The biggest differentiators between senior executives and employees of other levels are not – as might be expected – track record and education, but rather ambition, the ability to adjust and a consistent quest for learning, an independent psychometric study has found.

The research was conducted by JvR Africa Group in partnership with Jack Hammer, one of the top three executive search firms in South Africa. The study tested a range of traits of 4 442 people across various employment levels, including executives, middle managers, entry-level supervisors and individual contributors. 

The objective of the study was to identify trends among different groups of employees, taking into account gender, age, generation and job levels, and provide insights to professionals climbing the corporate ladder, as well as companies seeking to optimise leadership.

“One of the fascinating insights from the research is indisputable data around the primary characteristics or traits of top leaders. For anyone wondering why they’re not getting ahead, here we found some clear answers,” says Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, leadership expert and CEO of Jack Hammer.

“Executives are clearly more ambitious than people at other job levels. They are also more confident and exhibit a natural orientation towards constant learning. And while this may sound obvious, it really isn’t. It invites a question regarding whether these traits can be cultivated if they are not naturally present.”

Fortunately, for those who are not blessed with the three golden leadership traits as part of their innate disposition,  an interrogation of the findings shows that these personal qualities can be developed – meaning that those to whom these don’t come naturally need not throw in the towel on their dreams.

“Our advice for those climbing the corporate ladder and who want to enhance their likelihood of reaching executive level is to get cracking on the learning. We see this very distinctly in our work with people. Some people somehow always make the time to – at the very least – read business books, leadership journals and attend talks or conferences, no matter how busy they are. Others, regardless of what’s on their plate, never do.”

Goodman-Bhyat says that although it may seem that there is mostly an internal drive toward this, cultivating the habit of lifelong learning where it doesn’t come naturally should become a pro-active, schedule-it-in-your-diary choice for aspirant leaders.

“Become aware that others, who are rising to the top, are doing this out of their own volition and internal motivation, so if you aspire for the top, you’ll need to think about how to dedicate time to ongoing learning.” 

Secondly, aspirant leaders should work on their social confidence levels, she says.

“This can be hard especially for introverts – particularly when it comes to networking – but it is essential. Figure out strategies to remain calm under pressure, for instance, by incorporating mindfulness training into your daily personal and work life, and working on your connection with people. This is a fear that can be faced and conquered.”

Finally, those who are not naturally ambitious in the conventional sense, should consider why they want to scale their careers, or take on leadership roles. An honest internal look at why certain goals are important is the first step to igniting one’s internal drive, Goodman-Bhyat says, adding that there are a host of great programmes to help with this.

Interestingly, the research showed that female executives scored highest on their orientation towards constant learning, when compared to other job levels, while their male counterparts score highest on ambition, notes Goodman-Bhyat.

“This can likely be ascribed to the fact that many women execs expect that they’ll need to work harder to reach top levels, and will need to display evidence of their intellect and abilities. Ultimately, whether you are male or female, it is clear that you need to have drive, competitiveness and ambition – either inherently or as a big focus area. And if you lack in one, two or all three of these areas, you need to work on mastering them.”

– Jack Hammer