Why do some people progress faster than others?

This article was originally published 7 March 2019.

In most organisations, you’ll find HR and business leaders constantly grappling to make sure they have the right people, in the right job, at the right time – to build for the future and deliver business results.

If your organisation is anything like the businesses I have previously worked in, you will be stuck in an infinite loop of identifying key challenges and then appropriately developing talent and moving them through your organisation.

To guide you through this process, the Center for Creative Leadership and Lominger have developed traits to help you identify high performers within an organisation. Their respective researches found behaviours that are most important for executives to succeed and also highlighted why executives are sometimes derailed. Traditionally, we defined successful leaders as those who displayed conventional intelligence such as high test scores, technical and analytical skills as well as straight forward approaches to problem solving. However, those traits are not always what you should look for in a leader.

Workers who are quick thinking, curious, able to link ideas and concepts are generally known to possess ‘X-factor’ traits. While both styles are important within an organisation, our role as talent facilitators is to ensure we are helping to provide the right opportunities to the people who will best respond to them. Hence, it’s important to identify X-factor traits to understand who will thrive with uncertainty as opposed to continuity.

What are X-factor traits?

Ultimately, it’s an individual’s drive and capability to grow from new experiences. But what does this really mean? Drive refers to someone’s willingness and excitement to experience new things. While capability, denotes not only a desire to do new things, but the ability to adapt to new environments and apply key learnings.

Understanding more about X-factor traits will help you to identify people in your organisation that possess them. Generally, people with X-factor traits will be:

  • Willing to ask questions (even if they look ‘silly’)
  • Keen observers of themselves and others, often they will sit back and observe what’s happening
  • They are able to compare things and draw linkages or apply ‘rules of thumb’ as well as being willing to search for connections between information and concepts.

From an HR perspective, these X-factor traits can be surmised into five key categories:

x-factor traitsFigure 1: basis from the Center for Creative Leadership

Mirroring: People who mirror are holding up the mirror to their own behaviours. They are candid about themselves (possibly to a fault.), they actively seek feedback, they are sensitive about their impact on others and accept feedback while taking corrective action based on feedback. Essentially, these people want to know how to be better and aren’t shy in understanding what this means for them.

Intellect: This is not a traditional view of intelligence. Your HSC results 20 years ago do not define your aptitude or abilities. If you’re asked about them in an interview and you didn’t just leave school - run. People who have intellect as an X-factor trait are intensely curious, search for patterns/parallels and contrasts in information. They question conventional wisdom and are not interested in doing things ‘just because’. Ultimately, they find solutions to tough questions.

Connector: A person’s ability to deeply understand others. Connectors are skilled communicators who provide a fresh perspective and receive satisfaction from helping others succeed. When faced with conflict, they are constructive and use people effectively, which allows them to deliver through others.

Nudger: The propensity to constantly tinker with things and strive for continuous improvement without fear of retribution from risk taking. They are comfortable making mistakes and learning from them. Often, they take responsibility for difficult areas of change and help make progress towards changing an organisation.

Deliverer: The ability to build high performing teams. These individuals are flexible, adaptable and perform well in first time situations. They are driven by challenge and the desire to accomplish something against all odds. Think ‘overcome prevail’.

Before you throw your hands up and exclaim ‘this person must be a super hero’ – we know no person can be brilliant at ALL of these things. However, a person who thrives with new challenges and situations will be someone who is strong in several of these X-factors. These people are going to progress through your business faster than others. And they may drive you a bit batty in the process as you balance the needs of the individual and the organisation.

How are people with X-factors different to other leaders?

As you think about how to apply this information, it is important to recognise that you will always need a balance of talent in your organisation. You need people who are happy to be challenged by new situations and then want to move on. Equally, you need great leaders who thrive on building deep knowledge and are able to consistently apply that to their functions or services. Figure 2 helps convey points of similarity and difference between these leaders:

x-factor leadership basisFigure 2: Center for Creative Leadership

Finally, I want to conclude with the questions to ask as you consider talent strategies in your organisation.

  • How do you define talent in your organisation?
  • Is there an understanding that people prefer to learn differently?
  • Are their development plans in line with how they prefer to grow?
  • Do you need a more structured way to develop your talent that will target their strengths & strengthen your talent pipeline?

Interested in learning more?

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me.


If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, please see below a list of articles and work that this article is based on:

Center for Creative Leadership
Lombardo & Eichinger (2000)
Sternberg et al (2003)
Bennis & Thomas (2002)