The best managers have 4 main skills, says CEO of 14 years—here's a breakdown in one chart

So you want to be a leader, whether than means inspiring an entire organization or managing a small team — but do you know what it takes to succeed?

As the CEO of one of the world's largest organizational consulting firms, I've spent more than 14 years working with researchers and workplace experts to identify the skills and traits that have gotten people ahead.

Drawing from assessments of nearly 30,000 people at entry-level, mid-level and C-suite, we compiled high-performance profiles that define what it takes to be great at each of these levels.

What a good leader looks like

The best leaders have four key skills:

  1. Adaptability: Being comfortable with unanticipated changes and diverse situations; being able to adjust to constraints and rebound from adversity.
  2. Curiosity: Approaching problems in novel ways; seeing patterns and understanding how to synthesize complex information; having the desire to achieve deep a understanding of things.
  3. Detail-oriented: Having the ability to systematically carry out tasks as assigned, with an understanding of the procedures and the importance of exactitude.
  4. Tolerance of ambiguity: Being comfortable with uncertainty and willing to make decisions and plans in the face of incomplete information.

The chart below shows how these four traits relate to performance in the context of handling novel and uncertain situations, depending on an individual's level of experience:

Being detail-oriented is key for entry-level managers

Focusing on the center of the chart, we can see that being detail-oriented is a trait that makes entry-level managers great.

The greater the focus on detail at entry-level, the more coworkers and bosses can count on assignments being completed thoroughly and accurately. In fact, detail orientation is so important, it is the "peak" for the high-performing entry-level employee.

Mid-level managers must focus on delegating

For mid-level managers, detail orientation is less pronounced (a lower target to hit), but it remains an important aspect of being an effective leader.

However, high performance means successfully delegating to others. A mid-level or senior leader who gets personally bogged down in the details is ineffective and will not have the necessary mental bandwidth to focus on strategy.

From entry-level to mid-level, excellence means ramping up in adaptability and tolerance of ambiguity, both of which come with experience, particularly involving decision-making and taking on greater responsibilities.

Where it all comes together

At the C-suite level, high-performing leaders are extremely adaptable and tolerant of ambiguity. So they not only react to change, but also initiate it.

Finally, at all three levels, curiosity is a distinguishing trait — and key to the upward movement. Here's how curiosity plays into each level:

  • Entry-level: Curiosity goes beyond the normal learning curve and includes taking the initiative to soak up new experiences and build new skills.
  • Mid-level: Curiosity leads to competencies in new areas, such as taking on stretch assignments that are almost beyond their capabilities, or immersing themselves in the unfamiliar, such as working in a different country or region.
  • C-suite level: Curiosity prompts the engagement in lifelong learning, which is a prerequisite to greatness.

Gary Burnison is a best-selling author and the CEO of Korn Ferry, the world's largest global organizational consulting firm. His books include "Leadership U: Accelerating through the Crisis Curve," "Advance: The Ultimate How-to Guide for your Career," and "Lose the Resume, Land the Job." Follow Gary on LinkedIn.

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