Let’s say you hire two accountants, both of whom graduated from college with a 3.9 grade-point average. What separates them in terms of their ability to go on to be leaders in your organization? What separates those who progress into higher roles with greater responsibilities and those who achieve an average career?

We’re a lot smarter these days about what makes employees successful. There’s been a considerable amount of research on this topic over the years, and through that research and our own expertise and experience, a general group of about 28 competencies associated with career success have emerged. Simply put, these are the characteristics that the best employees possess that help them achieve positive results.

Over the years, the research has sussed out which competencies are critical for success not only in specific occupations but in varying job levels such as individual contributors, mid-level managers and executive-level leaders. However, as organizations have become flatter, and business moves faster, employees are often called to use a broader range of competencies earlier in their careers to add value and be successful.

While good functional and technical skills and delivering results are important at every level, competencies like resilience, adaptability, resourcefulness, broad business perspective and strategic insight are the difference makers in today’s business environment. These skills are high-demand and often low-supply — important to success, but hard to find. They’re highly correlated with performance and promotion across all levels of organizations. Higher scores in these areas on 360-degree feedback can help to identify emerging leaders earlier.

We also group related leadership competencies in four major themes: personal, relational, critical thinking and results. Reviewing competencies by theme can help you detect patterns worth addressing in development plans.

Here’s an overview of some of the most vital leadership competencies.


Personal competencies like building and instilling trust, learning agility and listening skills are vital across all levels of the organization, but they are essential for individual contributors who are preparing for promotion to the next level. They tend to be overlooked or assumed at the beginning of people’s careers, but it’s never too early to start thinking about these competencies. At Success Labs, we’re big on professional branding. That means learning who you are as a leader (at any level) and understanding how your actions, reactions and interactions create an impression about your capabilities.


We often ask leaders “why would anyone want to work with you … or for you?” As you increase your contribution, getting work done shifts from you as an individual contributor to getting work done through people. Developing the skills to manage a broader array of stakeholder relationships becomes more important. Team building, political savvy, interpersonal savvy, conflict management, customer focus, communication, and coaching and developing others play into the theme of “relational” competencies.

Critical Thinking

Technical and functional skills are always important, but as an employee moves into managerial and executive roles, these skills become less of a focal point and critical thinking takes the lead. Creativity and innovation, in particular, are vital to keeping an organization competitive and moving ahead. These competencies are about adding value and setting your organization apart in the marketplace. Effective decision making, problem solving and process optimization all play a part in building critical thinking skills. As employees take on more responsibility, broad business perspective and strategic insight also become critical skills.


Often the difference between the high achievers and the average achievers is that the high achievers are able to drive accountability and manage change. High achievers also understand the big picture and are comfortable making decisions in the gray areas, thinking about the future and not letting discomfort hold them back. These employees can tend to struggle with delegating and directing work because they have managed so much for so long. This can be a big shift for managers, but it’s an important one. As an employee takes on more responsibility and team members, delivering results requires delegation, driving accountability, planning and organization, and resourcefulness.

How to Help Employees Develop Competencies

If you want to engage your emerging leaders and develop your talent pipeline, a good competency based development process is key. Helping your leaders and emerging leaders understand their strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for growth and development throughout their career is the best way to retain great people, build effective teams and create a successful organization.

Personal and professional experiences are still the best way to provide your employees with the opportunity to develop these competencies. Key jobs, key roles, important people in their lives — experiences that include hardships, challenges, bad bosses, good bosses and mentors — all provide leaders and emerging leaders with the real-life experiences they need to develop leadership competencies.

Need help developing your executive leadership competencies? Consider Success Labs 360 feedback and executive coaching.

Success Labs is a full-service, strategic organizational and leadership development company located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years, our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.