Jennings, Ken

Dr. Relly Nadler:
This week we have Dr. Ken Jennings. He is the Managing Director of Third River Partners, a leadership, development and strategy consultancy that works with senior executive teams to achieve dramatic business results.

We are going to talk about coaching for leadership effectiveness and establishing strategic human capital change agenda. Ken’s current work on one of his books, The Serving Leader: Five powerful actions that will transform your team, your business, and your community.

Ken teaches leadership strategy and change management around the world. He is a former co-director of the Global Leadership Program at the University of Michigan Business School, and he draws on his deep experience as a managing partner of Accenture in change management.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Ken’s areas of expertise include initiative based development and executive coaching for leadership effectiveness. Developing high-performance teams. Diagnosing organizational performance gaps, and facilitating organizational performance improvement. He assists boards and senior manager on leadership development, and he specializes in execution of strategy through human capital development.

Ken has been responsible for helping create growth strategies and human capital innovations for leading healthcare, manufacturing, defense, financial services, and service organizations including; JP Morgan Partners, General Electric, General Mills Pillsbury. He has worked in pharmaceuticals including:  Abbott Laboratories, AstraZeneca, Novartis, and Bayer.

He is a phenomenal human being and we are very happy to have him with us today. Among the things that he has done, he is a respected author and lecturer, and he does great research in leadership and organizational development. His books include: Changing Healthcare: Creating tomorrow’s health enterprise, and along with author Dr. John Stahl-Wert, The Serving Leader: Five powerful actions that will transform your team, your business, and your community.

He is one of the Ken Blanchard Management series authors and he focuses on leadership with integrity and purpose.

His newest book, Ten Thousand Horses: How Leaders Harness Raw Potential for Extraordinary Results. Welcome Ken, it’s a pleasure to have you here today.

Dr. Ken Jennings: It’s great to reconnect. Thank you for having me on.

Dr. Relly Nadler: We have a series of questions that we want to ask you. We want to start by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself. How you came in to working in the field of leadership development.

Dr. Ken Jennings: It probably started with my undergraduate experience at the Airforce Academy, West Point, Annapolis, and the Airforce Academy are really finely tuned institutions taking in men and women and disciplined in thinking about leadership. It was a deep dive for me into role models that were good leaders at the Academy, and then heading out into the field as a military officer preparing to take young men and women potentially into harm’s way. You think very seriously about leadership.

I guess though, that same question I’ve asked business school students and I hear a common answer from them, which probably applies to myself, “I learned a lot of leadership from my dad.” My father was an entrepreneur and I remember him buying a 55 acre farm outside of our little town in West Virginia declaring to my family that he was going to turn it into a housing subdivision. We thought he had a screw loose. My brother and I got to watch him build roads and houses, and lead an effort. I think that was probably when I became interested in influence, early on at home.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Ken, it’s fascinating to reconnect with you after so many years. We have obviously gone in very similar directions with very similar outlooks. I’d love to know more about what you see at the main leadership challenges in organizations today. I know you and Relly and myself are always in companies looking at these issues, but I’d love to know more about how you see these challenges.

Dr. Ken Jennings: You know, it’s the right question to ask. I find that what we taught, the conventional wisdom around leadership, is remarkably wrong in many cases. I find myself in a position as I’m sure both of you do, to challenge the conventional wisdom. I have done my writing by articulating paradoxes. You think one thing is true when something paradoxically the other way around is true.

An example: Leaders are often taught that you get to the top so that you in charge and that defines success. I think that my observation, and it’s not original with me, let’s take Jim Collins and his Good to Great, he identified a leader he called the Level 5 leader that paradoxically was humble. Don’t think of that as a leadership trait, but ferociously committed to do whatever it takes to be successful in the organization. Turn the temperature up on the thermostat as you are introduced.

I think a primary first challenge is to challenge the conventional wisdom of what we define a leader to be.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So, I’m familiar with Jim Collin’s Level 5, being humble, and that incredible drive. What would you say are some of the old ways of thinking about leadership that you are saying don’t work, or that you are finding in your work that are not as successful?

Dr. Ken Jennings: Let me give you a couple / 3 examples. We are often told that, and we wrote about this is the Serving Leader book, you have a set of strengths and weaknesses and that to get better you had better go work on your weaknesses. It turns out, as you certainly know, that’s lousy advice. They are called weaknesses for a reason. You are not good at them. It’s better paradoxically to focus on what you are strong at and you get better faster, and then build a team around you that has complementary strengths much like putting together say, a jigsaw puzzle.

Part of my challenge as a leader is to bring people together that have heterogenous skills. They look different. Our common mistake is to try to hire people that look like us when the opposite is more effective. To bring people together that have widely divergent, yet complimentary sets of strengths.

Our mantra here is to build on strength as one of the five actions of the serving leader. It’s a bit paradoxical. I could give you a couple more examples if you wish, but I should pause for breath.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: No worries, we love examples and I’d love you to build on that. Relly and I, and many of our guests have talked about the critical importance of building on strength.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Tell us a little bit more about Serving Leader.

Dr. Ken Jennings: Service Leader I got interested in writing with my partner John Stahl-Wert in the form of a novel and a story. We were encouraged by our buddy Ken Blanchard to try to write it differently. So it’s in the form of a story about a father and his son learning about leadership together. Applying it in the inner city and in companies and in obviously, their own lives.

My friend John Stahl-Wert, my co-author, is a working CEO. He runs an inner city foundation in Pittsburgh called the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation where they build leaders in the non-profit sector.

John is a working CEO and a pastor. I’m kind of typecast as the consultant and business school professor. We are a very unlikely pair to be best friends, which we are. A year ago we moved to Pittsburgh and bought the house next door to them, and we can actually look out each other’s living room windows and wave. That’s been fun.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: You know, Ken, it’s funny that you bring up the leadership program that you have helped co-develop because I actually have had clients who have been in attendance at that program through PNC bank, so it’s funny how all of these things get knit back together.

You were talking before about building on strengths is one of those actions. Can you talk a little bit more; you said you had some examples. We would love to have our listeners hear some of your terrific examples that come from your book.

Dr. Ken Jennings: Let me give, actually, an example that is related to Build on Strength, it goes right into one of the next actions that we call Raise the Bar. If I believe in the concept that if you focus on improving against your signature strengths and you get better and better at those, as a leader you can raise the bar of expectation for those who work with and for you. You can’t raise it too high if you have insight into the strengths of your team, you challenge them against those strengths, you get a whole lot more out of them than you expected and even they expected.

The raise the bar example has to do with not settling for mediocre expectations, but really challenging people, but challenging them in a rather specific way which has to do with both your insight into their strengths and connecting their strengths to the larger goal of the organization.

It’s a deep insight that leaders have to have about being emotionally intelligent enough to discern the strengths of each of my team members and then customized challenges for each of them. We call that raise the bar.

You can listen the entire interview above.