I admit it. I gushed. I said those stereotypical words, "I'm a big fan."
Rock god? Movie star? No. I'm a team science geek. I said them to Jack Zenger, co-author of The Extraordinary Leader. In a presentation in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, "7 Reasons Why Strengths-Based Development Just Works Better," Zenger brought to life the lessons from the book.
Zenger is a former academic researcher who now leads the successful Zenger Folkman consulting firm with co-author Joseph Folkman. "We use hard science to develop good managers into extraordinary leaders," one of his slides explained. Given my evidence-based approach to team building, you can see why I liked that. He spoke to an equally appreciative audience at a meeting of the American Society for Training and Development's Research Triangle Chapter.
He talked about the human tendency to focus on our weaknesses, wondering aloud if it hearkened back to our parents. Bring home a bunch of As and one C on a report card, and what gets the most attention? The C. His research based on 29,000 360-degree surveys of leaders identified seven reasons why that focus is not the smart way to improve your leadership skills, he said. Let's go through them from his slides, in italics below.
"Building Strengths is the Only Way to Become an Exceptional Leader." Using 80 of those leaders in a financial firm as a case study, he noted that those who focused on improving their weakness only raised their overall ratings to the 50th percentile among their peers: average, in other words. Improving on strengths until at least three were in the 90th percentile of peers raised overall leadership ratings to the 80th percentile. In the book, he and Folkman specify this refers to three strengths from among 16 factors of leadership identified in their analyses.
"A Strengths Focus Produces Greater Improvement." In that same case study, those who focused on weaknesses gained 12 percentage points in their leadership ratings. Strength-builders gained 26 points. Plus, Zenger said, there is an "extender effect" which "tends to drive out some of the bad behavior." The reason could be as simple, he said, as time: doing more good behaviors means less time for doing bad behaviors.
"The Organization Benefits." In another set of 81 leaders from a telecommunications company, the teams of top-10-percent leaders compared to the bottom-10-percenters had:
These kinds of numbers have bottom-line effects. At Sears, one slide reported, "For every 5-point improvement in employee attitude, customer satisfaction goes up 1.3%, which in turn increases revenues 0.5%, or $250 million per year."
"Broader Spectrum of Development Methods Available." Trying to correct one or two weaknesses limits you to the methods applicable to those factors. Working instead on a half-dozen strengths to take them further up raises your options dramatically.
"Motivation Increases." Motivating yourself to practice something you are good at is easier than pushing yourself to eliminate a bad habit.
"Positively Impacts the Culture of the Organization." Focusing on strengths across your enterprise moves "the culture away from a 'looking for mistakes and weaknesses' mindset." Zenger cited a series of studies by other researchers that closely observed top management teams during strategic planning. The scientists determined the ideal ratio of positive to negative comments was 5.6-to-1. I thought of Stephen Covey's concept of the "emotional bank account" from Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He wrote that you had to make regular positive comments about someone to get away with a negative comment without injuring the relationship.
"Much More Fun to Work on Strengths." Enough said.
Going into the Q&A, Zenger had a throw-away line I am stealing. "I'll find out what's on your mind, and you'll find out if I have one," he said drily. He was asked if there is one competency more important than others. "'Inspires & Motivates' seems to be," he said. A key finding in his book was there is no one strength common to all leaders, so I interpreted his statement to mean that is the most common.
He recounted the story of a 7th-grade teacher decades ago who asked every member of her class to write one positive thing about every classmate. She wrote down for each student what the others had said and gave out the pages. Years later, she went to the funeral of one of those students after he was killed in the Vietnam War. She noticed in the open casket a piece of paper with her handwriting. It turned out to be the one with the positive comments. The father came over and said his son had carried it with him into battle. Other former students there came to her with various stories of how they used that piece of paper daily. "What is it about letting people focus on their strengths?" Zenger asked rhetorically. "I think there is something kind of magic…"
What are you good at as a team member or leader? Are you better at those behaviors than most of your peers? If not, contemplate how much fun you could you have and success you could add by trying to get better at those behaviors.
Action Item: Ask a trusted advisor at work what your best strength is, and whether it is in the top 90 percent of leaders he or she knows. If so, keep asking until you identify a strength that is not that strong, and work with them to create an action plan for raising the rating.
P.S., Among the geeky fan things I did was to bring my copy of his book. Even though it had already been signed by him and Folkman before I got it, I asked him to sign it again. After a kind wish for my success he added, "May you enjoy the quest of creating extraordinary leaders."
Along with everything else he knew that night, he knew this about me. Well past my 20s, I still have the absurd desire of the motivated 20-something to change the world. I believe you are reading this because you want to be a better leader, and I believe you can be. My success comes in tiny steps, so I won't change the world. But I am changing me, and you can join in my quest by taking an easy step today toward changing yourself.