How to Be Exceptional couldn’t come at a better time. We’re standing at a very critical crossroad. Our organizations desperately want and need much stronger leadership at all levels. But a torrent of studies show most leadership development approaches aren’t working. We need a better way.
We’re also at the intersection of powerful and revolutionary research emerging from the new movements of Emotional Intelligence, Positive Psychology, Appreciative Inquiry, and Strengths. These emerging fields are scientifically — and conclusively — showing that we can only flourish by moving away from focusing on what’s wrong, performance gaps, and weaknesses. The evidence for what needs to change and why is growing every day. But there’s been a huge vacuum around how to apply these findings to leadership development.
The opening reviews and quotations in the front of How to Be Exceptional tells the reader he or she is holding a revolutionary leadership book with a radical new approach. Award-winning development professionals and senior executives from organizations like Yale University, General Mills, Boeing, Symantec, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Hilton, Transat, Marathon Oil, General Motors, Invesco, and Elsevier laud the book as:
- “the next evolution in focusing on strengths“
- “the best book on professional development in decades“
- “cuts through the clutter“
- “practical how-to realities of leadership improvement“
- “simple, concrete, scientifically validated model“
- “invaluable to my organization“
- “breakthrough milestone“
- “actionable advice“
- “innovative methodology“
The Introduction begins with this declaration:
“Like a gigantic pendulum swinging, there has been a dramatic shift in the world of leadership development. We have moved from a focus on fixing weaknesses all the way over to a focus on building strengths. Without question, it is the most profound change in this realm to occur in the past 50 years.”
And it’s about time!
Parts One and Two of How to Be Exceptional are built around “What Leaders Can Learn From their Strengths” and “How Exceptional Strengths Are Developed.” A third “Special Considerations” part discusses building strengths with individual or frontline staff, when to fix weaknesses or Fatal Flaws, addressing the misconception that strengths can be taken too far, vital keys to effective 360 multi-rater tools, are leaders made or born, and a brief history of the strengths movement.
Parts One and Two are the core of this book. They start with an outline of the powerful research behind Zenger Folkman’s groundbreaking strengths-based leadership assessment, development, and sustainable implementation system. Their research is built on a massive database that now contains 300,000 responses from managers, peers, and direct reports who completed 360 feedback surveys across leadership 16 competencies on over 35,000 leaders.
The aggregated leadership effectiveness scores were then correlated with organization performance data. The differences are stunning! For example, the differences between the weakest and strongest leaders are 4 – 6 times higher profits, 6 times higher sales revenues, 10 – 20 times higher levels of employee engagement, 3 – 4 times reduction in employees thinking about quitting, 50% fewer employees that do leave, double the satisfaction with pay and job security, 4 – 5 times more employees “willing to go the extra mile,” and 1.5 times higher customer satisfaction ratings. Now there’s hard evidence for “soft” skills!
What’s especially remarkable is how obtainable extraordinary leadership is proving to be. A leader needs to develop just three existing strengths out of sixteen competencies to catapult his or her leadership effectiveness from the 34th to the 80th percentile! Zenger Folkman’s deep research shows very clearly that it’s the presence of strengths — not the absence of weaknesses — that defines highly effective leaders. Building strengths is proving to be the only way to move from an average or ordinary leader to extraordinary or exceptional.
In a series of pre and post studies Zenger Folkman looked at the impact of leaders choosing to fix weaknesses versus building on existing strengths. 12 to 18 months later the leaders who magnified their existing strengths showed two – three times more improvement in leadership effectiveness than leaders who worked on fixing their weaknesses.
How to Be Exceptional provides the succinct, practical, how-to roadmap we so badly need to navigate the inspiring and tremendously fulfilling territory of strengths-based leadership. This guide book outlines a step-by-step method for “driving leadership success by magnifying your strengths.” For weary leaders feeling beat up by engagement surveys, performance reviews, 360 and other feedback tools highlighting their deficiencies and suffering change fatigue, this book couldn’t come at a better time.
In my 35 plus years of studying, applying, writing about, and providing leadership development programs and services, Zenger Folkman’s approaches are a much needed revolution. The authors close with this modest and understated summary of their contributions to this critical movement:
“We believe that our contributions to this collection of massive granite blocks that make up the current foundation of the strengths movement are the following:
- A more rigorous analysis of the impact of strengths on business outcomes. This had not been the focus of the pioneers …
- Studies confirming that strengths can be developed, in contrast to those who believe that they are somewhat fixed or static.
- Research that confirms that developing strengths is far more successful than developing weaknesses.
- Research showing that the approach one uses to build strengths is radically different from that used to fix weaknesses. Utilizing a nonlinear approach and companion competencies makes it possible for people to move from good performance to great.”