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managing books

How to Be Exceptional

By John Zenger, Joseph Folkman, Robert Sherwin Jr. and Barbara Steel

(McGraw-Hill, 229 pages, $29.95)


Performance management systems in most organizations and our own self-improvement efforts are invariably focused on shoring up weaknesses. That habit persists, despite the recent studies showing that boosting strengths is more likely to catapult us to success.

Four consultants from Zenger Folkman, a leading research-based consultancy on leadership development, add to our understanding with a new book that clarifies when to work on strengths or weaknesses, and if you are trying to boost your strengths, how best to go about that not-necessarily-obvious task.

John Zenger, Joseph Folkman, Robert Sherwin Jr., and Barbara Steel present evidence that leaders who possess and use three to five skills that are rated at the 90th-percentile level compared with others can make a huge impact on their organization. "If you correlate these leaders' perceived effectiveness with employee engagement, customer satisfaction, productivity, profitability, or retention of employees – in fact, with virtually every quantifiable business outcome you can imagine – you'll find a strong connection," they write in How to Be Exceptional.

They note that it's unlikely that you can ever pull a weakness up to that 90th-percentile level, and turn it into a powerful strength. In reviewing thousands of development plans for leaders, for example, they have found often the target is to become a better listener. As the individuals focus on cutting back their talk in conversations and not interrupting others, they improve, perhaps getting to the 75th-percentile range. But to move to a 90th-percentile range is formidable because the logical, intuitive actions have been tried, and building a strength is not the same as acquiring a basic skill.

They studied development efforts in one organization, rating the leaders after successive surveys in which colleagues assessed effectiveness. Leaders who worked on their weaknesses did become more effective, moving on average from the 34th to 46th-percentile range in overall effectiveness, a 12-point gain. But leaders who built on their strengths moved on average from a 41th-percentile rating to 77th-percentile, a whopping 36-point jump – three times the improvement of those working on weaknesses.

The authors present a litany of other studies showing the benefits of working on strengths, and distill the research and their own consulting experience down to this guideline: Concentrate on boosting your strengths, unless you have a fatal flaw that will prevent you from succeeding in your current role, whatever your gifts.

To explain how a fatal flaw is different from a weakness, they point to an accounting manager who is a weak communicator and heads a team producing standard reports for internal use. That weakness will hurt performance somewhat, but given the role, it is not crucial. However, if that accountant's boss, the CFO, is a weak communicator it would be a fatal flaw since she makes regular presentations to the board of directors and speaks regularly to external investors.

You still may feel, despite that argument, that you should not have any weaknesses in order to be successful. But the consultants urge you to think back about your best bosses over your career. Probably they had evident weaknesses. But those didn't hugely matter because of their towering strengths.

Even if you accept the authors' logic, it isn't easy to figure out how to build your strengths. Their research suggests that a new avenue to explore is "cross-training." Just as a serious runner might improve by weight lifting, bicycle riding, swimming, or rowing, which heightens physical conditioning, leaders can work on competencies related to the strength they want to build.

Their research found that for every important strength like "drives for results" or "communicates powerfully," are a handful of behaviours that correlate strongly in test results. "What we started to understand was that profound strengths are created from a combination of competencies," they write.

In some cases, those companion competencies were logical and intuitive, but in others they were jarringly non-intuitive, with the reason for the linkage unclear. For example, self-development 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 working on these companion competencies suggests a path to improvement.

Take humility. Since Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, identified that as a trait of successful leaders, it's been on everyone's wish list. But how do you become humble? Their research suggests the following behaviours are linked to humility, and therefore what you can 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 book elaborates on this companion-competencies approach, and goes beyond that in laying out the various steps to developing an exceptional strength. It's a clear, easy-to-read book, despite the heavy focus on research, and a compelling alternative approach to our tendency to obsess over weaknesses.


Information today is increasingly being presented in graphical form, particularly online, and in Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling (John Wiley, 262 pages, $35.95) consultants Jason Lankow, Josh Ritchie and Ross Crooks, of the Column Five creative agency, explain why the phenomenon has arisen and how to make the best use of infographics for your company.

It's an easy to read book, with lots of examples, that explains what works and what doesn't in a way that would help senior executives trying to familiarize themselves with the matter and presentations experts looking for added insights.