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Psychometrics – the measurement of psychological attributes and organisational characteristics – can help to promote good leadership qualities, says Cesar Bacani

This article was first published in the June 2014 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

What on earth is a psychometrician? That was my first thought when I was offered a chance to interview Joseph Folkman, co-author of the bestselling books The Extraordinary Leader and The Inspiring Leader, and co-founder and president of US human resources firm Zenger Folkman.

It turns out that a psychometrician, as Folkman describes himself, is ‘a person who practises the science of measurement to statistically derive an individual’s psychological attributes or organisational characteristics, including the knowledge, skills, competencies and attributes individuals and organisations need to excel’.

I find that my CFO readers and others in finance are increasingly interested in leadership, communications and other ‘soft’ skills, as their remit expands from numbers and figures to strategy, analytics and business partnering. So it seemed that Folkman was someone I should speak to.

He did not disappoint. In the course of Zenger Folkman’s HR engagements with some of the world’s biggest companies, which include Boeing, General Mills and Marriott, the company accumulated data from exercises such as manager ratings by bosses, peers and direct reports.

In one study, 35,000 managers whose performance as leaders were rated by some 700,000 people in their organisation were ranked according to metrics such as their business unit’s financial performance and customer satisfaction ratings.

The attributes of the managers, as described by their raters, were then categorised into two broad groups: attributes that inspire and motivate (for example, being emotionally available) and those that drive results (for example, making sure that targets are met).

If a manager is focused on inspiration but not on driving for results, says Folkman, the probability that he or she would be in the top 10th percentile among all the 35,000 managers is just 10%. If the priorities are reversed – more driving, less inspiring – the probability is even lower at only 5%.

But if a manager is described by the raters as having both inspiring and driving attributes, the probability that he or she would be in the 10th percentile jumps to 85%. The conclusion: If you want to become a truly effective leader, you should both push and inspire.

‘Most people are naturally pretty good at driving,’ observes Folkman. ‘The pulling part [inspiring and motivating] is the hardest.’ So how do you do that?

After analysing data sets involving 183,463 raters of 14,466 managers, Zenger Folkman has identified the top 10 ‘companion behaviours’ – out of nearly 100 attributes – that are strongly associated with the ability to inspire and motivate.

They are: acting as a role model, making emotional connections, establishing stretch goals, having a clear vision, communicating powerfully, developing others, being a good team player, fostering innovation, taking the initiative, and championing change.

The inspiring leader does not need to be strong in all 10 behaviours.

‘Focus on two or three,’ Folkman counsels, for which ‘you have some passion or energy or excitement’. The analysis shows that a manager who exhibits profound strength in two attributes has a 72% chance of being rated an effective leader, as opposed to 64% for one attribute and 34% for none.  

But make sure you are not exceptionally bad in even one of them, Folkman warns. ‘I don’t think you have to be spectacular at communicating, for example, but you can’t be terrible at it,’ he says. ‘If one behaviour is a fatal flaw for you, it can crater the whole thing.’

And don’t forget to push as well as inspire and motivate. Zenger Folkman’s research, it seems, validates the old adage about the judicious use of both the carrot and the stick.

Cesar Bacani is editor-in-chief of CFO Innovation

Last updated: 29 May 2014