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Zenger Folkman blog

July 14, 2016

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What Great Listeners Actually Doby Zenger Folkman

jul16-14-hbr-laura-schneider-communication-02-1200x675Chances are you think you’re a good listener. People’s appraisal of their listening ability is much like their assessment of their driving skills, in that the great bulk of adults think they’re above average.

In our experience, most people think good listening comes down to doing three things:

  • Not talking when others are speaking
  • Letting others know you’re listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds (“Mmm-hmm”)
  • Being able to repeat what others have said, practically word-for-word

In fact, much management advice on listening suggests doing these very things – encouraging listeners to remain quiet, nod and “mm-hmm” encouragingly, and then repeat back to the talker something like, “So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is…” However, recent research that we conducted suggests that these behaviors fall far short of describing good listening skills.

We analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, their coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. We identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). We then compared the best listeners to the average of all other people in the data set and identified the 20 items showing the largest significant difference. With those results in hand we identified the differences between great and average listeners and analyzed the data to determine what characteristics their colleagues identified as the behaviors that made them outstanding listeners.

We found some surprising conclusions, along with some qualities we expected to hear. Continued on Harvard Business Review.

June 23, 2016

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People Who Think They’re Great Coaches Often Aren’tby Zenger Folkman


“I think I am a pretty good coach,” the executive across the desk said to us.

Impressed with his positive attitude about himself, we asked, “How do you know?”

He said he had attended a coaching course and learned many of the techniques of good coaching. That triggered a question for us. How many leaders believe they are better coaches than they really are? After all, the most critical test for measuring your effectiveness as a coach lies not in your belief about your own skills but rather on how the recipients of your coaching rate your skills (and on how their own competencies increase afterward).

We examined data on 3,761 leaders who assessed their own coaching skills and had the courage, afterward, to have others give them assessments as well. We analyzed those who overrated their coaching skills and compared the results with those who’d underrated.

What we found: 24% of the leaders in our sample had overrated their skills. Just as many adults believe they are far above average in their driving skills or in possessing common sense, this group believed they were above-average coaches. Continued on Harvard Business Review.

June 16, 2016

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The 3 Keys To Relationship Building That Separate Mediocre Leaders From The Brightest And Bestby Jack Zenger


Humans are hard wired to connect. They are social creatures that crave friendship and positive interactions with others. As much as we yearn for these interactions, however, many of us struggle to be good at building relationships. But why? To gain more clarity, my colleague Joe Folkman and I looked at our data to discover the key elements to developing positive relationships both within and outside of work.

There are three items we use to measure relationships:

1. Balancing results with a concern for others’ needs,

2. Being trusted by other members of the work group

3. Staying in touch with issues and concerns of individuals in the group.

Our data showed that leaders who excelled in these areas were able to develop more positive relationships and in turn significantly improve employee engagement, retention, and discretionary effort. Continued on

June 8, 2016

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Are You Still Maligning Millennials? Stopby Joe Folkman


Two recent events motivated me to write this blog.

Event 1: I attended a conference where a presentation speaker was talking about how millennials are so different. The speaker was going through the typical list of characteristics we’ve heard hundreds of times when a millennial raised his hand, stood up and said, “I am so tired of hearing this garbage about millennials and none of it is true!” He received an ovation of support from the audience.

Event 2: I was on a call with an organization that was packed with millennials. We were looking at data on employees’ intentions to leave the organization. In this case, 43% of the employees were thinking about quitting compared to the global norm of 28%. The company’s leaders asked, “Is this percentage much higher than average because of the big population of millennials in the organization? We all know millennials are much more likely to be looking for their next job.”

I have been gathering data about millennials and don’t yet have definitive answers for all of the questions, but I do have enough to question some of the assumptions we have about millennials. To find the truth, read the research in Joe Folkman's Forbes blog. Continued on

May 23, 2016

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4 Ways to Be More Effective at Executionby Zenger Folkman


Most people recognize that execution is a critical skill and strive to perform it well, but they may a) underestimate how important it is to their career advancement or b) not realize that you can improve on execution without working longer hours.

On the first point, bosses place a premium on execution, which we define as the ability to achieve individual goals and objectives. In fact, when we asked senior managers to indicate the importance of this ability, they ranked it first on a list of 16 skills. Other raters in the organization ranked it fourth, behind inspiring and motivating, having integrity and honesty, and problem solving. We recognize that there are many parts of your job that are important, but if you want to move ahead in your career, it might be time to double down on simply getting more stuff done – it’s what your boss wants to see.

Which brings us to the second point. Many managers react with defensiveness or despair to this news; after all, most of the managers we know already feel like they’ve got too much to do. People who are lethargic, slow, or unfocused are rarely (at least in our experience) promoted to upper management positions. The leaders we know already work hard and long – and working harder and longer is not a viable option. In the short term this typically yields improved results, but in the long term leaders burn out. And if they’ve pushed their teams to do the same, team members quit.

But our data – gleaned from tens of thousands of 360-degree performance reviews — tells us that there are more sustainable methods of improving execution. We looked at thousands of leaders who were rated as being highly effective at execution and looked for the coinciding behaviors that enabled this skill. We found a set of behaviors that improve execution. Four behaviors in particular stood out. Continued on Harvard Business Review.

April 27, 2016

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Do Women Make Bolder Leaders than Men?by Zenger Folkman


A common stereotype is that men have a tendency to be bolder than women. And numerous studies have shown that male business leaders do tend to take more risks. But looking through our database of 360-degree assessments from 75,000 leaders around the world, we noticed that on average the women were bolder than the men.

We created a “boldness index” out of seven behaviors we commonly assess. (If you want to take our assessment based on this index, you can.) Because these are among the behaviors that we assess in our routine leadership assessments, we think they may be more relevant to real managers than studies that assess “risk” either in lab situations or in purely financial terms. Here’s the list:

  • Challenges standard approaches
  • Creates an atmosphere of continual improvement
  • Does everything possible to achieve goals
  • Gets others to go beyond what they originally thought possible
  • Energizes others to take on challenging goals
  • Quickly recognizes situations where change is needed
  • Has the courage to make needed changes

When boldness is defined this way, women on average rank in the 52nd percentile of boldness, a few ticks higher than the average men rating of the 49th percentile. (It’s important to note that because of the imbalanced gender ratio of senior executives, there were nearly twice as many men in our data set as women.) While that doesn’t seem like a huge difference, it stood out to us because “men take more risks” is so ingrained in social science.

We wanted to dig a little deeper, so we looked how this gap played out in different business functions. We saw that different functions had very different “bold scores” — both between functions and between men and women in the same function. Not surprisingly, the sales function showed the highest bold score, while engineering and safety showed the lowest. In every function, the women leaders had higher boldness ratings on average than the male leaders. Continued on Harvard Business Review.

April 12, 2016

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Infographic: The Leadership Leversby Zenger Folkman

Research on over 75 thousand global leaders across all industries shows that there are six critical capabilities, or “Leadership Levers,” employed by those who produce extraordinary business results.

Download the infographic to learn more about our new workshop, Leadership Levers: Building Critical Strengths™.

Download Infographic

Leadership Levers Infographic 3_41116

March 31, 2016

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The No. 1 Reason Most Personal Development Plans Failby Joe Folkman


It is no secret that most individual development plans fail. I’ve been in the leadership development industry for over 40 years and I can tell you that statement is true. But after 40 years of teaching, training, observing and testing some of the best and worst leaders in the world I can also tell you with confidence that I know why so many fail.

Given that most employees appreciate development and organizations need to grow pools of talent, you could expect everyone to feel positively about the IDP process. However, the more I talk with individuals about the process, the more I realize that most see it as a paper-passing, bureaucratic practice with little real value. Worse, managers don’t see the process as doing much to really develop talent. For them, it’s another check-the-box exercise that siphons valuable time. But these aren’t the reasons these plans ultimately fail.

Some may believe failure occurs because employees don’t have time to accomplish their goals or lack a good follow up process. Others note terrible plans for development. These factors all contribute to the problem, but they are not the root cause.

Development plans fail because they are not driven by the individual. Continued on

March 9, 2016


Good Leadership Is Contagiousby Zenger Folkman

We already know that good leadership creates engaged employees and that leaders influence a variety of outcomes such as personnel turnover, customer satisfaction, sales, revenue, productivity, and so on. But if you’re a good leader, do you make the people around you more likely to become good leaders as well? And which behaviors are most readily “caught”?

To answer this question, we examined 360-degree assessments of high-level managers and of their direct reports who were mid-level managers. Matching 265 pairs of high-level managers (HL) and their mid-level manager direct reports (ML), we found highly significant correlations on a variety of behaviors. This video is a summary of the results of our research. Read the full article on Harvard Business Review.

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

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