With Martin G. Moore

Episode #251

Indispensable Workplace Competencies: Getting to the top…

There are a range of competencies required to forge a successful career. On this podcast, of course, we focus predominantly on how to develop and improve your leadership capability to uplift your team’s performance.

Leadership competency gives you leverage: it enables you to multiply and accelerate the results you can achieve through others. And the higher up you go, the more valuable this capability becomes.

But there are a number of other vital ingredients that I speak about from time to time, that are crucial building blocks in your success ecosystem.

In this episode, I take a more holistic look at what I consider to be indispensable workplace competencies: from business acumen and work ethic, to politics and influence.

I also look at what the most ambitious, up-and-coming MBA students at one of the world’s top business schools perceive to be critical competencies for 21st century business… and I integrate all of this into a simple checklist of development areas so that you can work out what to focus on to produce sustainable performance.

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Episode #251 Indispensable Workplace Competencies: Getting to the top…


I released a podcast episode some time ago on the ingredients of success, and although I wrote it with a natural focus on career success, it’s really a mini handbook summarizing what it takes to achieve success in life. It was Ep.138: It’s Not What You Know, and it’s probably the best attempt I’ve had at describing the key principles that, in my experience, contribute most to achieving what you want to achieve.

Now, I’m not sure how to say this without seeming a little arrogant, and I do apologize for this, but please take the time to have a listen to this episode, because I think it may be one of the most important how-to guides to genuine success and happiness that I’ve come across.

I really want you to have the benefit of my life experience (for what it’s worth) and to have the opportunity to focus on the things that are going to make the most difference to your future.

Anyhow, having said that, let me dial it back a little and get onto today’s topic of indispensable workplace competencies. I want to first cover the broad areas of endeavor that contribute to your organizational brand. You want to be seen as a rounded leader, a capable executive, and a reliable individual, whom others can aspire to be like.


First of all, obviously, there’s business acumen: financial literacy; commercial nous; the ability to formulate competitive strategy; understanding how to define and reach your target customer base through a systematic marketing approach; being able to structure and build your company using organizational design and behavior principles; negotiation skills; understanding and managing risk.

It’s these skills that business schools typically exist to develop, and without them it’s hard to have credibility as a senior leader. I released a podcast episode fairly recently that dealt with this exact issue. It was Ep.243: Credibility: The Hallmark of Great Leaders.

In this episode, I made the point that the foundation of credibility is competence. If you don’t have a fundamental measure of competence in your role, no one’s going to follow you. And, no, it doesn’t matter how transparent and humble and authentic you are.

So, interestingly, you can’t really gain leadership credibility without fundamentally being a competent manager, which is one reason why I think making black-and-white distinctions between management and leadership is unhelpful, to say the least. Acquiring business acumen takes thought, work, and commitment, but the skills and knowledge are available to all of us. So just get that done. It’s a no-brainer.


Now, I know it isn’t a very popular view to hold in this day and age, but consistent with my No Bullsh!t philosophy, I want you to know–to really know–that hard work is a fundamental competency, and an essential element of success.

Hard work is still seen as a proxy for commitment and ambition, and there’s a good reason for that. Just imagine if a peer works 20% harder than you every week. Over time, the gap in both perception and performance is going to be immeasurable, all other things being equal. For example, many of you will bank the long-term benefits of burning the midnight oil and sacrificing your leisure time to study for an MBA. While you are doing this, many of your peers will be off working hard on their “work/life balance”.

They shouldn’t expect some mythical force to swing it at the last minute to level the cosmic playing field, and neither should you. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s all very well for the new age leadership philosophy to talk about finding balance and purpose and being your best self. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to diminish that at all. But the harsh reality is that people who work harder create and uncover more opportunities. And people who don’t just work harder, but also understand how to work on the right things? Well, they get massively better results.

If I have the opportunity to hire or promote someone, I’m going to go for a leader who demonstrates strong accountability, who’s a hard worker, and who has a track record of superior results. Why would I do anything different? And why would anyone expect anything different?

I absolutely believe in every individual’s right to choose how they fill the hours, weeks and years of their lives. But none of us should kid ourselves that those choices don’t come with consequences. Hard work is just your ticket to play, in any organization. You don’t have to be a workaholic (and, in fact, that has a real dark side to it), but you do have to be prepared to do what it takes to get the results you need.

political competency

The last thing you want is to be blindsided by a political player who wages a covert campaign to eliminate you as a threat. But this can easily happen if you don’t pay attention to it, and the better you perform, the more likely it is to occur.

Learning how to recognize and neutralize the politics, without becoming a political player yourself, is difficult and nuanced. I explored this in an older episode too: Ep.168: Political Sabotage at Work. But for today’s purposes, I just want to put a placeholder in this one: I’ll come back to it shortly.


I’m talking about every facet of communication: written and verbal; formal and informal; being able to present powerfully and effectively; to think on your feet; to listen and respond. These communication skills are core workplace competencies, and once again, they’re completely learnable skills. It’s definitely worth putting time into developing them.

the ability to build relationships and influence others

Now of course, this will be inordinately harder if you don’t have excellent communication skills. Even small organizations can be extraordinarily complex.

To be effective in the workplace, you’ll need cooperation from people who are outside your immediate sphere of control. Why would they help you? Often, they answer to different masters and they have completely different KPIs, which don’t align with yours. How do you convince people to put their time and energy into something that may benefit the organization, but doesn’t further their own personal cause?

Learning to influence across boundaries, knowing when to escalate issues that are at an impasse, and managing the power dynamics without eroding the trust and respect of your peers is a sophisticated competency. It’s tough to build and it comes with plenty of scars, as people both surprise and disappoint you.


I still think this is the most important set of capabilities to develop, because they’re so versatile. A skilled and competent leader can mobilize people to get better results. Communication and influencing skills are strengthened and honed through sustained attention to leadership work: like facing into difficult conversations, making tough decisions, learning to put self-interest aside. Leadership is the vehicle for multiplying the impact of your hard-won business acumen, through the power of your teams.


I came across a really interesting article in The Economist that explored what competencies might be critical in the world of future work. This article was titled What the World’s Hottest MBA Courses Reveal about 21st Century Business.

The author looked at Stanford Graduate School of Business‘ MBA program. It’s one of the most selective MBA programs in the world. Out of roughly 7,000 applicants each year, only 420 students are admitted. This is more stringent than my alma mater, Harvard Business School. The premise for The Economist article was to look at the most popular and oversubscribed elective courses in Stanford’s MBA program. This is based on the premise that the most popular electives were representative of what tomorrow’s top leaders think will be important in their careers.

Predictably, the most popular courses had nothing to do with the hard skills of business, like finance and economics. These are mechanical, learnable skills that anyone can acquire. So why would you use your rare opportunity at Stanford to acquire skills that you can get pretty much anywhere? Instead, the most popular electives teach the students a capacity for hardheadedness, diplomacy, and introspection.

The first of these courses is called The Paths to Power.

One of the earliest podcast episodes I produced was about the use of leadership power, because I think it’s such an important principle. That was Ep.5: Using Power Wisely.

This Stanford course teaches how not to be blindsided by politics. As they say, “… many promising careers have been snuffed out through insufficient sensitivity to, and skill in, coping with power dynamics”. The curriculum deals with things like:

  • The personal qualities that bring power;

  • How to ask for things;

  • Not obsessing about being liked;

  • Getting others on your side;

  • Creating a reputation and gaining visibility; and even

  • The price of power.

But apparently, one piece of advice it gives on maintaining power is to avoid grooming successors. I guess the rationale is that if you want to hold onto power, why would you actively increase the threat to your position by developing others?!

I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than this, and the course does sound incredibly interesting and useful. But I still fear that adherence to this Machiavellian view of power flies in the face of good leadership practice. How can you possibly get the best out of your team if you’re not actively trying to maximize the effectiveness of every individual?

This sounds to me like a trade-off between power and performance, and I know which way I’m going to swing. I’d much rather take the risk to my power base, and know that I’m doing everything I can to ensure my people can deliver to their best, because that’s where the results come from.

The next popular course is a course called Interpersonal Dynamics

It’s also known as Touchy Feely. This is largely about personal brand and image. How do others perceive you, and is that how you want to be seen? If not, what can you do to change other people’s perceptions?

Apparently, this course involves a lot of peer feedback. From the little I was able to find out about it, it seems to be akin to group therapy. This is all about making sure you can manage your image. The thing I find most interesting about this one is that it seems to fly in the face of the authenticity principle. People will generally know if the personal brand you’re trying to build is or isn’t consistent with the person you are deep down.

So, to the extent that this course encourages you to look inwards, understand yourself better, and to work hard to improve, that’s awesome–it’s incredibly important.

But equally, there’s a distinct possibility that our future leaders, the smartest people in the room, will work out how to build compensating mechanisms that are completely inconsistent with who they are. I’ve seen enough people with masks and facades in the corporate world to know that we don’t need any more of this. It’s a little worrying that the emphasis could be on managing perceptions rather than working to become better.

The third program is Managing Growing Enterprises.

I couldn’t find as much information on this course as I did on the other two, but it’s geared towards situational management of new or newly-acquired businesses. It seems to be quite holistic, dealing with the types of challenges that are likely to be on the daily task list of a CEO. It has both an external and an internal focus, and stakeholder management appears to be key. It even covers things like the personal impact of laying off staff.

So what can we learn from this? Is it really signaling what’s going to be important in 21st century business?

The Economist concludes that a degree of ruthlessness, self-awareness, and tact are a familiar mix in the corner offices of many companies. None of that’s new. But equally, if that premise is true, our future captains of industry will be heavily focused on the type of development that enables them to acquire power and hold onto it, while building the perception of noble intent, virtuous values, and selfless influence.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose:  the more things change, the more they stay the same!


To simplify this complex ecosystem into a more manageable framework, I think it’s useful to tie all these concepts together. If you want to build a balanced portfolio of workplace competencies that are going to underpin sustained success, I’d look to focus in four areas:

1. The hard skills of business: finance, marketing, strategy etc.

You can develop these through a plethora of readily available content. It doesn’t necessarily require formal education. Most content can be found for free in books and podcasts. It just requires focus and dedication. Putting aside even one hour a week to further your hard skills will translate into long-term competence. If you’re serious about your career, this is a prerequisite.

2. Judgment. 

This is one that I haven’t mentioned specifically, and it comes with experience. So yes, you’ll naturally acquire better judgment over time as long as you’re not a complete sociopath. It’s all about learning from your mistakes. But with some intentional focus, you can develop your judgment much faster than you would if you decided just to rely upon it happening organically.

Intentional focus means: critically reviewing the decisions you’ve made by conducting your own personal postmortems; measuring the progress of your teams against the original targets you set, not the fifth revision of the target as more and more things go wrong; learning from each of the adjustments that force you to change tack as you encounter them and not falling into the trap of putting it down to bad luck or unforeseeable events; putting more effort into options analysis, scenario planning, and what-if modeling.

This is all about self-awareness. And, if you can improve your judgment intentionally, you’ll accelerate your development, and this particular workplace competency will thrive.

3. Political nous.

Even though it really pains me to say this, attention to politics is essential, if only as a risk mitigation measure to protect against other equally ambitious (but less scrupulous) people in your company. I’ve been bitten—hard–in the past by not paying attention to corporate politics.

But please be careful not to give into the seductive shortcuts that political manipulation appears to offer. Any gains will be short lived, and if you live by the sword, you will absolutely die by the sword. Whereas you might be able to secure more money or more power, I’ve learned that for me, it’s way more important to be able to look at myself in the mirror every morning.

4. After these three, I think everything else comes down to leadership, our final indispensable workplace competency.

Anything you can do to become a stronger leader, who’s unafraid to set high standards, to hold people accountable, and to stretch them to produce their best work will be a no regrets move.


So, why not make some decisions about committing to the disciplines and habits that will make you a better leader? You don’t need to boil the ocean here. Somewhere in the last 250 episodes of No Bullsh!t Leadership, there’s going to be something that you know will improve your leadership performance. Work out what’s going to give you the biggest bang for buck and just commit to that for 30 days. This is going to help you to build the strength of character that you need in order to amplify other people’s brilliance.

Ultimately, that’s the name of the game. If you can create the conditions for your people to give you their best and then set the expectation for them to step up, they’ll stretch into the vacuum that you’ve left, and they’ll produce the type of results that most teams simply can’t.

Your business acumen, judgment , leadership skill and, yes, your political savvy will make this happen.


  • ARTICLE: What the world’s hottest MBA courses reveal about 21st-century business – Read Here

  • Ep #138: It’s Not What You Know – Listen Here

  • Ep #243: Credibility: The Hallmark of Great Leaders – Listen Here

  • Ep #168: Political Sabotage at Work – Listen Here

  • Ep #5: Using Power Wisely – Listen Here


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

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