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The core traits of career success

Early on in my career as a headhunter, I became interested in the dozens of qualities that make top scientists stand out. Then, a conversation with one of my contacts shifted my thinking. “Success in the biotech industry, like any pursuit, seems to boil down to no more than about a half-dozen things,” Leo Kim told me more than 2 decades ago. He was the vice president of a biotech company at the time, and I frantically wrote down his words as he piled great advice on top of great advice. After our discussion, I began to think about the topic in a different way. I had been looking for dozens of different factors, but is it really just a handful of core traits that make the difference?

“I believe that there is a pattern of behavior among highly successful scientists and managers within industry science, and that studying what works can help young people grow successful without having to go through the same bumps and roadblocks,” Leo continued. “While some of these may seem obvious, others lurk below the surface and aren’t often spoken of.” And with that comment, Leo sent me off on a mission that continues to this day.

Leo’s experience came from one niche in what was at the time still a small business, but his ideas seemed to me to apply to all kinds of science career disciplines. These are the six traits that we discussed that day, which I’ve since come to believe encapsulate much of what I—and many other recruiters and hiring managers—look for in a candidate.

Persistence. Almost every time I speak to a successful scientist in depth, they recount stories illustrating their ability to attack the same problem over and over again, from different angles. I can tell you without hesitation that most senior staff members would put this trait at the very top of their list. Yes, you have to be smart, and you must have a grasp of your specific areas of expertise. But while those job-related technical skills are important, even a person who was only modestly successful in grad school can emerge a decade later with terrific discoveries or innovations under their belt if they apply the reserve of energy that persistence gives them.

Focus. Focus may sound like persistence, but it’s not. Instead, a sense of focus provides a certain “missionary” zeal, and it becomes a persistence multiplier. A scientist on a mission to develop an assay that allows her team to advance a new cancer drug may take on the project with a commitment that goes far beyond the norm. Similarly, in my field, the best recruiters take on a difficult assignment for a client and become the champion for filling that job. Have you heard the expression about people who have a “single-minded pursuit”? Now that’s focus.

Inner beliefs. Successful scientists believe in their work, and they have a mental attitude that things will work out for them. It’s not the phony “rah-rah” positive attitude professed by motivational speakers. I’m referring to a generally upbeat view of the world. It’s not voiced—I often have to pull it out of scientists because most don’t like to talk about it—but it’s a way of thinking about things that says, “All is well. We’re going to succeed.” When you apply a positive world view, along with a lot of persistence and a tight focus, you can accomplish so much more than if you carry around the bad attitude caused by morning traffic on the way into work. Should a scientist wear rose-tinted glasses? No way! But positive inner beliefs set the stage for success.

Flexibility. When successful scientists run into difficulty, they look at the problem from other directions, hammering away at it through great persistence. But if they don’t make progress despite all the effort expended, they need to be flexible and move in another direction entirely. One fellow I know described the impact on his career when a new technology changed his field so dramatically that his finely honed skills in the earlier techniques were no longer needed. He was running a core laboratory, and he was “the guy” at his institution for that technique. When the new technology provided a cheaper, faster solution, he had to be real flexible—diving into the new protocols, learning on the job, and adjusting his experimental approach—to keep his facility relevant and his career on track. What about the perfectionist who won’t go on the job market without the “perfect” CV? That person needs the flexibility to put together one that is good enough and get it into the marketplace, because without flexibility, you will hit a wall.

Network. Successful scientists are not afraid to reach out and become recognized as competent by like-minded collaborators. Building a network doesn’t require the outgoing people skills of a salesperson; it’s about people wanting to associate with you because you deliver on your commitments and give back to your partners. This network generally ends up being one of the reasons for a scientist’s upward mobility. Almost every successful scientist I talk to credits having chosen the right colleagues and collaborators.

Critical thinking. The top scientists whom I have interviewed over the years all have the ability to reason well. They know how to get to the bottom of a matter quickly, and they use their critical thinking skills to make great decisions. For that reason, they also tend to think carefully about a job change. When we present a new job opportunity to people like this, they don’t blindly accept our arguments for making a move; they form their own view based on a careful analysis of the facts. And instead of being paralyzed by the impact of an important decision, they take action, combining critical analysis with forward momentum.

The final ingredient

Since my meeting with Leo, I’ve come to realize the importance of one more major trait that ties these six together: passion. You need to be passionate about the work you do. The expression of that passion for your work will often lead you to the right partner or to the right job at the right employer.

Understand these half-dozen traits, integrate them into your work life, apply passion liberally, and the result will be that someday you will see significantly more career opportunities as others begin to consider you as a highly recruitable scientist in your own right.

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