer in my book Talent IQ. The aim of the book was threefold:

  1. To help leaders identify their organization’s top performers
  2. To improve or remove underachievers
  3. To boost productivity and profits as a result

Based on research with 992 organizations in virtually every sphere of business, health-care, government, and public service, involving over 100,000 subjects over a 15-year period, some definitive answers emerged. I’ll share some of them here.

Achievers Succeed

There are three categories of workers:

  1. Achievers. They are the people who tell themselves, “I will succeed based on my own skills, abilities and accomplishments.”
  2. Affiliators. These people seek to get ahead through personal relationships or solicitation.
  3. Bullies. They get ahead through coercion.

This isn’t to say that Bullies don’t value relationships, for they realize that the ultimate path of the Achiever is to serve and share. And, they certainly are aware of the importance of power and influence, as many Achievers express themselves through leadership and management, finding the fiduciary role an opportunity to serve at a more comprehensive level.

Achievers understand these needs and more. We found that Achievers move up a behavioral ladder. They begin with the resolve to succeed on their own merit, then move to a “form must follow function” pragmatism in problem-solving, on to a strategic humility that checks for and fills in knowledge gaps. Once Achievers master the basics, these talent leaders realize that you can’t achieve in isolation and they seek out partnerships.

Then, from the cooperation and sharing that partnership teaches emerges a decision to commit to relationship and the follow through it requires and justifies. Such commitment, in turn, overcomes apprehension and fear of failure to fuel hope and optimism, which, in turn, leads to responsibility. Individual will matures and proclaims confidence and life ownership: “This is my life. Right and wrong; it’s mine and I’m proud of it.”

We found that this progression to responsibility is expressed through three distinct paths: achievement in service, innovation, and management. The “achievement grid” that results from matching the ladder with these three paths produces an array of traits that make identification, selection, and recognition of Achievement behavior more tangible. Intriguingly, these traits made it very clear that, regardless of which path an Achiever takes, a touch of the heroic will ultimately result, whether it’s the innovation of Wilson Greatbatch’s invention of the pacemaker, Andy Grove’s strong vision and fiduciary leadership, or Marliese Mooney’s commitment to service when, as CEO of an international health-care consulting group, she returned to the front lines of nursing service to expose an international infant smuggling ring.

The Need: A New Level of Talent IQ
Our research also found that as the Achiever traits emerge and selection, coaching, and recognition processes are redesigned to reinforce talent development, it becomes clear that a new level of intelligence and competence has to emerge as well. Resolving conflicts through ambiguous facilitation has to be replaced by a more reality-centered strategy that focuses on achievement for the customer. Similarly, procedurally complex team protocols have to be replaced by a more vigorously creative problem-solving process. And, coaching that focuses on achievement in service, innovation, and management is much more effective than non-directed coaching.

Up and down the leadership skills ladder, it became evident that a new set of more intelligent, less invasive, and more responsive skills had to be developed.

The Risk: On-the-Bubble Behavior
This led to a third and more troubling finding. At an almost epidemic level, leaders seemed to be avoiding the behavior of talent gone awry. We titled this behavior “talent on-the-bubble,” and it can take any organization and its leadership team down if ignored. Talent on-the-bubble can make a mockery of organizational values, sap creative energy, and drive highly talented top performers out.

This behavior is the mirror opposite of Achievement behavior. Where achievement is a process of moving up the ladder of responsibility for one’s behavior, transitioning from achievement to partnership, commitment, optimism, and responsibility, on-the-bubble behavior moves down a treacherous slope from fence-sitting to avoidance, hostility, contempt, and irresponsibility. Instead of engagement, empathy, generosity, and beneficence, guidance, and responsibility in service, the “on-the-bubble” person plays the procrastinator, martyr, critical gossip, manipulator, and backstabber. As a result, the on-the-bubble person systematically destabilizes the workplace, leaving a path of chaos in his or her wake.

Where the Innovator moves up the ladder from seeker to knowledge leader, empowerer, discoverer, and break-through thinker, the “on-the-bubble” human sink hole moves from narcissist to fear monger, to fatalist, and suicide, sucking the creative energy out of the organization in an ultimately futile act of sabotage.

Here’s an example. Let’s say the fiduciary manager moves through the following phases:

  1. organizing and prioritizing to bring order;
  2. building relationship clusters to act on those priorities;
  3. serving as a guardian of mission and values;
  4. direct problem-solving in the front-lines to infuse hope and resolve; and
  5. heroic leadership where vision is translated into comprehensive practice.

In contrast, the “on-the-bubble” person moves from stonewalling progress to curmudgeonly avoidance, sadistic bullying, and calculated bombing until he or she ultimately becomes a sociopathic predator.

The Choice for Leaders
Perhaps our most significant finding is that leaders must consciously decide to embrace achievement if they and their organizations are to succeed. When leaders don’t openly embrace and encourage talent they tacitly permit the backstabbers, self-destroyers, and predators to make the decisions for them. Sadly, a culture of contempt and the failure inevitably follows.

After two decades of downsizing and often ill-conceived disposal of talent capital, our most talented Achievers have become the most skeptical and perhaps the most cynical members of the workforce. We are losing our best and brightest employees, the ones who inspire all of us to becomes our best selves. Our society and economy are at a talent tipping point. For a lesson as to why all we have to do is look to the East. The Indians and Chinese are stocking their talent pools while ours are emptying.

The time for action is now. Success will go to the talented. We’d better start doing a better job of identifying, selecting, and recognizing the people who will determine our success before it’s too late.

About the Author(s)

Emmett C. Murphy is the founder and former chairman and CEO of E.C. Murphy VHA, LLC, the consulting arm of the world’s largest business and health-care alliance specializing in business restructuring and executive compensation. He has served as faculty and consultant for the Harvard School of Medicine, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Booz Allen Hamilton, and London University. He holds a Ph.D. in organizational psychology with postdoctoral studies in organizational development and clinical counseling. The author of the New York Times best-seller Leadership IQ, his most recent book is Talent IQ (Platinum Press, 2007).