How to change to become a great leader w/Jack Zenger

Nexum bi-weekly podcast featuring the leading thinkers in change management

By Morten Kamp Andersen

We have all experienced a poor leader and a great leader. Maybe even at first hand. We have, therefore witnessed the difference. The difference it makes on the individual employee, the team, the customer experience, and the business outcomes. It never ceases to amaze me how big the difference is between poor leaders and great leaders. But if you are a leader, what does it take to change to become a great leader?

In this episode, my guest, Jack Zenger, and I will discuss how you can develop as a leader. Because we can all develop to become better leaders. The good news is that there are clear and specific things you can do. The bad news is that it is not easy. As with all changes.

Jack Zenger has more than 60 years of experience with leadership development. He is a frequent writer for Harvard Business Review and has written several bestselling books on leadership. He is here to tell us what a good leader is. How to become one. And how to stay one.


  • That leadership development is just like any other change – same rules apply
  • The importance of immediate application of your new behaviour
  • How important feedback is for a leader and to give and get good feedback
  • How you can hold yourself accountable for your new leadership behaviour
My friend, if you haven't seen a change in the next sex weeks, you'Il never see a change
Jack Zenger, CEO, Zenger&Folkman


Here are my key takeaways from the podcast. But there are more goodies in the episode itself, so hopefully, you will listen to it.

#1: Developing leadership skills is just like any other chang

Leadership development is about changing behaviour and, in that sense, developing leadership skills is just like any other change. What works, the pitfalls and good first steps are very similar.

#2: Make it stick by being held accountable

One thing is to get awareness of yourself as a leader. Another is knowing what to change and plan to do it. But what is important is to go out and do it. Do what you set out to do. And that is hard. The answer is accountability. 

You should find ways to hold yourself accountable for your change. Have someone ask if you executed on your new behaviour as you promised. Having to admit out loud that you have not done it will make you more inclined to do it the next day. You are being held accountable.

#3: Get some results quickly.

Focus on getting results straight away. You shouldn't talk about change happening years from now, not even months from now. You should talk about change happening today. I cannot emphasize the importance of immediate application enough. As Jack puts it: "If you haven't seen any change in the next six weeks, you will never see any". So, if you want to make a change, you need to do something different tomorrow, and you did not do yesterday.



I love feedback. If you liked what you've heard, please leave a review or comment. Whatever you have on your mind, I want to hear it.

If you want to know more about change and how to make a change stick, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunesSpotifyGoogle or Stitcher  or read more on our website:


EP 2 - Jack Zenger



Morten Andersen, Jack Zenger


Morten Andersen  00:05

Hello, and welcome to What Monkeys Do. My name is Morten Kamp Andersen. And this is a podcast about what it takes to make a change and make it stick.


Morten Andersen  00:21

In What Monkeys Do, I look at what it takes to make a change. There are many times when we might want to make a change. It can be in our private lives, a habit we want to change or maybe even we want to help somebody else change. But it can also be at work. Leaders are often looking to change their leadership behavior to become better leaders. They are promoted because they were doing an excellent job in the previous position. And now they must learn how to be good leaders at the level they're at. Most of us are not inherently great leaders, we must develop our leadership skills to become good leaders and to become better leaders requires new behavior. The first thing of course is to find out what to change. So what new leadership skills Should I develop? But then the big issue is how do I actually make a change. So it becomes something that I just do to make it stick. Leadership Development is therefore, a change, a change in behavior, a change in mindset, and a change in attitude. But most importantly, it's a change in our behavior. And to find out how I've invited an expert to help us understand how to change our leadership practice. Leadership Development is nothing new. And our guest has been one of the most distinguished people in the field for more than 40 years. He has been a CEO or president for two leadership development companies in the US for more than 30 years combined. He's the author of 16 books, including the best selling How to be Exceptional and my personal favorite, the new classic book, the New Extraordinary Leader, he writes for Howard Business Review blog and also for Forbes. Welcome to you, Jack Zenger.


Jack Zenger  02:04

Thank you very much Morten. It's a great pleasure to be here with you today.


Morten Andersen  02:07

So you're the CEO of ZengerFolkman. Can you tell me a little bit about your approach to leadership development? What do you believe is important if a leader wants to change?


Jack Zenger  02:18

In a way, you've already kind of alluded to it, you've said it, and that is that leadership is about behavior change. Yes, it's important that we help them to understand attitudes and beliefs and their mindsets and give them greater self awareness. But fundamentally, successful leadership development really comes back to how do we truly change the leaders behavior. We think one of the best ways is to give them some kind of a diagnostic tool or process. And we are very fond of the 360 degree feedback approach, because it gives them a baseline measurement of what their current behavior is. And how the people that work with respond to that behavior. So it becomes the beginning place. But that self awareness then has to be translated into them selecting one or two behaviors or competencies that they want to improve. And then to focus specifically on that, and to have some kind of a process by which they get periodic feedback. Am I making progress? Am I getting better? Am I doing this more effectively? And we think that there are a variety of tools, processes that you can make available to leaders to do that. In the past, I think we've thought about leadership development being all the workshops and seminars and the materials and we've really focused on the intervening variables, rather than the end result and the outcome. And I think that what's happened in the last few years is that we're becoming increasingly aware. It is that final outcome that counts. We shouldn't talk about that happening years from now, or even months from now, we should talk about how they can begin doing that immediately. It's how we help the leader actually develop a new habit. So it's really how do you help them acquire a behavior with which they're comfortable, and that they practice on a regular basis.


Morten Andersen  04:24

So you talked about some key issues such as its behavior that we want to change. Also, those behaviors are actually habits that we want to break and make new habits. In order to do that you need to understand where you are right now, a 360 is your preferred tool, but then it is to go out not long leadership development programs, but actually go out and do something different tomorrow that you didn't do yesterday. In that process you actually develop as a leader.


Jack Zenger  04:50



Morten Andersen  04:51

Okay. So, you've been doing this for many, many years. I wonder. I mean, how have you seen leadership development evolve Over the last 40 years, so you alluded to that one of the things that you see now is that people are more focused on results rather than the intervention itself or the workshop. Are there any other things that you see are different?


Jack Zenger  05:12

I'm 88 years of age. I've got more even more than a 40 year perspective on what's happening. As I think back to my early days of being involved in leadership development, primarily through a university, I think back to the lectures that were being delivered by professors to a group of people theater style in a room on subjects of planning, organizing, staffing, directing, controlling, with the assumption that if we have you understand those things better, that will make you a better leader. We have come from a very cerebral, very theoretical, very academic approach. And we've recognized that that doesn't change behavior. That isn't what makes the difference. What I've seen happen in this past 60 years has been a steady move toward making it experiential, visceral, much more personal, using powerful learning methods that really are geared to changing behavior and not just making you have a new idea or a new concept. So it's been that transition from more academic more theoretical approach to recognizing that, hey, fundamentally, we're trying to change behavior. How do we do that most efficiently, most effectively?


Morten Andersen  06:36

It's interesting, because when we talk about changing leadership behavior and becoming a better leader, it sounds like any other change. I also note in your latest book, you talk about How can I Improve my Effectiveness Most Effectively, and you say, well, the ability to practice self development is closely linked with integrity and integrity is about having self awareness and You make a story of, for instance, if you are an alcoholic and you go and you would like to change from being an alcoholic to being a non alcoholic, the first step is the awareness of, I have a problem. So if you go to somebody and say, I'm here because my wife tells me that I have a problem, then you're probably not going to Jenga. But if you come and say, Well, I'm here because I have a problem I want to change, then you can make a change and and you make this in a book about leadership development. So it sounds like there is a lot of overlap between what I would call regular change and and leadership development.


Jack Zenger  07:37

Absolutely, Morten. That the whole process of leadership development is part of a much broader whole network of what psychologists have been researching for years and that is how do people go about making change? What are the challenges to make a change? We aren't the only profession in the in society that is concerned about helping people to improve their behavior. You know, there is psychotherapists, there's clinical psychologists or social workers, there's all kinds of other professions who have the same kind of interest that we do in making people's lives better through personal change.


Morten Andersen  08:13

So, this podcast is, as you know, it's called What Monkeys Do. And the reason why it's called that is because I think it's also essential to know what is possible to change and what is probably not possible or what is harder to change. If I am a leader, and I want to embark on a leadership development journey, and I really want to become an effective leader, do you have any thoughts about what I probably should not try to develop because that is too hard. And what is much easier for me to develop


Jack Zenger  08:43

There's a metaphor that I've heard someone use, which I thought was an interesting one, was sometimes you'll see in museums, a cannon and a big stack of cannon balls as a display and no one is pretending that you're going to go in and completely remake or redo that entire stack of cannonballs. But can you remake the ones that are on the outside? Can you change the ones that people see and observe? I'm not going to probably change you, the basic insides of your personality and your value system. But I think I can make some changes in the behaviors that are very observable and that people bump up against. My answer to your question, I think, would be anything that's behavioral, we can help to change. If it's about your philosophy and your value system and your religious beliefs and your, your core personality structure. I don't think that we can, nor should we be trying to change that. I don't have the right to tell someone who works for me or a manager, that's a subordinate manager, how he should think or how she should feel. But I can say you can't make statements about people's ethnicity or their race or their appearance, that is against the law. It's not the ethical thing to do. I believe there are some things that we can change, but they're primarily those behaviors that people encounter day to day in the work environment.


Morten Andersen  10:16

Okay. I also know that there is a big debate about whether leaders are born or whether they are made, I know that you believe firmly in the leaders are made or it's something that you can develop into becoming a better leader is that correct?


Jack Zenger  10:31

is fundamentally correct, Morten, but let me just say, I think one of the reasons why that question keeps coming up and up and up, is because we haven't always been totally forthcoming and accurate in our answer. I think the research is that maybe it's about 30% of what makes up your fundamental personality and your your typical daily behavior that seems to be genetically wired. If you take two people who are identical twins separated at birth, and raised in very different environments, and you go back and midlife, you do very deep psychological testing with them and observations, and you find that there's a bunch of behaviors that are identical, that would have no possible reason to be that way or it not for their genetics. And I do believe that there's probably about 30% of what we call someone's behavior that has some genetic background, but two thirds doesn't. So I think the statement that leaders are made and not born is correct, but I think we need to tip our hat to the other side of the question. There is some of what we are and what we do that is genetically driven.


Morten Andersen  11:59

I know that You work a lot with 360s 360 is essentially a way of receiving feedback where people can anonymously give you feedback, and you receive that from five different Raider groups. So one of them is yourself and one is your leader. But then you also have your direct reports, your peers, and then others can chip in, and you have feedback from 1520 people. And you're measured on 19 different competencies, and you have a whole stack of those 360s that you evaluate. I think you have something like 1.6 million of those now, I wonder whether there is a perfect profile for a perfect leader or is that completely random, which 19 competencies people are good at?


Jack Zenger  12:43

Well, we certainly haven't attempted to define any one perfect profile, because you know that when people are really outstanding on five of them, if they're in the 90th percentile on five of those 19 competencies, there's a 90% chance that they will be one of your top leaders in the organization. It is the presence of a handful of strengths, that really identifies great leaders. What those five are, really do vary. And it's not clear if it's because of who they are individually, or whether certain industries demand certain competencies, whether they are driven by the functional area in which they work. We haven't made that kind of an analysis, but there are 19 pretty distinctive competencies. And being highly effective at a handful of them, almost guarantees your success as an extraordinary leader. Those five seem to vary, and there hasn't been any one configuration of five that has consistently leapt to the top and you find what great leaders are.


Morten Andersen  13:58

Okay. It's Seems like the recipe there is such is to be really good in a few areas. And it really doesn't matter which ones as long as you stand out in a couple of those, or up to five of those. And then if you pick five, and it really doesn't matter which of those 19 it is, but if you pick five of those and you are outstanding in them, you will most likely be a very successful leader, right at 360 will give you insight into where you are, you will then find out which ones to develop. I guess the interesting part for me is also then now day to day comes and my to do list has just gone longer because I have I've been to half day seminar on leadership development. So I have even more to do. Now how do I make this become real? How do I turn this into a day to day new practice? I think this is where I would like to become a little bit concrete and just use an example and hear what you think is posting should do so let's just take a leader Let's call her Sue. She is a middle manager. She has Let's say 10 employees, they all work in the same office, let's say that they work in IoT development. And she's been told that the employees would like to receive more feedback, positive or negative feedback about their work. And it's something that they really would like. And she's therefore decided she would like to become better at giving feedback to her employees. And about a year ago, she attended an internal leadership module, and she got some information, some knowledge about what feedback is. So she knows what feedback is. She knows that's what she wants to develop. She's motivated to do it. She hasn't done it a lot since that development program, but now she she is intended that she wants to do it, what would help her to make that into a leadership practice?


Jack Zenger  15:46

What I would encourage Sue to think about is to not begin by giving her subordinates feedback, but to begin by her asking them for feedback about her. to ask them questions like, what would have made today's staff meeting a better meeting? Give me one suggestion for making that presentation a better presentation. Now, what does that do? Well, I think it does a number of things. It sends the signal that no matter who you are, no matter what your level in the organization, you can think you can get better. And it signals that I respect you. I value your point of view. And I begin to model not only the process of asking for feedback, but I model the process of receiving it in a gracious positive way. I would tell Sue that if she would do that for three or four months, and then she would be in a much better position to sit down with her subordinate Mary and say, I've observed something that maybe would be valuable to you. How would you feel about me kind of sharing some observations about what you do in our in our staff meetings? I think her said The example of asking for feedback is the right beginning step for that specific topic. One of the traps that managers get themselves into is that they love to answer questions. And people come into their office and ask them a question. And there is such a great temptation to display your knowledge and your experience and your wisdom and tell them the answer and save time and have them leave. But that's absolutely the wrong thing to do. In my opinion, it misses the opportunity to make that a development experience, it misses the opportunity of asking them, what do you think, to help them be able to articulate what their thought processes are? The way to begin? learning how to give feedback is to ask for feedback. Mm hmm.


Morten Andersen  17:47

That's actually a great idea. So it role models how to receive feedback, because that's actually not an easy thing to do. So if you're a leader and you just start sharing out feedback, Right, then center then people might not be used to that. And therefore me be a little bit uncomfortable with that, although they might not say it because it's the leader giving the feedback, but also creates a culture of you know, feedback is good. But then I like your notion that it's also about showing respect for those people. And by showing respect and earning their trust in that way that will actually encourage them to be more open to receive feedback when she will decide to do that then,


Jack Zenger  18:28

very much. Absolutely.


Morten Andersen  18:30

So we have suggested to sue that she should go and ask for feedback more. I still experience leaders that go out of a development program and now they have on their individual development plan that I want to ask for more feedback. And there is still a big jump from putting it in a plan to doing it in real life. So obviously being in that program, she'll feel very motivated for it on the day she will feel that this plan will actually Help her become a better leader. She's identified, she will go and ask for feedback on a regular basis. And then still next day, there can be some leaders that still will struggle to do that. Are there anything that would help people with that initial from wanting to do it to actually doing it?


Jack Zenger  19:19

Absolutely. So let me tell you a story. I'm having dinner one night in New York with Marshall Goldsmith. And it's 10 o'clock at night, it's late, and he gets a phone call. And I say, Do you want me to leave? And he said, No, no, you can stay, so he proceeds to have this strange conversation in which he says to the person on the other end of the phone, no, yes, yes. 13. And it's a very, you know, obviously, it's a it's somewhat planned conversation. At the end, he hangs up and says to me, that's a person that I have hired to call me at 10 o'clock. In the evening at whatever time zone I'm in, and he asks me a series of 30 questions. And these are questions that I have written. So they are questions like, did you floss your teeth? Did you extra guides, you call your wife, a wide variety of questions. And he said, You know, I found that when I know that I have to kind of out loud, tell this person, No, I didn't do that I am much more inclined to do it. So I guess what I'm suggesting is that there are a number of mechanisms that you can create, which holds you accountable. If you want to create giving feedback into a habit. You need to figure out a way to be reminded to receive feedback when you do it. And when you don't do it, and to have some relentless kind of follow up. That kind of helps you develop that into a new behavior. I read a fascinating risk. research project that really bears on this topic. I think it was a headline in the news that said that some researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland had done this research on changing personality in two weeks. Now, you and I both know that we don't think about changing personality in two weeks. Obviously, it caught my eye. And so I read through the whole article. In fact, I went back and looked at the original research publication, what they had done was that they had found 255 participants to volunteer for an experiment in which they were given the option of choosing one of two developmental targets. One of them was self discipline. And that was discipline around exercising discipline around eating habits, people who wanted to improve their ability to be more disciplined. The second one was their ability to become more open to new experience to try new things to not be sort of a stick in the mud and always, you know, be resistant. So they had these 255 participants randomly Put into these groups based on what they chose to work on. For two weeks, they received a phone call in the morning that reminded them of what they had chosen to work on. And it also included some encouraging ideas and messages about that subject. Then in the evening, they received a second call, which was basically asking them to reply to three questions. And the three questions basically asking them to account for how much effort did you put forth? How much progress Do you think you made? Did you really make an improvement in execute that behavior? It was a daily reminder or daily accountability. But in the morning, it was a daily reminder of what you've chosen. What they found was, at the end of two weeks, there was absolutely different behavior. Now, between you and me, you know, they call it personality change. I don't think that's personality change. I think that's behavioral change It is very specific behavioral change. But they then came back two weeks after that, and they came back to 10 weeks after that, to see if a new behavior had stuck in place. it had. What that tells me is one of the things that we've done wrong is that we've not emphasized the importance of immediate application, focusing on the behavior being really riveted on the behavior that needed to be changed, and then asking for daily accountability.


Morten Andersen  23:33

When I hear accountability, I also think of examples such as AA, weight watchers or something like that, which is exactly about accountability, where you stand up on a weight and say, This is what I weigh now, and I will aim to weigh this in a week's time or something like that. And, and it really works because you say out loud, and you say to a group of people, and even though they are strangers to you, you feel accountable, because you've said it out lout. if we think of to Sue who should see Pick as the person that she should be accountable for does that matter who she picks?


Jack Zenger  24:06

I don't think it matters as long as it's somebody that you know you can you trust and you're going to be open with. But there's a variety of ways in which you can create feedback mechanisms that let you know whether you're making the change. Or you can create a relationship with someone to whom you can give a periodic update. Now, between you and me, I don't know that once a day forever after is necessary. We're recording this in the midst of the corona pandemic, and here where I live, you could get tested and then every day after that, literally every day I get a questionnaire on my email, asking me a series of four or five questions. Do you have these symptoms have you been exposed? Are you... this very drumbeat of accountability and and feedback that I think is what's going to make it stick


Morten Andersen  25:00

Okay, I think that's incredibly interesting. And I and I believe that accountability is is so important. And I think your example, really highlights that. And what is also fascinating about the example that we're talking about, we're talking about that Sue wants to give more feedback. And to be quite frank, feedback is not rocket science. It's a very sort of simple thing. I know. It's incredibly powerful. I know that people receiving it are incredibly happy about it. But when you look at it and examine it, it's a simple leadership behavior, so to speak. And the difficulty is actually not to do it, right. The difficulty is to actually give it to give it on a consistent basis to make it your leadership style, so to speak. So it's not the complexity of the tool or behavior itself. It is the difficulty of doing it on a regular basis.


Jack Zenger  25:51

I had a friend who was trying to change one specific behavior and he had a big brass coin that he would sometimes carry in his pocket and he would put that in his left hand pocket and he said, I'll move it to the right hand pocket when I've done that, if Sue would put something in her purse and say, I will move it from one pocket to the other when I have done that today, so she got some tangible physical, demonstrable act. One other thing I would say, too, there's two kinds of feedback. There's things that are going to be critical or redirecting or corrective. And then there's kind of reinforcing praise, kudos for people's behavior. The research that we've done would indicate the positive reinforcement. The approbation and reinforcement has far more power and is far more apt to change people's behavior than the criticism. Now, are there moments when criticism or redirecting feedback is necessary? Yes, absolutely. Do some people say they want it? Yes, absolutely. But between you and me, the research is pretty clear. It's the positive reinforcement that makes the biggest difference.


Morten Andersen  26:59

That's so Interesting. If I go up to somebody and say, I have some feedback to give to you, I think immediately people will think, Oh my God, he's going to tell me something I didn't do well. So actually making feedback more about what you did really well, I think would be a change for some people mindset. Absolutely. So many of our listeners are leaders, if you should give him or her three good advice on how to go about to make a change in their leadership practice. What three advice would you give them?


Jack Zenger  27:31

In a way I've alluded to the first one, when people come into your office, or when they encounter you and they ask you a question. avoid the temptation of giving them an immediate answer. Show them respect by asking them, you know, you're a lot closer to this than I am. What do you think? If leaders would do that they would learn that they would avoid making bad mistakes, many bad answers and At the same time, they would accomplish this powerful message that I trust you, I believe in you, I think I value you and value your opinion. And I think we've already alluded to the second one that I would suggest. And that would be, make the feedback that you give people, heartfelt, sincere, but make most of it positive, make most of it, things that identify what they've done, what they've done well, at the same time, sends really powerful messages of the fact that you're observant. You appreciate that, that there's value in that. Those are the kinds of things I think that would make a big difference. And as you think about practices that apply to yourself, I remember sitting years ago in a in a meeting of chief learning officers from fortune 50 companies, and one of them said, you know, we really won't we won't know for 25 years for the work that we've been doing with our leaders inside our organization has already made any difference. My friend, if you have see any change in the next six weeks, you'll never see any change. So it is what people learn, commit to do, and immediately take action on that has any hope of becoming transferred into a new habit.


Morten Andersen  29:17

Fantastic, jack. Thanks a lot for those three last points. But thanks also a lot for all your insights throughout this interview. I really appreciate that. So thanks very much for being on the show.


Jack Zenger  29:28

You're very, very welcome. It's great to have talked with you Morten. Thanks a lot.


Morten Andersen  29:35

What a great interview with jack at 88 years of age. Not only is he one of the most experienced in the world when it comes to leadership development. He's also a role model for energy and innovation. I took three things away from our conversation. Firstly, leadership development is really about changing behavior. And in that sense, developing leadership skills is just like any other change What works, the pitfalls and good first steps, all very similar. Secondly, his advice about accountability really struck a chord with one thing is to get the awareness about yourself as a leader. Another is knowing what to change and make a plan to do it. But what is really important is to go out and execute it, to do what you set out to do. And that's hard, and accountability will help. His story about his friend who received the phone call every day at 10pm illustrates how that can be done. And lastly, get some results quickly. his advice to the group of HR leaders that if you haven't seen any change in the next six weeks, you'll never see a change that was spot on. So if you want to make a change, you need to do something different tomorrow that you did not do yesterday. So thanks to jack for his insights. If you like the interview and want to hear more, please press the subscribe button. Also if you did like the interview, I will appreciate if you will give it a five star feedback. It helps a lot for our reach. Until next time, take care

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