For the past 18 years, I have attended an annual gathering of some of the top PR people in the world.
It's an organization comprised of CCOs from the biggest and most influential corporate and nonprofit organizations. At this year's event, it struck me how different all of these individuals are - and yet how utterly impressive they all are.
It's interesting. Most of them do not have advanced degrees and the vast majority did not go to Ivy League colleges. Most do not come from privileged backgrounds and most have moved around quite a bit in their careers as they've ascended the corporate hierarchy.
So what's the unifying characteristic among this diverse group? I've been thinking about it a lot, and I keep coming back to a line from a famous rap song by Mobb Deep, in which one of the lyricists says: "There ain't no such things as halfway crooks."
This line can mean a lot of things. Let me start by saying that for me, it has nothing to do with illegal or illicit behavior.
Rather, it's about a deep fundamental truth behind reaching the pinnacle of success in any field - you've got to be 100% focused. If you're only halfway in it, you're going to be bypassed by the folks who are outworking and out-hustling you.
You also have to be tough. I think about my colleagues in top jobs at big companies. Most of them have extraordinary social skills, and the majority are gracious, warm, and flexible. It's a role that requires compromise and diplomacy, but it also demands steely resolve.
These people know when and how to draw a line and tell a CEO or a room full of heated, arguing senior executives, that the approach they're advocating is off-base and potentially dangerous.
These are not jobs for the faint of heart. There are inevitably times when they have to take a strong position on the most visible and critical issues that their company is facing. And they are often in direct disagreement with lawyers, bankers, and technical experts.
This "halfway crooks" line also means you've got to really want to play at the top of the game. If there's one thing these CCOs have in common, it's their drive. They're driven to excel.
They are driven to have impact and to make a difference. They wake up every day and hit the ground running.
One of my first jobs was as a busboy at a Denny's in Tucson, AZ. The owner of the franchise was a relatively young, sharp guy who took a liking to me and would always proffer advice about getting ahead. He was always dressed immaculately, was unfailingly polite to the staff and customers, and had an energy level that I found intimidating. One day I saw him do something that I've never forgotten.
As we walked through the hallway, he spied a small piece of tissue paper on the floor. He immediately bent down in his fancy suit, picked it up, and threw it away. Then he lectured me about keeping the place clean.
What struck me back then was that I naively thought that you didn't have to bend down and pick up trash if you were the big shot. I thought you made busboys such as me do that kind of work. What I came to understand was that excellence was in this guy's DNA.
He didn't have the patience or the inclination to wait for someone else to pick up the tissue and he knew it was inefficient to order someone else to do it. He just made it happen and kept on moving.
Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.