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October 15, 2012

The Low-Ego Executive

A few years ago, one of my clients introduced me to the phrase “low-ego.” He used it to describe the type of personality he looks for in candidates. I really like the term because it suggests so many positive qualities. Since then, I’ve made it part of my vocabulary.

My client’s culture is extremely team oriented. Everyone works together for the benefit of the company. It’s the kind of environment where prima donnas, personal agendas and office politics are not tolerated.

What exactly does it mean? When my client said he wanted someone with a low-ego, he meant he was looking for these qualities:

  • Great interpersonal skills.
    My client wants people who know how to work with others in a positive way. They can disagree amicably and work out compromises without destructive conflict.
  • Openness to input from across functional lines.
    The CFO of the company once said to me, “One of the great things about this company is that I feel free to offer ideas in areas outside of finance. Sometimes they don’t make sense, but every once in a while I contribute something valuable to other areas. No one ever says, ‘You’re the finance guy, get off our turf.’ Because we’re collaborative, we come up with ideas that wouldn’t happen in a place that draws fences around all the functions.”
  • Willingness to accept feedback.
    Great executives strive to continually improve their skills. That means they listen to constructive feedback and act on it. Executives who don’t accept feedback eventually hit a wall beyond which they never develop.
  • Willingness to subordinate personal interests to the interest of the company.
    Sometimes the good of the company doesn’t align with the narrow interests of an executive. Maybe business conditions dictate that the executive’s budget must be reduced. Or perhaps another part of the company has greater promise and requires higher investment. A team player sees the big picture, and knows he’ll be better off in the long run if the company succeeds.
  • Treats everyone with respect, no matter their level in the organization.
    People who are disrespectful or condescending to subordinates and others who are below them in the company hierarchy don’t fit in with my client. They’re the same people who yell at waiters in restaurants. They’re usually jerks, and don’t make good teammates or leaders.

Low-ego does not mean low self-confidence. In fact, healthy self-regard is a prerequisite for holding any executive position.

The distinguishing characteristic of the low ego executive is that he puts the team first. Derek Jeter and Dustin Pedroia are two immensely talented baseball players who are known as team players. In contrast, Alex Rodriguez and Josh Beckett have reputations as bad teammates. It’s all about them, not the team.

In my experience, most high-performing executives fit the low-ego model. They’ve gotten where they are because they realize business is a team sport. They listen to feedback and they keep getting better.

Lesser talents don’t go as far because they have a “me first” attitude. They can’t mobilize their colleagues and subordinates to work together, and they don’t listen to feedback from others on how they can improve. They’re their own worst enemies.

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