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Nov 19, 2012

Some books deserve a long life: The next Good to Great?

Once a decade, there's a business book worth reading and remembering

By Dave Crisp

There are many excellent books that simply reiterate things we should already know. Then there are those destined to become classics of new knowledge, the way Jim Collin’s 2002 title Good to Great did. It remains one of the most cited on leadership, adding the concept of “humble” to leadership competencies and making famous the directive to “get the right people on the bus.”

I was surprised to read in a new book that some companies now adopt the humility competency literally and are finding ways to coach their up-and-coming executives to be more humble. That’s one of the most encouraging bits of information I’ve seen lately, and just one of the many valuable facts cited in a new book by John Zenger, Joseph Folkman, Robert H. Sherwin Jr. and Barbra Steel called How To Be Exceptional.

Zenger and Folkman published an excellent book the same year as Good to Great called The Extraordinary Leader I have routinely recommended to audiences. Collins said, quite bluntly, he didn’t know how to teach people the six key competencies he found leaders need (he subsequently rethought that, but hasn’t necessarily hit the mark with direct advice). That same year Zenger and Folkman were laying the "how to" out in their book, but many people didn’t connect the two.

Now How To Be Exceptional goes into even more useful detail about how to develop the skills needed to be a highly successful leader. Taking a leaf or two from Marcus Buckingham, the authors emphasize building on strengths rather than wasting time on weaknesses... with one significant exception I heartily endorse. I disagreed with Buckingham that building on strengths isn’t “The One Thing” to quote his book title (by which he meant "it’s the only thing").

How To Be Exceptional points out very clearly there is a time to work on at least one of your weaknesses — when it is a "fatal flaw."

The new book quantifies and illustrates what’s needed very clearly and powerfully. More than one-quarter (28 per cent) of leaders have a fatal flaw, so naturally most end up in the least successful 28 per cent.

Motoring along without fatal flaws, but no major strength to claim, leaves you in the bottom 36 per cent or so.

Working on overcoming additional flaws can take you up to perhaps the 34th to 46th percentile (getting you out of the bottom 28 per cent at least), but adding just one solid, well-developed strength can push you up to the 64th percentile, nearly into the top third. And adding a couple more puts you easily into the top 20 per cent. When other studies show 82 per cent of leaders don’t use the right style to get to the top, this is exactly what they mean.

Moreover, the authors show how you can develop these sorts of strengths by working on related skills in ways that are intriguing and simplifying. These two concepts alone make the book stand out, but there are a number of other valuable bits and interpretations that ring true with other studies as well.

Whether one takes the percentiles quoted as exact or merely as approximate with some margin of error, this is a powerful way to clarify what is required for effective leadership. It echoes earlier work from McKinsey & Company and quite a few others showing that strengths can be categorized into some number of "buckets" and that you need to be quite good at three to five of the buckets to stand a chance of being exceptional. It’s better to have one solid strength in each of several buckets than to have the same number of strengths in only one area.

This is a book I intend to re-read a few times as more details click into place each time — I rarely get this excited about a title. In fact the last time was 2002, when the two mentioned above appeared. I don’t think that’s just because they reinforce my own model of leadership and come closer to what I struggle to find — an easy way to make it clear that almost anyone can become much more effective with relatively little effort.

But of course that’s one reason it hits home so strongly and gets on my list of books I wish I’d written.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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