A New Approach to Skill Development

May 17, 2023

skill development

How can we make skill development more attainable? By creating multiple pathways for development. Several years ago, at the end of a week of travel, I was standing in a parking lot in six inches of snow at the airport, trying to remember where I parked my car. I tried pressing the panic button on my car keys, but nothing happened, and it was at that moment I decided I needed to improve my memory. I eventually found my car, but as I drove home, I determined I would look for a good book on memory.

Within a few days, I got the book, read it quickly, and tried a few things, but I found I needed something more, so I signed up for a memory course. The course was helpful, but every time I drove to the airport, I was in a hurry. As a result, when I returned, I was still having trouble finding my car. As I drove out of the parking lot after once again searching for my car, I noticed an area that was mostly empty. I thought, why not just park there every time? It was a little farther away from the entrance, but I could always use more exercise.

Since that time, I have always been able to find my car at the airport. This experience was an excellent learning experience.

There are alternative paths to the same destination.

Discovering Non-linear Skill Development

Several years ago, Jack Zenger and I made an amazing discovery that had the potential to change the way leaders develop and improve significantly. The logical and typical approach to improving a skill is simply to practice and understand that skill more. If leaders want to improve their technical expertise, they should read more articles, take more classes, or engage an expert mentor. We found that this logical (or linear) approach to skill development helped people move from poor performance to good performance.

But, when a person was already at a good level of performance, their reaction to this approach was, “I have read all the articles, taken all the classes, and interacted with excellent mentors, so doing more of that is not helping.”

Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results was the definition of insanity by Albert Einstein.

Our research uncovered an unknown fact that would help with this problem: doing one behavior influences the effectiveness of another behavior.

There was an interaction effect between the two behaviors where one influenced the effectiveness of the other.

Skill Development in Action—Technical Expertise

For example, when we looked at a database of over 100,000 leaders, we identified those who were the most effective at technical expertise. We also found that other behaviors helped a leader to be more effective at technical expertise. One of the most powerful behaviors connected to technical expertise is problem-solving. Technical expertise is knowledge and experience, while problem-solving skills focus on applying that knowledge and experience to fix something. We called this other skill a strength builder because being skillful at problem-solving improved perceptions of a leader’s effectiveness at technical expertise.


Check out Episode 109: Transforming Leadership Development—Are We Missing The Main Thing? of The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast.

A second strength-building behavior for technical expertise is relationship building. Imagine being in a meeting where a significant problem arises. A problem you understand and might possibly have a solution for. However, you have kept to yourself in the organization, you haven’t developed any friendships, and the people around you don’t really trust or know of your expertise. Do you see the problem? Having positive relationships with colleagues influences their perceptions of your expertise.

A third strength builder is communicating powerfully. We all know someone we believe has deep expertise, but when you ask them a question, you can’t understand their answer. This may cause you to question their expertise. By improving your communication skills, you will naturally build your expertise.

A fourth strength builder is a broad and strategic perspective. Often people with deep expertise tend to have a very narrow perspective. They understand their specialty well but are not very clear about how their specialty impacts other areas or even how it impacts the overall direction and strategy of the organization. Having a broader, more strategic perspective allows a person to see the larger implications of decisions and actions.

While all four strength builders influence the effectiveness of a person’s technical expertise, a person does not necessarily have to be highly skilled in all the strength builders to be viewed as a technical expert.

The four represent different paths to skill development that all lead to the same destination.

  1. An analytical person might select problem-solving.
  2. A more people-oriented person might choose relationship building.
  3. Another might realize the benefit of communicating better with their team. We found in our research that being an effective communicator is the easiest skill to develop. We also know that both introverts and extroverts can be excellent communicators.
  4. A person more interested in being promoted and moving up in the organization might select developing a broad strategic perspective.

These different paths all work to build this strength.

Choose Your Path to Skill Development Wisely

These strength-building behaviors provide a more extensive series of options for development. These are behaviors that always rise or fall with another competency. There are many paths an individual can take for skill development, and your ability to improve will be greatly enhanced by choosing a path you are confident in and passionate about. While it is impossible to prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two, the fact that they are laced so tightly together suggests that something important can be learned from them. The practical implications of this are huge.

People are not set in stone. They can reinvent themselves at any age, and I’ve seen it done. I’ve seen leaders drowning in fatal flaws overcome their greatest weaknesses. I’ve seen the most inspiring leaders still motivated to improve upon their greatest strengths. Those who change don’t just show up and hope it will happen—they accept responsibility to choose a path to make it happen.

In a previous HBR article, Making Yourself Indispensable, we list many of the strength-builder behaviors associated with our top leadership skills. You can also check out Zenger Folkman’s Insight library for more of our research on building leadership strengths.

-Joe Folkman

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Zenger Folkman combines hard data with actionable applications dedicated to helping individual leaders thrive and organizations succeed. The discipline of leadership requires more than occasional training.
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