How to Be Exceptional
John Zenger, Joseph Folkman, Robert Sherwin Jr. and Barbara Steel
McGraw-Hill, 229 pages, $29.95
To improve your job performance and prepare for promotions, should you work on your strengths or weaknesses? What about your subordinates? In getting the best performance from them, should you prod them to enhance their strengths, or shore up or eliminate weaknesses?
Traditionally, the focus has been on tackling weaknesses. Most performance management programs aim in that direction. But in recent years a movement has emerged arguing that the wisest approach is to heighten strengths and not get overwrought about weaknesses.
A new book by four consultants with Zenger Folkman, one of the best-known firms promulgating the strengths approach, doesn’t surprise with its overall thrust. But it’s still highly valuable, because the book highlights some powerful studies in favour of the strengths approach, while still clarifying when you must instead zero in on weaknesses. And it also adds to our understanding of performance improvement by explaining how to actually improve your strengths, something which is not obvious.
John Zenger, Joseph Folkman, Robert Sherwin Jr. and Barbara Steel have found in their research that there’s a huge incentive for leaders to develop three to five traits or competencies so that their strengths are at the 90 percentile level when compared to other people. “When that happens, both the leader and the leader’s organizations truly flourish,” they note.
But that isn’t an easy task. For example, they often encounter leaders who have been told they are poor at listening and need to improve. It’s fairly easy to move from being a poor listener to being a middling listener, say at the 75 percent level. That involves some fairly obvious tactics like stopping talking and not interrupting others. But to move up to an exceptional level, in the 90 percentile range, is more challenging.
The interplay between weaknesses and strengths is shown by a study at a telecommunications company that found of those managers having more than two weaknesses, just eight percent were rated by their bosses in performance appraisals as “far exceeding their goals.” In the group of managers having three or more strengths, more than 30 percent achieved that rating.
Interestingly, five strengths seem to be sufficient. Having more doesn’t make much of a difference in performance rating. And in looking at 16 competencies that differentiated the best managers, it didn’t seem to matter which was a strength and which was a weakness. The key was to have some competencies at which you are really strong.
That may make sense when you think back to the leaders you have worked under who were exceptional. Their strengths may have varied, but they all had strengths. At the same time, the consultants note they probably also had weaknesses. But their strengths were sufficient to make them memorable. “If people spend all their time focusing on fixing weaknesses, their potential strengths will never become profound strengths. It is that shift in focus – from trying not to be below average on anything to, instead, being outstanding at relatively few behaviours – that makes such a huge impact on others and causes these leaders to be viewed as exceptional,” they point out.
They studied development efforts in one organization, rating the leaders after successive 360-degree surveys in which their colleagues assessed effectiveness. The leaders who worked on improving their weaknesses did become more effective, moving on average from the 34 to 46 percentile range in overall effectiveness, a 12 percentile gain. But leaders who built on strengths jumped on average from the 41 percentile level to 77 percentile, a 36 percentile gain – three times the improvement of individuals who focused on weaknesses.
That being said, the research does show that weaknesses in some cases can hinder your growth. The authors therefore offer this operating principle: Concentrate on boosting your strengths, unless you have a fatal flaw that will prevent you from succeeding in your current role whatever your gifts.
But what’s a fatal flaw? How does that differ from a weakness? They give as an example an accounting manager who is a weak communicator and heads a team producing standard reports for internal use. The weakness will obviously hurt performance somewhat, but given the role it is not crucial. However, if the CFO is a weak communicator it would be a fatal flaw since that official makes regular presentations to the board of directors and speaks regularly to external investors. So in the context of a job, some weaknesses are bearable, and others are fatal. And remember, what’s just a weakness in one position can be fatal in another, as the company with that poor communicating accounting manager will find if he’s promoted to CFO.
Strengths can be developed. But it’s not always clear how to do that. The instinct is linear development, step-by-step gaining more expertise and experience, perhaps by reading books, taking a course, and trying to engage more effectively in the activity. But at some point, you will hit a point of diminishing returns.
The consultants, by accident, discovered a new method that they call cross-training. This will be familiar to runners, who traditionally sought improvement by running, running, running. That’s linear development. These days, runners will also ride bikes, row, swim and lift weights, cross-training that seems to pay off in their running times and distances.
The researchers don’t suggest cross-training as a theoretical hypothesis, based on the analogy with sports. It actually came to them by surprise, out of their performance data. They found that for every one of the crucial competencies that differentiated the most effective leaders from the pack there were a handful of other behaviours statistically linked to them. Leaders who got high scores on any competency also got high scores on these other behaviours, and those who got low scores on the competencies received low scores on the behaviours.
In the end, they identified between five and 12 companion behaviours for each of the differentiating competencies. In some cases the linkages are obvious and in other cases not, just as it may seem obvious a runner could benefit from bicycling but less obvious by rowing. Yet in each case the correlations are statistically significant – there is a link.
Take self-development. It links to items that are decidedly not self-focused, like being open to ideas from others, showing respect for others, and developing others. But according to the data, there’s a connection, and if you work on those companion competencies you will be developing yourself.
Humility is another example. Thanks to Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, we know that great leaders are humble. But how do you become humble? The consultants’ research found the following behaviours linked to humility, and therefore what you should work on: Has concern and consideration for others, values diversity and inclusion, shows assertiveness, is open to feedback, has integrity, develops others, involves others, is personally accountable.
The consultants have found the method helpful to the people they coach. Why does it work? “We don’t know. No one knows. That’s the honest answer,” they reply. But they suspect the competency companions may be building blocks for the competency. As well, a high level of skill in the companion competency may increase the skill in the competency. The ability to integrate information, for example, is a companion to the competency of solving problems and analyzing issues. Integrating information, of course, is part of the problem-solving process. Finally, it’s possible that the competency companion helps others “see” the main competency. Involving others is a companion to the competency of communicating powerfully and prolifically. Listening expands the communication channel and creates the vehicles by which communication is improved.
The book offers greater detail on how to put these ideas in action, dealing with fatal flaws and using the companion competency approach to build your strengths. If you want to be exceptional, it can assist.
Harvey Schachter is the Globe and Mail columnist for Managing Books and the Monday Morning Manager, and a freelance writer specializing in management issues.
The 16 Differentiating Competencies
Focus on Results
- Drives for results
- Establishes stretch goals
- Takes initiative
- Develops strategic purpose
- Champions change
- Connects the group to the outside world
- Displays honesty and integrity
- Communicates powerfully and prolifically
- Inspires and motivates others to high performance
- Builds relationships
- Develops others
- Engages in collaboration and teamwork
- Has technical/professional expertise
- Solves problems and analyzes issues
- Practises self-development