Developing the "It Factor" as You Progress in Career - What Puts High Performers on Another Level?

Pro Forma's picture
Rank: Gorilla | 513

Something I've been thinking a lot about recently is if I have (or if I can develop) the mental "it factor" that I see among so many of the top VPs, Principals, and Partners at my firm and others. I'm not talking about internal drive or ability to multiply three digit numbers in your head, but rather the intangibles that make certain individuals operate on a seemingly higher level than everyone else. These are the attributes that are hard to describe but are synonymous with being "impressive" or a "winner". I notice these traits among people who have been successful at various firms and believe there must be a way to define the "package" and a route to develop and hone these skills.

Like I said, these are more "know it when you see it" traits, but I'l try to list a few examples of what I'm referring to:

  • Constant calmness and stoicism in high pressure, intense situations
  • Supreme and unwavering self-confidence in everything
  • Ability to extract the information one wants out of someone / ability to place thoughts in others minds without them realizing it (Note: some could classify this as the ability to manipulate)
  • Political prowess (specifically related to workplace or social politics)
  • Ability to read a situation and display the "right" reaction or emotion on demand (incredibly high EQ)

Now I was a D1 athlete, won academic awards in college, was a top banking analyst, and have gotten great reviews in my current PE gig at a larger UMM firm, but I just can't shake the feeling that I am missing a piece of the mental package and am tripping over myself trying to figure out how to develop this as quickly as possible. I figured it would be worth turning to the WSO community to see what others think on this topic, what attributes you think put someone on "another level", and what routes one could take to try and develop these traits.

Finally, before people start down the path of "just believe in yourself" or "just work hard" - I view these as basic table stakes and I believe I have these boxes checked. What I'm trying to get at is the second-order mental traits that take high performers and put them on another level.

Thanks for your input!

Comments (54)

Feb 19, 2019

Your questioning yourself, thus just need more of bullet number two. Imagine what you want and don't stop till you have it. Manifest your reality and settle for nothing less

Cultivating mass and wealth since '95

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Feb 19, 2019

Experience and exposure to high-pressure situations, in addition to a track record of success in dealing with these situations is probably what develops the kind of unwavering confidence that you're thinking about. Also having the ability to quickly develop some kind of mental framework to work through the problem helps you remain calm as at least you will be actively trying to solve the problem rather than dwelling on how hard it is.

Mental strength is a big one too. Being able to differentiate between what's truly under your control and what isn't. This sounds simple but there are actually a lot of things that we have control over even if they are not immediately discernible. In essence, cover as many bases as it is humanly possible. Try to plan or at least think through every possible situation, all the way to the end. Taking ownership and responsibility for as much as you can.

Social skills and knowing power/influence dynamics is the big one for your last 3 points. These are (in my opinion) by and large the most important skills in business, certainly in relationship-driven industries like Finance. I get a feeling many big swinging dicks on Wall Street are naturally very adept with people, but for us that aren't, there are certainly many great resources out there to get a grasp on it, and ultimately then get out there and sharpen those skills through real-life practice.

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene cover everything I wrote about in this post plus a lot more. How to Win Friends by Carnegie is yet another classic that is worth mentioning. I am certainly not a big swinging dick PE partner myself but I've worked on my social skills a lot (I used to be pretty shy) and have actually gotten incredible changes applying these lessons.

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Feb 24, 2019

Thanks - helpful. I'll check out the books. I've heard great things about 48 Laws of Power and this came up in my own independent research as well.

Mar 4, 2019

I've read all three of these books. Can confirm that How to Win Friends and Influence People is one of the best books ever written and 48 Laws of Power is pretty damn good as well. Would also recommend biographies, as you can integrate behaviors of all time patriarchs into your own life. You can't do better than The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro and Titan by Ron Chernow, but Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance were surprisingly good too, for lighter, more contemporary reads. These legends didn't get there by accident.

Feb 20, 2019

Following... tagging a few contributors who have written about this topic @APAE @thebrofessor @Layne Staley @brotherbear @Dingdong08 @DickFuld

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Most Helpful
Feb 21, 2019
Pro Forma:
  • Constant calmness and stoicism in high pressure, intense situations
  • Supreme and unwavering self-confidence in everything
  • Ability to extract the information one wants out of someone / ability to place thoughts in others minds without them realizing it (Note: some could classify this as the ability to manipulate)
  • Political prowess (specifically related to workplace or social politics)
  • Ability to read a situation and display the "right" reaction or emotion on demand

There's more than one way to skin this cat. Here are a few observations I've made in my own journey:

  1. There's a common theme that connects people that I find personally and professionally impressive: they have a philosophy or an ideology about how to approach life. Very rarely is that an ideology they've developed themselves. Some get it through their faith, or military experience, or athletics, or philosophical journeys, but there's some framework for how to deal with life and difficulty that they can fall back on in times of stress. I think Stoicism (the school of thought) is an excellent one for finding success as an investor - I might suggest "The Obstacle is the Way" by Ryan Holiday as an introduction.
  2. You have to be careful with the supreme self-confidence. Rational self-confidence is good; it's evidence-based, and comes from knowing that you have the ability to make good decisions under pressure because a) you've done it before and b) the underlying actions are repeatable, so there's no reason to think you can't do it again. Irrational self-confidence is built on nothing but one's own invented perception of themselves; it can be a powerful tool (anyone watch the Fyre documentaries?) but can also lead to catastrophic failure (anyone watch the Fyre documentaries?).
  3. I'm not sure I share the same enthusiasm for the political / manipulative points. I won't deny that sociopathy can be a precursor for success in highly competitive arenas, it's just not something I see as necessary (or preferable). I would say that the ability to read someone and tailor your articulation of an argument to make it easier for them personally to understand is a powerful communication tool, but I don't see that as manipulative. My political prowess is weak - I'm honest with people and up front with them, so I never have to carry the additional baggage of remembering who I told what when and what I said about someone to someone else. Maybe that will reduce my earning power over my lifetime, but I suspect I'll make up for it in better quality of life.
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Feb 24, 2019

Thank you for the reply - helpful and insightful.

A few notes in response to your bullets:

  1. Very much agree here. Having a default mental framework (or a few for varying situations) is incredibly important as it removes a lot of the initial floundering that can come when presented with a new problem. Being able to funnel a problem through a flow chart informed by logic and past experience allows successful people to focus on the broader themes or trends rather than the minute details of the issue at hand (said differently: they don't miss the forest for the trees). In my opinion, this comes with experience and thoughtful reflection on what has worked and what hasn't worked as well as what one has observed in others.
  2. Maybe I chose the wrong word with "supreme" - 100% agree that one needs to be careful of teetering into displays of hubris when reminding oneself of real successes in the past during times of doubt. Something I struggle with here is "impostor syndrome" where I attribute real success to favorable circumstances and have to fight hard to give myself credit for W's. It seems like the most senior / successful folks around me know they controlled their own destiny. Any thoughts on practicing getting out of one's own way in giving yourself the credit you deserve?
  3. Didn't mean to come off as enthusiastic about manipulative techniques in the workplace - More an objective observation that the most successful folks (at least at my current and past firms) have displayed great strength in these areas. Political prowess isn't a strong suit for me either and I personally don't like that style, but I also recognize that preference and reality don't always line up, so it's important to at least be aware of how to interact and compete with people in this manner. It is encouraging, however, to hear that you have been able to find success with a style very much akin to my personal style.
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Feb 26, 2019

Sorry, but I think you missed the point in #1...

Internal philosophy or mental / emotional foundation is not the same as a mental framework to receive, distill, place and reference / build upon information.

The latter is important too- particularly for us investors who make decisions under uncertainty all the time- but the former is who you are as a person and much more powerful. Others see it, feel it and respond to it. A person's true colors tend to surface in the more tense / stressful / high-stakes situations.

Essentially, private equity is still fundamentally a "people business" and who you are as a person matters just as much as what/how you think.

@Layne Staley or maybe it was I who missed the point?

"well thank god your feelings aren't a fucking priority here"

Mar 4, 2019

Two things: I think this so called "it factor" you're describing could be better labeled as executive presence. And like what @Layne Staley said above, I don't really like the manipulation and political points; I think this could be better explained as an ability to influence and impact decisions, even when you're not necessarily in an explicit position of influence. While I'm not in PE, I've noticed in F50 CF that it's the analysts who can influence managers/directors and the managers/directors who can influence CFOs/VPs that end up getting promoted and moved up the ladder.

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Mar 2, 2019

Cannot day enough good things about The Obstacle is the Way. I need to give that another read. Excellent comment.

Feb 21, 2019

i have the answer to your question....read this book

https://amzn.to/2ElGglH

just google it...you're welcome

Feb 24, 2019

Either I'm missing the joke, or you meant to link 48 Laws of Power by the same author. (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0024CEZR6/ref=cm_sw_em_...)

Mar 2, 2019

I think the book you linked is evil by nature. My sister bought it for me for Christmas and I immediately returned it. I took one look at the pages inside and I knew this is toxic information that will turn me into an even more toxic person.
Power does corrupt and if you do not think so you have never been in a position of real power.
I would not recommend seeking power. It will ruin your life.

Feb 24, 2019

This is an interesting topic, and a quality that I wondered about earlier in my career, especially during my brief stint in PE, and ultimately one reason I decided to transition my career to Asset Mgt and HF worlds where I believed (erroneously) this quality mattered less to professional success. I don't have any great answers, and by virtue of the fact that you (and I) are discussing it in an online forum probably means we don't really innately have "it" but we do "know it when we see it". It's the rare person that has both an extremely high IQ and EQ. An ability to sell yourself, your ideas, and relate with anyone. It has this virtuous circle positive feedback loop which builds supreme confidence.

B School for me was one way to vastly improve myself in that area, but ultimately in my career I saw the writing on the wall (or was shown it) and decided I would never win the political game in high finance. So I stopped caring and became an entrepreneur, to be forced to create my own value, and to do it completely "my way". This has helped me progress more than I would have imagined. I got out of my comfort zone and put myself out there to fail, to REALLY fail. I'd bet that most people like yourself who are still firmly "on track" have yet to really experience this. At some point, we all do, and the sooner the better, in my opinion.

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Feb 26, 2019

What kind of business do you run?

Feb 24, 2019

Thanks for the reply.

I may be misunderstanding - are you saying that the traits I listed aren't relevant / aren't as prevalent in the world of entrepreneurship? That is not what I would have expected given my current understanding of that ecosystem, but I obviously don't live in it so happy to be corrected. My thought would be that the highest performing entrepreneurs display these traits at a similar level as high-performing PE investors or executives, just in a different form.

When you say "fail, REALLY fail", are you referring to busted ventures, or some other kind of failure?

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Mar 4, 2019
Pro Forma:

When you say "fail, REALLY fail", are you referring to busted ventures, or some other kind of failure?

I think he's referring to what I call, "Failing Forward". Go out, do something, fail, learn, re-try, get further, fail, learn, try, fail learn, Doesn't mean the business is failing, it means that you're extending your knowledge base, honing skills, and refining execution along the way.

This builds up a profound resiliency that'll give you the thick skin, confidence, and real experience that creates the "It" factor.

Some think that people like Ichan, Dalio, Ackman etc were born with "it". More than likely false. They tried, failed, tried, failed, then shit started to stick and decades later you recognize them as the greats.

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Feb 25, 2019

The social skills piece is critical and, I feel by far the most important for long term success. We all know leaders in various positions / companies that you and many others just want to be around. They light up the room. That light comes from a combination of confidence (not cockiness), ease / calmness, experience, empathy. They're not necessarily the funniest guy/gal in the room but they know how to handle themselves in virtually every situation.

I've had many dinners with F100 CFOs, Law Partners, Multi millionaires that DON'T have it. In fact, some I think are jerks and wonder how they got where they got. But every now and then you get to spend time with a gem. They may not even be the most successful one in the room (although usually they're wildly successful) but they just "Get It!".

I have a good friend like this. He's just an amazing person. Unassuming, generous (would literally give you the shirt off his back), brilliant and very effective in the board room. A lot of it has to do with natural ability / disposition / personality. I truly believe you can improve anything, but you can't become something you're not (deep down in your core).

I watch a lot of baseball. At every level, you can coach and train (via mechanics, strength, flexibility) up a player to gain several MPH on his fastball, take a better route to the ball at SS. That said the great ones have a natural lightening bolt of an arm or just know how to read every hop in the field. They make it look so smooth. You can't teach that. You can improve what you have, but that natural ability is just that, natural.

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Feb 26, 2019

But I find your point about those successful people who don't have the it factor more interesting. How can you say that the social skills piece is most important for long term success when you've interacted with many people who don't have it?

Feb 25, 2019

Interesting comment and question. I would say there are levels of social skill competence. Most aren't without social skills, but rather fall short of the "wow factor". A few, as I mentioned, are really low on the scale. It does surprise me they've made it to their current level. I can only surmise their technical skill is off the charts to out weigh their other shortcomings. I also think they may be in a more transactional environment where there's less of a premium on social skills. Think of the surgeon doing open heart; most would take the best skilled surgeon over a good one with better bed side manner as that's an important transaction.

In general, once you have a certain level of skill, I think most people advance further based on their social skills (networking, playing the game, politics, whatever you want to call it). Of course there are exceptions.

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Feb 27, 2019

I've never heard of it called the "it" factor so I'll just make some random comments that I think have helped me and could possibly help you

  1. confidence - this comes from repetitions. I am constantly afraid of failure, but I never show it when I'm presenting to someone. this applies to PWM, sales, presenting to a board, C-suite, etc., your first one will have you considering a diaper because you might actually shit your pants. the 100th one? you're moreso just trying to pick one or two nuggets that you think will close the deal. success breeds success, the best teacher is experience in my opinion
  2. poise - I am a HUGE believer in steven covey's idea of sharpening the saw. something about if you are given 10 hours to cut down a tree you spend 9 hours sharpening the saw. I have a playful self deprecating internal dialogue almost daily "you're not good enough, you can get better, this sucks that sucks, start over, work harder," and if you're always trying to get better, often times you will go into things with poise. you prepare, maybe overly so, you have experience, and you're not cocky because you always realize you could get better.
  3. workplace politics - I don't play them, my value system won't let me. I don't ogle at women around the office, I don't make inappropriate comments, I don't go behind people's backs, I don't say anything or write anything on corporate communications that I wouldn't mind having read back to me by a manager, regulator, or attorney. I personally think these Machiavellian games are unnecessary if you produce for the firm, don't sugarcoat, are candid, and don't create drama. I'd recommend everyone abide by a value system rather than just simply worrying about "winning" or playing workplace politics. I've found that getting better at your craft is infinitely more productive than becoming a master of workplace politics.
  4. EQ - I'm always working on this, but again repetition helps

in closing, I think much of your personal growth and "it" factor can come from curiosity. not just on WSO, but in life, I've noticed a tremendously low level of curiosity in general. I think people in general are good, but I also think in general they're lazy and not curious (maybe 70-80%). too often do I see people wanting a formula for how to achieve something and then expecting that the same formula that got them a job, into college, an internship, etc., works in career advancement. I'm well aware of structured recruitment programs and MBA admissions, I'm not talking about that. I'm saying that the thought process that gets you those opps isn't the same one that gets you to VP. you have to be curious. you have to look at things not as they are, but how they could be. you have to think like a contrarian. you have to care more about results than process.

TLDR - get at-bats, be curious, always try to sharpen the saw

    • 11
Feb 25, 2019

@thebrofessor makes some very solid points. As it applies to confidence (and confidence is a big ingredient in the "it factor" or just doing well in general), repetition is a big deal. Confidence comes from experience. Experience comes from repetition, literally. That's assuming you learn from your mistakes. Be the guy who has 20 yrs experience, not one yr 20 times. When you have plenty of experience, you basically know the issues and are comfortable handling them. To heighten your experience and shorten the learning curve, get as many at bats as possible. Learn from each one.

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Feb 24, 2019

All great points - appreciate the input, as always.

Feb 28, 2019

Following - really fascinating discussion

Mar 1, 2019

I have never been accepted into any finance related internship and of course no job yet. Still in college. Nevertheless, the sort of drive and personality that I know shines through and resonates with anyone and everyone is simply exceptional empathy.

Not too long ago, I was hanging with some friends from back home and we were invited to this pregame and then to a new years eve party right after. Long story short, we never went to the party because we were actually having a lot of fun just hanging out at the pregame. Why? We'll get to that.

So I begin to talk to the brother of one of my high school friends, which is one of those people I didn't necessarily evade but never really tried conversing with. We slowly began to hit it off as we drank into the night. I really wasn't expecting to get along because he was a big truck guy who was into construction and the like. But we were building rapport and I began to befriend the friend he had brought, who was similar in the sense of interests. I sensed he had sort of the same opinion of me (but inversely as I'm into business and investments). For some reason though, we got along even better than the friend I came with, and it showed.

For example, Oddly enough, he finally cracked and asked me "how do you understand me so well." I was a little thrown off because that was certainly not something I was expecting to hear from him. I answered bluntly: "Empathy." He didn't really react, but I could see he was internalizing what I had said. This is where I learned that at, the end of the day, people are human, and all humans want to be understood no matter if they're male or female. Many people don't understand that communication and understanding one's circumstances in a supreme sense is the way less qualified individuals break-into IB from non-targets, who I believe are the prime example of the "it" factor.

------------

At Baruch college in NYC, it is no means a target school but there are quite a few VPs and MDs walking the halls of all or most of the BBs. Living in NYC, you're taught the necessity & power of interpersonal communication, which is my theory on why so many Baruch graduates end up working in IB.

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Mar 4, 2019

"LIQUOR"

That is the reason you were all feeling each other so much.

Mar 17, 2019

that guy who you were talking to's name: Albert Einstein

Feb 21, 2019

when i was junior...my intense boss who came from Goldman repeatedly tried to get me to think like an owner who was personally vested in BOTH the short term success (profits) AND the long term success (building skills/relationships that will endure...but also creating the right kind of culture that makes everyone perform better).

I didn't fully realize what he was trying to teach me at the time (it all logically made sense, but to internalize it emotionally so that the behavior is second nature took a long time), but i get it now. Simultaneously think both short and long term.

Be both short and long term greedy. I know its a cliche that comes out of goldman, but its also a very successful strategy.

just google it...you're welcome

    • 1
Mar 2, 2019

When I was younger, I would be somewhat nervous when talking to highly attractive women and would question myself regarding what I said or how I acted. I would always be impressed by older CHADs that seemed to have similar traits to what you described.

Fast forward 8 years and 50+ girls later and I feel very comfortable talking to all types of women and I am very confident in my ability to bring them back to my place. I've encountered the same type of situation countless times and I am much more calm and in control.

Im still fairly junior in the private equity industry, but I suspect the same applies to deals and high pressure situations. The more of them you see and the more of them you close, the better you become overall at reacting to the said situations.

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Funniest
Feb 28, 2019
takenotes08:

Fast forward 8 years and 50+ lays later and I feel very comfortable talking to all types of women and am very confident in my ability to bring them back to my place. I've encountered the same type of situation countless times and am much more calm and in control.

Weird flex but ok

    • 13
Mar 2, 2019
EBITDUDE1:
takenotes08:

Fast forward 8 years and 50+ lays later and I feel very comfortable talking to all types of women and am very confident in my ability to bring them back to my place. I've encountered the same type of situation countless times and am much more calm and in control.

Weird flex but ok

Im overcompensating for my smaller than average manhood. SB for your name my dude.

    • 3
Mar 3, 2019

hahah I love it...It rings true for myself as well, atleast when I was younger. I think the biggest thing young guys (I'm 22 first year out of college so take this with a grain of salt) is the need for experience. You can be the smartest guy out there theoretically, but what matters is what you do for real and no amount of book knowledge will ever make you practically smart. Gotta keep at it

Ty

Feb 26, 2019

Yeah... odds are none of that never happened.

"well thank god your feelings aren't a fucking priority here"

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Mar 4, 2019

One thing that I would add to this discussion - from my personal experience, those that question themselves in this area the most are usually the strongest performers. Said another way, the intelligence to believe a "deficit" exists and the drive to constantly improve it are the most important attributes you can possess. Many of the strongest performers at my firm who an outsider would view as possessing your "know it when you see it" traits would likely confess to their closest friends/colleagues over a few beers that they have a healthy dose of doubt about their abilities in these areas. If you look at comments from other senior professionals like @Layne Staley and @thebrofessor , you'll see this is a common theme. Just my two cents, but just because you feel like you don't have "it", doesn't mean others don't perceive that in you.

    • 4
Feb 24, 2019

Well put - a healthy dose of self doubt ensures you are constantly looking for things to add to your portfolio of skills because you are never quite comfortable with where you are.

Thanks for the insight.

    • 1
Mar 4, 2019

My thoughts, and these are specific to me, they are key in my ideology.

1) Think three or four steps ahead. Being "one step ahead" is the ante. Thinking two steps ahead makes you above average. Doing things in the present that impact the third or fourth step ahead is the "it" factor. You can apply this to anything. Work, sports, etc. My next few years are pretty baked. I generally know what's going to happen (very generally speaking). It's the next 3-4 years after that I worry about.

2) Risk/reward framework. So many things in life can simply be thought of like this - "what is the risk/downside, what is the reward/upside?" You would be shocked by how many day-to-day things have incredibly asymmetrical risk to the downside (i.e. best case scenario is not nearly as good as the worst-case scenario is bad). As always, there is a balance depending on the situation.

3) Realism. Honesty.

Feb 24, 2019

Thanks for the reply - these are really great pillars of a personal ideology.

On #1, what kinds of thoughts / ideas are you mulling over on a regular basis that fall into the category of "thinking 3-4 steps ahead"? My initial reaction here is that you risk falling into spending all your time playing out and planning for the infinite permutations of events while neglecting to actually make progress towards anything. This is something I struggle with so trying to better understand how I may be able to integrate this into my own life as I do think it is very valuable.

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Mar 4, 2019

Damn, some of these comments are really cringe-inducing.

Mar 5, 2019

A good part of this is the halo effect and the rest is simply confidence developed from repeated success. Are they high performers because of these qualities or are they perceived to have these qualities because they are high performers? Putting aside basic social intelligence and technical competency, I don't believe there are defined traits that put high performers "on another level."

Feb 24, 2019

Interesting view - thanks for the reply.

By the way, your new username is my old username - I had to do a double take!

Mar 7, 2019

"the intangibles that make certain individuals operate on a seemingly higher level than everyone else"

Keyword: seemingly.

Mar 17, 2019

I don't work on the street, but in my experience the IT factor is developed through reps. Every high performer I've talked to started somewhere and they said and did some dumb stuff.

The difference between the high and average performers is that the position they started in gave them a ton of exposure to deals. In addition, they had patient mentors that allowed them to make mistakes and showed them better ways.

Feb 24, 2019
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Mar 17, 2019
Feb 24, 2019