The Rewards Of Being An Ambidextrous Leader

January 15, 2018

I write with my left hand, play tennis and other sports with my right hand, and, like nearly all people, type on a keyboard with both hands. With a modest push from my parents, I’m convinced I could have learned to write with my right hand and play sports with my left. However, even without that, I’m reasonably ambidextrous—which has often come in handy.

Results Or Relationships; Which Is More Important?

There are great advantages to becoming an ambidextrous leader. In a study conducted by Zenger Folkman with 95,000 managers, we asked these leaders to indicate which competencies were most important for their subordinates’ success.  Their answer was “Driving for Results” (“Results”).  “Building Relationships” (“Relationships”) was rated number six.

When you include the views of peers and subordinates on this question, you get a different result. We studied data from 6,910 leaders who had received 360-degree feedback from an average of 13 respondents (managers, peers, direct reports, and others). We looked at the ratings from multiple raters on the leaders’ Results and Relationships abilities.

We found the following:

Competency scoring higher % in this category

Results higher than Relationships 49%
Relationships higher than Results 42%
Skilled at Both Results and Relationships 9%

Many leaders take the advice of their managers and focus their leadership efforts on driving for results. But are leaders who are more effective at delivering results better leaders than those who are highly competent in building positive relationships?  If we look at behavior, almost as many leaders were emphasizing building relationships as there were emphasizing results.

Payoffs From Being Ambidextrous

Both skills are critical for leaders, but which skill impacts the overall leadership effectiveness of a leader the most? After gathering the data from these three different groups, we found that leaders who were rated higher on Results than Relationships were, on average, at the 41st percentile in their overall leadership effectiveness. Those who were rated higher on Relationships than Results were at the 44thpercentile.  Those who were skilled at both were at the 82ndpercentile. These differences were all statistically significant.

Which Skills Get You Promoted?

Since managers were so strongly focused on Results, my colleague, Joe Folkman, and I started to wonder if that had a significant influence over who was identified as a “high potential” candidate for more senior positions.  We analyzed the same dataset, where we had “potential” ratings on just over 4,900 leaders. These “potential” ratings included input from other leaders in the organization but were most strongly influenced by the individual’s manager.

The results of the analysis are in the graph below. Notice that 32% of the leaders who were rated higher on Results than Relationships were placed in the high potential group, while only 27% of those where Relationships were higher were considered high potentials.  While we might debate the importance of one or the other of these qualities, the most compelling point of the study is that 46% of those who did both well was put in the high potential group.

If a manager is good at one and not the other, becoming ambidextrous appears to pay off.The Interaction Effect

Why this happens contains some mystery. We know that correlation does not describe causation. That means we can speculate about why leaders who combine these abilities are perceived as being better performers with high potential, but cannot provide a definitive answer.

There is a strong circular effect between the positive relationships within a team and the results it produces.

  1. Positive relationships lead to members of a team putting forth extra effort.  That discretionary effort readily translates into better results.
  2. People who are generally happy in their work are more productive.  Positive relationships are a major contributing factor in being happy at work.
  3. People generally are much happier when they’re playing on a winning team.  Producing good results together is a strong force in building good relationships.
  4. Individuals who consistently contribute to a team’s success enjoy a higher sense of inclusion and respect than those who are not seen as positive contributors.

The Quest To Be Ambidextrous

Just as people select which hand they use the most, people sense which of these two qualities they tend to favor. The important takeaway is that you don’t need to be brilliant at both to achieve this positive impact. In our analysis, we put leaders into both groups when they were at or above the 75th percentile on both skills. Some people were at the 90th percentile on Results but only at the 75th percentile on Relationships, but still had that positive interaction effect. Rather than make the excuse, “I am not wired that way,” start telling yourself that you can do both skills well.  Pay special attention to the side that is your opportunity for growth. Set goals around making positive connections with others or completing tasks on time, and soon good habits will develop.

—Dr. Jack Zenger

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