The senior executive leaned forward before entrusting me with the secret of his success. This was the seasoned president of a billion-dollar corporation--someone whose words should be taken seriously. We had been discussing the personal characteristics of his most successful employees, and he had evidently saved this one for last.

"Our best people foster a killer instinct," he said. "When you go out looking for people you think will fit here, please consider that one of your prime selection factors."

Killer instinct? The phrase reminded me of people I have met in my career who are experts at company politics, backstabbers par excellence. But I knew that couldn't be what he was talking about, so I asked him to elaborate.

"Any manner of things can be accomplished by a person who has a killer instinct. Perhaps what I am talking about might be more politely labeled raw energy or drive, but I wouldn't want to have an important staff member without it. I think that the phrase I use"--killer instinct--"has a certain edge, which describes how committed the individual feels about getting things done."

Roadblocks on the road to success

My client's killer instinct isn't something a lucky few are born with. It's something that grows out of adversity and dealing with it successfully. I mean the type of adversity that can develop even in a company where almost everyone is pulling their oar in the same direction. Even in the best companies and circumstances, obstacles litter the path of anyone who champions a project; it's inevitable in any organization and on any project you can't do completely alone. Whereas some people grow frustrated or complacent, others turn roadblocks into building blocks, which they use to build a successful career.

After the discussion with my client, I came up with a list of four characteristics possessed by people who have the killer instinct. We used this list in searching for candidates for his company. You may recognize some of these characteristics in yourself, developed (or at least demonstrated) as you've worked on your thesis problem, or, say, dealt with a difficult adviser. I have illustrated each of the traits with a real story involving people I met when this client took me around to learn about the culture of his business.

Step around an obstacle instead of meeting it head on.

Kumar knew that if his assay project was successful it would be a tremendous timesaver for everyone. Yet, each time Kumar had tried to move the assay project forward, the folks in manufacturing had found something else for him to do. The quality-assurance department and the manufacturing team--both of whom would benefit from this assay's implementation--had decided the idea was unworkable.

A team player, Kumar tried on several occasions to get others to see the sense in his plan. The last time it was presented, the head of the Quality Assurance/Quality Control department called the idea a "time sink." That's when Kumar decided to take the project underground. Instead of moving it along via project meetings, he developed strategic alliances with key colleagues and worked out the major technical glitches. As often happens when creative people work together in this way, they had a lucky break within a couple of weeks and had the assay working in manufacturing a short while later.

The most important result wasn't the president's award or the cash bonus he received. It was a set of project-management skills and a lesson in perseverance that will last throughout his career.

Meet it head-on and plow right through.

Vic had long suggested a move to a robotics system in the manufacturing line. The company had been doing kit assembly the same way for 15 years. His boss, the director of operations, gave him a budget for the project that was about 40% less than Vic felt was needed to do the job right.

But Vic was determined to make it work. He recruited a mechanical engineer from the facilities team. They met 3 days a week at 7:00 over coffee, bagels, and a drafting table. Weekends became workdays.

One Saturday morning, the two assembled the final pieces of the puzzle and saw that the robotics system would work. A short time later, the equipment was installed and debugged. It worked flawlessly, on budget and on time.

Get it done even if you don't get credit.

Just 10 months out of her postdoc, Susan took advantage of her employer's offer to spend 10% of her time on her own ideas. Although she found the company's research and development (R&D) challenging and fun, she lately had become fascinated by a new idea. Her boss knew her well enough to give her space to tinker. Her tinkering produced a concept that, she felt, would save the company money.

Susan presented her idea at the team's project meeting. It was generally well received, but another scientist suggested that the concept be used in an entirely different way. Applied this way, it became the key to the success of another team's project. Instead of starting a turf war, Susan supported the new approach and was recognized by the company at the project's successful conclusion.

Knowing how and why people perform.

John, an M.S.-level scientist with 2 years' experience at the company, had been promoted to project manager in charge of a new lineup of nucleic-acid detection kits. His responsibilities included taking customer requirements specified by the marketing department and fast-tracking them in R&D. The problem was that, although he was in charge of the kits and responsible for their success or failure, he didn't have a team of his own. Everyone he worked with officially reported to someone else--and seemingly had worked a full day already before John's project reached the top of the to-do list. But John had already demonstrated the ability to deal well with a variety of people. Management gambled that he could "influence without authority."

John put together a plan that explicitly addressed the interpersonal challenges the project entailed. He found ways to work with his colleagues that suited their working styles and motivations. He was one of the half-dozen or so people the company president introduced to illustrate his notion of the killer instinct.

The glue that binds all four

The key to success in any job is possessing the skill to do it well, the technical horsepower that the work requires. But there's another factor that transcends raw technical ability, one that lies behind what my client called the killer instinct. It's the determination to do whatever it takes to get the job done. If you've got that determination, along with the necessary technical skill, there'll be no stopping your career.

Image: Top, Comstock Business Impacts

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.

10.1126/science.caredit.a0700137