The “Killer Instinct” as a Search Parameter?


The senior executive leaned forward before entrusting me with his secret of success. This was a 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 as one of your prime selection factors.”

I thought about that for a moment because it sure seemed to me to have a negative connotation. Killer instinct? It reminded me of people I have met in my career who are expert 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.”

It was this area of getting things done, the ability to persevere in the face of scientific or organizational hurdles, that came up repeatedly in our conversation.

Roadblocks On the Road To Success

My client’s “killer instinct” isn’t something that some lucky few have had since birth. Instead, it grows out of adversity. Not the mean-spirited adversity that you might run into on the commute to work, but 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 will litter your path as you attempt to champion a project; it’s inevitable in any organization and on any project you can’t do completely alone. Differences of opinion and approach are inevitable even if everyone is trying to accomplish the same ultimate goal. While some people grow frustrated or complacent, others turn roadblocks into building blocks to build a successful career.

Following my discussions with this executive, I came up with a list of four common characteristics of 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 advisor. Each of these traits is illustrated by the story of one of this company’s employees, people I met when this client took me around to learn about the culture of his business:

The ability to step around an obstacle instead of meeting it head on.

Each time Kumar tried to move the assay project forward, the folks in manufacturing would find something else for him to do. And yet he knew that getting past the technical hurdles they were encountering on this assay would be a tremendous time saver for everyone. Unfortunately, the quality department and the manufacturing team–both of whom could benefit from implementation of this sort of assay–had decided that his idea was unworkable. They were all working diligently on their piece of the project, but they didn’t share Kumar’s vision.

Kumar was a team player and had attempted on a number of occasions to get others to see the sense in his plan. The last time it was presented, the QA/QC department head had publicly referred to the idea as a “time sink.” At that moment Kumar decided to go underground with his idea. Instead of moving it along in project meetings, he developed strategic alliances with key colleagues and worked out the major technical glitch. As often happens when creative people work together on an “unofficial” project, they had a lucky break within a couple of weeks and had the assay working in manufacturing just a short while later.

Everyone recognized and appreciated the results of Kumar’s small project. The most important result wasn’t the President’s Award or the cash bonus he received. To Kumar, it was a set of skills learned about project management and perseverance that will last throughout his career.

The capacity to apply any amount of effort necessary to complete the project.

Vic had long ago suggested that the company move to a robotics system in the manufacturing line. When he arrived on the scene they had been doing kit assembly the same way for 15 years. His boss, the Director of Operations, had given him a budget for the changeover to a robotics line that was about 40% less than Vic felt was necessary to do the job right.

Even so, he was committed to make it work. There was equipment available that might be modified to do the job, but it would require a lot of effort both from his company and the vendor. And the vendor wasn’t as prepared as he had hoped. Vic remained confident, however, and he was willing to do whatever was necessary to make the project work. He recruited a mechanical engineer from the facilities team. They met three days a week at 7:00 over coffee, bagels, and a drafting table. Weekends became workdays.

On a Saturday morning, the two of them finally put the jigsaw pieces together 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 up to 10% of her time on ideas of her own choosing. Although she found the company’s R&D to be quite challenging and a lot of fun, she lately had become fascinated by an idea that had come to her while working on her major project. Her boss knew her well and trusted her enough to allow Susan plenty of room at the bench as she tinkered during her personal lab time.

Her tinkering produced a concept that would save the company money. To her, it would be especially important to the work that she and two other scientists were doing on their main piece of work.

Susan presented her idea at the team’s project meeting. It was generally well received but it went through a metamorphosis during the discussion. Another scientist suggested that the concept could be used in a different way entirely; applied this way, it became the key to the success of another team’s project. Instead of setting up a turf war, Susan supported this approach and was recognized by the company at the project’s successful conclusion.

The knowledge of how and why people perform.

John, an MS-level scientist with only 2 year’s experience at the company, had been promoted to Project Manager for 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, though he was in charge of the kits and responsible for their success or failure, he wasn’t in charge of 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 their to-do lists. John was chosen because he had already shown an 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 learned about the people he was working with and planned individual meetings to establish new relationships. He found ways to work with his colleagues by appreciating their working styles and motivations, which reinvigorated the project. As a result, he was one of only a half-dozen people whom the company President introduced me personally to as examples of the “killer instinct” that he admires in his best employees.

The Glue that Binds All Four

Obviously, your key to success in any job is the actual ability to do that job well–the technical horsepower required for the work. But there’s another trait here, besides the listed four above and the raw technical ability. In fact, this last ingredient binds them all together into the package labeled “killer instinct” by this client.

That ingredient is the determination to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Whether this stems from a sense of urgency or simply because you believe that failure is not an option, this rugged determination underlines all success whether in academia or industry.

If you manage to integrate the four success traits, tied together with determination, there will be no stopping your career. Make sure you let me know how you are doing along the way!