The Indispensable Leader

My good friend Jack Zenger, author of The Extraordinary Leader, has just written an article entitled “Making Yourself Indispensable.” This is a skill that nearly every leader, employee, manager, and team member wants and should have. In the article, Jack argues for focusing on strengths over fixing weaknesses. It’s a great approach that I’m happy to share in the hope that you will get as much out of this short interview with Jack as I did.

Marshall Goldsmith: Your article focuses on how leaders can develop their strengths. But most people tend to think of “improvement” as fixing weaknesses. Why is it so important for leaders to build strengths, instead of focusing on shortcomings?

Jack Zenger: There are at least three different viewpoints about how leaders can excel. One view is that I need to be without any weaknesses. Another is that I need to be relatively good at everything. A final one is that I need to be extremely good at a few things. Our research, based on studying the data from over a quarter of a million 360 degree feedback instruments on 30,000 leaders, strongly indicates that extraordinary leaders are defined by being outstanding on three to five competencies. Being devoid of weaknesses doesn’t do it. Being moderately good at lots of competencies doesn’t do it either. So here’s the data: Those with no profound strengths (something at the 90th percentile) are roughly in the bottom third of all leaders in an organization. Add one strength, and they catapult to nearly the top third—to the 64th percentile to be exact. Then if you add one more strength, they are now at the 72nd percentile; three strengths puts them at the 81st percentile; four strengths moves them to the 89th percentile; and five strengths puts them at the 91st percentile.

You mention that the process of building strengths is different than that of fixing weaknesses. How so?

When leaders are moderately good at a competency, they often feel stuck. They’ve done all the obvious things. They are much like the runner who has reached a certain level of speed and endurance and who just can’t get to the next level. So the runner hears that there is a way to enhance their current training regimen with cross training. The runner starts swimming, bicycling, weight lifting, and yoga. Why? Excelling at those activities spills over to running. They increase endurance, muscle tone, and strength. These are complementary athletic skills. Success in performing them correlates highly with success in running.

Can you give an example of a leadership strength and how competency could help build that strength?

We’ve done research that identifies the complementary skills for over 40 important leadership competencies. Let’s use, as an example, the differentiating competency of strategic thinking. Chances are that in your practice as an executive coach, you’ve talked with many executives who have received feedback that indicates they are “just so-so” when it comes to strategy. Yet they’ve read the usual books. They’ve attended seminars. Some have been to university-sponsored programs on the topic. Is the answer then to read more books? Subscribe to more business journals? Attend more seminars? Those won’t hurt this leader; but maybe something else can help even more.
One of the powerful complementary skills to strategic thinking is focusing on customers. The act of getting out and visiting customers has consistently been shown to increase a leader’s success in strategic thinking. When you stop and think about it; it makes sense. The process of visiting customers gives you a sense of where the market is heading. It lets you know what customers are thinking about. It forces you to be more outwardly focused, rather than inwardly focused.

Your research shows that an individual is the worst at knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, so how do you get a more accurate picture of yourself?

Marshall, not only are we the worst at knowing our own strengths, we’re only about half as accurate as our immediate boss or our direct reports. The most accurate picture comes from us participating in a high-quality 360 degree feedback process. I say “high quality” because anyone can slap several questions together. But constructing a complete, scientifically constructed 360 instrument takes some expertise. The fact that 85 percent or 90 percent of the Fortune 500 companies use this technique says something about the perceived value that is derived from this. Having all your subordinates, many of your peers, your boss, and other groups (such as customers or suppliers or people two levels below you) complete an anonymous instrument is the best way to get the most accurate picture of your strengths and any flat sides you may have. I’m constantly amazed at what profound changes can come about when people do this and decide to take advantage of this important gift.

Once you’ve identified which competencies are your strengths, how do you choose which one to develop? How do the competency companions play in your development plan?

In some ways, these are hard choices. Why? It isn’t the choice of something bad vs. something good. Instead it is the choice between two good things. That can be really hard. The good news is that there is seldom a bad choice. Because the competencies are so linked, improving any one will generally lift several others up with it.

So here’s our suggested process for making the choice. It involves three filters. First, choose something you’re quite good at, usually well above average, but also not at the 90th percentile. This gives you some room to get better. Second, choose something that the organization values. Choose a competency that others perceive to be important for someone in your job. If it doesn’t have importance to the organization, then it could be labeled as your hobby. Third, choose something for which you have some juice or passion. As you think about working to get better at this, do you feel excited and energized? Would the time spent in developing this competency be fun, or would it be a chore?

Once you’ve selected a competency to work on, then ferret out the companion behaviors to that competency. We published those in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review in the article “Making Yourself Indispensable.” For more detailed information, contact us. Choosing one or two companion behaviors will provide the business corollary of cross training in the world of athletics. Then begin applying these.

Why does developing strengths make you “indispensable”?

Well, this takes us right back to the beginning of our conversation. It is the leader with a handful of strengths who is making the most important contributions to the organization. Think of every objective measure of organizational performance that you can—whether it is employee turnover, customer satisfaction, employee commitment, productivity, innovation, or net profitability. In every case the differences are not slight, they are huge. Every one of these outcomes correlates highly with leaders who possess three to five strengths. These are the leaders no organization wants to lose. They are the ones top management and the front-line workers see as being truly indispensable.

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