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Zenger Folkman blog

February 17, 2016

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Are You Technical Enough? Here’s How It Affects Your Leadership Skillsby Jack Zenger

Fifty years ago management theorists had an expansive view of the role of general managers. The mantra was, “A manager is a manager and they can manage anything.” They believed a good general manager could move from managing a retail shoe company to functioning as the general manager in a precision auto parts manufacturing company. Management skills are infinitely portable, correct? The GM didn’t need to possess a deep understanding of the business.

Business schools focused on teaching management and the discipline rose to be revered. Notable business leaders like Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld moved from industry into government, bringing along their relentless focus on analytics. This fueled the belief still further that general managers could run organizations effectively based solely on their management skills, including moving from the private sector to the public sector. All this was based on the assumption that a general manager could rely on others to have the deep knowledge of the technology underlying their firm.

Occasionally I continue to see organizations appoint leaders who don’t have depth or expertise in the particular functions they run. The rationale is that in addition to relying on subordinates for necessary technical knowledge, throwing them in the deep end of the pool will require them to quickly learn the necessary expertise they require.

But what’s different in organizations today than 50 years ago? Things have gotten substantially more complex. Technology evolves rapidly. Product life cycles diminish. Change escalates exponentially.

Can a leader with low levels of technical or financial acumen in a particular business be successful today? To answer that question my colleague Joe Folkman and I looked at a dataset of more than 57,000 leaders and measured their technical and financial acumen. We then examined how they were perceived as leaders in general. We were particularly interested in the impact of acumen on top managers. Many people continue to believe that the senior leaders in an organization don’t really need technical depth or knowledge. But the graph below demonstrates that leaders both in general and top managers who were at the bottom 10% in the technical and financial acumen were rated at only the 12th percentile in their overall leadership effectiveness. Leaders in the top 10% were rated at the 84th and 80th percentile respectively. Continued on

February 10, 2016

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Zenger Folkman Receives 3 Top Awards at LEAD2016by Zenger Folkman

20160209-awards-01-stackedDistinguished recipients of the Leadership Excellence Awards for 2016 were named last week for outstanding achievements in leadership development and programs. This year Zenger Folkman received awards in three areas for their renowned leadership programs:

The Extraordinary Leader™
- Best Experienced / Senior Leaders Program
- Best Global / International Leadership Program

The Extraordinary Coach™
- Best Executive Coaching

"Over the past 14 years these programs have helped many organizations increase profitability, productivity, and employee satisfaction by increasing the effectiveness of their leaders," said Joe Folkman, president of Zenger Folkman.

For more than 33 years, Leadership Excellence, now a part of, has identified and recognized the top leadership organizations and their strategies and solutions in a yearly ranking by appropriate category. The prestigious Leadership Awards salute the world’s top leadership practitioners and programs and highlight their roles in developing their most important asset - their people.

"Effective leadership development programs and activities are a must in today’s business," stated Debbie McGrath, CEO of "Without leadership, all other resources are ineffective, whether you are operating a non-profit, educational institution, government department, small business, or a large corporation. Programs and individuals recognized in the Leadership Excellence Awards program have made significant contributions developing leaders."

Zenger Folkman is dedicated to providing research-proven leadership training programs to companies all over the world, ensuring that their leaders are extraordinary—and drive extraordinary results. CEO Jack Zenger, who accepted the company's awards, said: “We are very honored by these awards that validate that our research and programs have truly made a difference in this industry.”

February 4, 2016

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5 Attitudes That Define Great Leadersby Joe Folkman

I typically work with huge datasets and draw conclusions based on thousands of leaders. Recently, however, I was working with a small dataset of just 30 leaders. These leaders work for a high tech company with more than 60,000 total employees. This group of 30 were considered to be some of the highest potential leaders in the company. The average age of these leaders was 43. Twenty two were male; eight were female. In the time I spent with these individuals, it was clear they were a select and impressive group.

We measured their effectiveness as leaders and found that although all were considered high potential, not all were extraordinary leaders. Sometimes potential ratings come from experience, knowledge and expertise as opposed to leadership skills. We assessed their leadership effectiveness using our Extraordinary Leader 360 assessment. On average, 15 assessors rated each person, using assessments from managers, peers, direct reports and others. Overall leadership effectiveness ranged from the 7th to the 96th percentile.

In addition to the 360 assessment we gathered data from each person on 25 attitude questions. We found that five of the attitude questions correlated strongly with overall leadership effectiveness. Leaders who strongly agreed with these particular attitudes also had higher overall leadership effectiveness scores. As I looked through the items, I came to the conclusion it was possible their attitudes on these items may have influenced their effectiveness as leaders. Let me describe these five attitudes and see if you agree. (I have listed them in order of the strength of the correlation, but all were statistically significant.) Continued on

January 5, 2016

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How Age and Gender Affect Self-Improvementby Zenger Folkman


Why do some people react so defensively to critical feedback, while others take it on the chin?

To help us answer this question, over the last year we’ve gathered data on how people react to feedback. We called the defensive tendency “proving” (as in, having something to prove) and the accepting tendency “improving” (as in, being willing to admit improvement was needed). These definitions are close to, though not exactly the same as, the “fixed” and “growth” mindsets discovered by Stanford professor Carol Dweck.

People with a growth mindset tend to focus on improving, learning, and effort; while folks with a fixed mindset assume that our abilities are based more on inborn talents and traits and unlikely to change. The former seek out challenging situations and welcome feedback, including criticism. The latter strive to prove themselves to others, using their existing skills. They tend to avoid feedback and criticism, and usually select tasks at which they can look good and succeed.

We examined roughly 7,000 self-assessments, and focused on a group of questions that measured a “proving” versus “improving” orientation. For instance, we asked people what happened the last time they were given negative feedback – did they challenge it, or listen openly? Did they take it personally or not? When a close friend gave them corrective feedback, did they question its validity, or accept that it was probably true? How did they think their coworkers would describe them – as resistant to corrective feedback, or open to it? Continued on Harvard Business Review.

December 28, 2015

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To Avoid A Legacy Of Bad Leadership, Do Thisby Joe Folkman


Everyone has had a coach, whether in sports, classrooms, lessons, or the workplace. What many don’t realize is that coaches impact much more than an individual’s performance. They influence the way their trainees coach as well. My daughter took voice lessons for years and had one very talented but harsh teacher who always made her cry. She swore she would never become like him, but was shocked the first time one of her own students went home in tears. “I guess I train others the way I was trained,” she said. “It’s the only way I know how to get the same results.” Does this mean that if you have a boss you dislike you are doomed to become the same type of boss?

My colleague Jack Zenger and I were curious as to whether we could measure the impact a leader could have on the skills of their direct reports. (Keep in mind that people learn over a lifetime and our particular research covered only two years. Good and bad habits could have been learned prior to this analysis, and so the impact will be moderated by those experiences as well.)

For this study, we gathered 360 feedback data on more than 6,000 leaders. For this analysis we looked specifically at feedback from direct reports. We were able to match leaders with direct reports who were also managers and had also received a 360 evaluation. Continued on

December 22, 2015

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Infographic: 8 Steps to Being a Better Boss in 2016by Zenger Folkman

It is, as some say, “the most wonderful time of the year.” While workers look forward to festive parties and Holiday gifts, there is one present organizations can provide that rises to the top of the heap. No, it isn’t the latest computing tablet or a bigger and better game station. By far, the best gift to an employee, anytime during the year, is to have a really great boss.

In order to take a closer look at the “best bosses,” we analyzed 360-degree feedback data for some 45,000 leaders. We were struck with the wide variation in perceptions. Employees viewed some bosses as amazing leaders while others were, in a word, terrible.

The bosses who dedicate their limited time to developing others this year not only improves their relationships with employees, but also increases the productivity and profitability of their organizations. As you contemplate your Holiday gifts this year, remember, it’s not too late to strive to be the “best boss”. Pick one of the behaviors above and turn it into a strength. We promise it will be the best gift your employees and organization could receive.

Download the infographic to learn the 8 behaviors that we have found in the best bosses.

Download Infographic

November 25, 2015

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How Much Thanks Are You Giving? 6 Ways To Recognize Others More Oftenby Joe Folkman

Thanksgiving Icon

A few years ago my wife made the mistake of allowing our oldest son to go to an early Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s home. He came home raving about “the best meal he had ever had in his life.” Well the time came for our family Thanksgiving dinner, which my wife had spent days preparing, and all my son could do was compare every dish to the masterpiece he had devoured earlier. This, of course, put her in a very sour mood. It was especially sad because our meal tasted fantastic. But all anybody could hear through that Thanksgiving holiday was that no matter how good the meal in front of them was, someone else had done it better. It resulted in my wife not getting the recognition she deserved for her great execution and work.

The vast majority of us don’t recognize others often enough. If you need data on the power of recognition, just think about the last time someone said, “You did a great job!” or, “You really do that very well!” It’s a great feeling to be recognized.

But in the spirit of the holiday, I looked at an assessment where we measured the extent to which leaders recognized others (along with 56 other behaviors). We looked at 5,000 evaluations of 331 leaders. We looked at the direct reports of leaders and found that 11% rated their leader as needing to improve in recognition. Twenty-five percent indicated their leader was okay. Sixty-four percent said recognizing others was their leader’s strength or even a significant strength. Looking at that data it seems obvious that about one third of the population could benefit from improving their ability to recognize others. Continued on

November 10, 2015


We Like Leaders Who Underrate Themselvesby Zenger Folkman


The Stanford Graduate School of Business asked the members of its Advisory Council which skills were most important for their MBA students to learn. The most frequent answer was self-awareness — possessing an accurate view of your skills, abilities, and shortcomings, as well as understanding how other people perceive your behavior.

Much of the research literature on emotional intelligence published in the last two decades reinforces the importance of self-awareness. For instance, academic researchers have found that people are happier and more well adjusted when their view of themselves accords with others’ views of them. And Korn-Ferry has even published research suggesting that a company’s financial performance is related to the level of self-awareness of the firm’s leadership team.

But is self-awareness always a good thing? And how many managers really have it?

We decided to find out. We delved into 360-degree feedback data describing 69,000 managers as seen through the eyes of 750,000 respondents at hundreds of firms. We found that leaders’ views of themselves generally don’t fit with how other people perceive them. Continued on Harvard Business Review.

September 30, 2015

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What Younger Managers Should Know About How They’re Perceivedby Zenger Folkman


As new managers fill vacancies created by retiring Boomers, how do their skills compare with the seasoned older managers they replace?

Naturally, our assumption was that veteran managers would be more effective on almost every front. To test this out, we explored the data we’ve accumulated on more than 65,000 leaders. We focused on managers 30 years of age and younger (455 leaders) and compared them to leaders over 45 years of age (4,298) to determine the distinguishing characteristics of each group.

Forty percent of the younger group were female compared to 38.5% of the older leaders. This partly satisfied our desire for similarity between the groups. Yet the very fact that the younger managers were promoted to managerial positions at a relatively young age indicated that they were primarily high potential individuals. To be elevated into management at an early age is not common. So already, these individuals stood out. Of the younger group, 44% ranked in the top quartile for overall leadership effectiveness when compared to all leaders in our database. In contrast, the older group had only 20% in the top quartile. This finding sends an interesting message about senior managers.

The 360-degree feedback instrument we use collects data on 49 leadership behaviors. When we matched the scores of the two groups on these 49 characteristics, the younger group ranked more positively on every trait. This is excellent news, indicating there are talented younger leaders in our organizations who will be capable of stepping into key roles.

However, we also identified a group of behaviors and perceptions that challenge the younger leaders we studied. Continued on Harvard Business Review.

September 24, 2015

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Seasoned Leaders: Might You Need A Whack On The Side Of Your Head?by Jack Zenger


Probably yes. I’m not suggesting the kind that would draw blood or inflict real harm. But the great majority of us need something to grab our attention and cause us to change in a positive way. Why do I think this?

I became convinced of this need when I saw the data that compared older, more experienced managers with their younger counterparts. Bottom line, managers on average don’t become more effective with age. They become experienced, but not more effective. My colleague Joe Folkman and I had noticed many indications of this as we had analyzed our 360-degree feedback data. We saw long ago that many older managers become less receptive to feedback over time. And when we compared them on a wide range of competencies, it became clear that younger managers received higher scores on virtually everything.

Yet most people, whether professional specialists or managers, have the assumption that as their careers progress they will receive increasing compensation. They believe and hope they will be traveling on an escalating ramp that will provide them with progressively higher salaries until the day they retire. That isn’t happening, and it may be in part our own fault. Continued on

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