Alamy
By James M. Citrin
April 28, 2015

If there is a single piece of advice that can guarantee career success, it is this: Make those around you successful.

Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, offered me this advice to pass on to aspiring young professionals: “Always look for the best in others,” he said, “Be compassionate and praise the people you work with.” Those who conduct themselves like this, he said, “will get on with others and, by extension, get the best results.”

Branson doesn’t just do this himself. He has built that ethos into the culture of his entire enterprise. Caring about the success of others is something his highly successful companies look for in their employees.

Early in your career, it may not seem that focusing on the success of others can be as important, let alone more important, than your individual performance. To be sure, the quality of your own work always matters, especially when you’re starting a new job. And it’s true that in the early stages of your career, you generally won’t have the power to influence your company’s culture. But there are still ways that you can focus on the success of others: Namely, by pitching in when colleagues need help and, more broadly, helping to create a working environment of trust and positive energy by making sure communications, mutual respect, and credit for successful endeavors flow freely. Be responsive, share information freely, and take the initiative to develop and talk about ideas. Always be ready to answer the question, “So what do you think?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of young professionals report that they spend more time and energy thinking about their own success. What’s more, they believe that top business leaders care about their own success to an even greater degree. However, both my research and professional experience indicate that the opposite is true: The most successful top executives spend as much or more time thinking about the success of their company and their direct reports as they spend thinking about their own success.

The good news is that these misconceptions provide an enormous opportunity for any young professional aiming to emerge as a leader in their company or field: While everyone else is battling to get ahead of the pack, you can really get ahead by helping those around succeed.

This kind of leadership, not the top-down kind but leadership from within, is subtle but powerful. When a team’s members are focused on one another’s success, creativity reigns because everyone feels free to be honest and to question authority without retribution. Each member of the team feels just as accountable to each other as they do to the leader, and the work environment is marked by loyalty and exceptionally strong performance. You attract the best people to work with you and support you and create a positive dynamic in which success then attracts the better people and opportunities.

The bottom line: Help yourself by helping others and everyone wins.

James M. Citrin runs the CEO Practice at Spencer Stuart, one of the world’s leading executive search and leadership consulting firms. He is the best-selling author of six books. This article was adapted from his latest, The Career Playbook: Essential Advice for Today’s Aspiring Young Professional.

Read More from James Citrin: How to Write Emails That Will Land You a Job

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