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What it takes to be a rising star

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Want to know what really sets rising stars apart from the pack? In much the same way that some drugs have benefits beyond their initial intended use, some managers benefit their companies far above and beyond their direct responsibilities.

The same can be said of inventions, innovations, and products. They often take off and go viral based on a use nobody thought of or an unintended feature. Likewise, employees can become stars by solving big problems or delivering big results that go well beyond their job titles.

I like to call it above-and-beyondness. Make no mistake, that quality is often the only difference between a life-long middle manager and a rising star executive.

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Just take IBM CFO Mark Loughridge, for example. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal ranked him No. 1 on a list of the country's best chief financial officers. Why? Beyond all the usual responsibilities of a Fortune 50 finance chief, he managed to successfully and methodically integrate dozens of acquired companies since becoming CFO in 2004.

Loughridge also played a leading role in developing, communicating, and driving IBM's strategic roadmap. Not only is it rare to find a CFO who can simplify and explain where a company as big and complex as IBM is heading, but Loughridge also drove the execution of IBM's strategy across the company's divisions.

I've known quite a few managers like Loughridge over the years. They surprise you. You find yourself saying things like, "Wow, he's pretty dynamic and articulate for a bean-counter!" Down the road, when you find out they've become top executives, you're never surprised.

That sort of above-and-beyondness comes down to a unique combination of three factors:

They see the big picture. One of the most limiting factors for otherwise strong employees and managers is that they focus too narrowly on their own little sphere of responsibility. They never get the full picture of what their company's business is all about. As a result, they fail to see or create opportunities to take their careers to the next level.

They're born problem-solvers. Most people see problems and obstacles. Some people see those same problems and obstacles but almost immediately begin to formulate ideas and solutions to overcome them. As Machiavelli put it, "... there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity... ."

They're driven to push the envelope. Whether you're actually made that way or somewhere along the line you developed the need to prove something to someone, some people are highly motivated -- not just to achieve, but to overachieve. They live to push the envelope as far as they can.

If you have the vision to see what's really going on, can determine where the obstacles are and how to overcome them, and are driven to accomplish great things, you can pretty much take your career anywhere you want it to go. It doesn't matter if you're in finance, marketing, sales, engineering, or operations. Go for it. Go above and beyond.

Image courtesy of Flickr user clarism_4