How Leadership Cross-Training Works

Excerpt from “How to Be Exceptional” (McGraw-Hill) by the Zenger Folkman team.

By Jack Zenger, CEO, Zenger Folkman

Most of us are familiar with the basic concept of cross-training. For example, a person who aspires to be a serious runner concludes that there are only a certain number of miles she can run per week. After reading magazines and talking to other accomplished runners, she decides to engage in a series of other activities such as weight lifting, bicycle riding, and swimming. Other runners have chosen to do rowing and water aerobics. Why? Because people who engage in these other activities have found they help them to run better, to be in better physical condition, to gain aerobic capacity, and not to be as prone to injury that would come from only running. Beyond that, this variety of activities makes the time spent in physical activity go by more rapidly and even more enjoyably.

Cross-training is an optimum solution for someone who is reasonably good at something and who wants to continue exceling at it and then move into the higher ranks in any given activity or sport.

Correlations Between Competencies and Other Behaviors

As we conducted our original research on leadership competencies, an interesting fact emerged. For every differentiating competency such as drives for results, solves problems and analyzes issues, takes initiative, communicates powerfully and prolifically, innovates, engages in collaboration and teamwork, and inspires and motivates others to high performance, there were a handful of behaviors whose correlations with each competency were statistically significant. A person who received high scores on a specific differentiating competency also received high scores on several behaviors, and a person receiving low scores on that differentiating competency invariably would receive low scores on those same behaviors. It was as if they were bound together.

The Integration Effect

As we began to understand the interplay of these competencies, we noticed there were strong interaction effects when leaders performed two competencies well. To understand this interaction effect, we looked at the probability of a leader being at the 90th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness. We first examined the impact of one competency when it was a strength at the 75th percentile and the effect of combining it with others that were below the 75th percentile. The two we analyzed were has technical or professional expertise and communicates powerfully and prolifically.

What we started to understand was that profound strengths are created from the combination of competencies. The following question and answer become clear:

Q: What is better than a leader who has deep technical or professional expertise?

A: A leader who has deep technical or professional expertise and who is able to communicate and share that expertise with others in a powerful way.

Technical expertise without powerful communications is much like a great professor who teaches as a mime would (i.e., great knowledge but incomplete communication).

The research helped us understand that a profound strength is created by taking one competency that has moderately good scores and combining that skill with another competency. The combination of the two skills creates an effect that is greater than the effect of either skill individually. As we explored these powerful combinations, we discovered that many of them were associated with each competency. We call these powerful combinations companion competencies. We reasoned that if we could map out which companion competencies created the most powerful combinations, that map could provide leaders with better guidance about how to create a profound strength in any competency. Many of the combined effects were not intuitively obvious. The only way to truly uncover the companion competencies was by data mining huge data sets of 360-degree assessments.

As leaders have utilized the competency companion research, they quickly have come to the conclusion that it provides them with exceptional insight into how they can build a strength. The key for a leader to make the transition from “good” to “great” is strength development.

Why Companion Competencies Work

The exact reasons for the connection between the companion competencies and the differentiating competency are hard to empirically discover. You can measure their correlation, but that doesn’t answer the “why” question.

We have several theories that may help in thinking about that question, however:

  1. The competency companion may be a “building block” for the competency. Example: Focusing on self-development helps leaders better develop others. As I learn to develop myself, it gives me both insight and encouragement to develop my subordinates. But also the things I learn to do in developing myself are some of the things I need to do to develop others.
  2.  A high level of skill in the companion competencies increases the skill in the competency. Example: The ability to integrate information is a companion to solves problems and analyzes issues. Integrating information is part of the problem-solving process. Example: Establishes stretch goals is a companion competency to engages in collaboration and teamwork. These both require some of the same activities and skills.
  3. The competency companion helps others “see” the main competency. It is an enabling activity and a conduit by which others can better see the leader’s true ability to use the differentiating competency. Example: Improved communication helps others see leaders sharing their technical and professional expertise. Example: Involving others is a companion competency to communicates powerfully and prolifically. Listening expands the communication channel and creates the vehicle by which communication is improved.

A Final Thought

We offer one final comment about using competency companions. We have observed that people often get stuck. And because they don’t know exactly what to do, they end up doing nothing. Yet doing something is usually better than doing nothing (as long as it isn’t absolutely the wrong thing). Companion competencies open the door of people’s thinking and give them a fresh avenue to pursue. Because of the high, positive statistical correlation, we’re reasonably confident that pursuing a companion competency is the right thing to do. At the very least, it gives the person hope and encouragement to do something.

Excerpt from “How to Be Exceptional” (McGraw-Hill) by the Zenger Folkman team.

Jack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger Folkman and co-author of “How To Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success By Magnifying Your Strengths.”

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.