Alumni Achievement lecturer John H. Zenger: Leading a field, leaving a legacy

“There are some people who are thinkers and others who are doers. You strike me as an enlightened doer.”

This simple comment from John. H. Zenger’s undergraduate psychology professor shaped his career and many other aspects of his life.

Zenger is the definition of an “enlightened doer.” Taking psychology research and using it to change the way we see leadership and train leaders, Zenger has changed the business world as he has built and strengthened organizations and helped thousands of individuals across the world.

As the 2018 Alumni Achievement Lecturer for the BYU College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, we celebrate the intellectual curiosity of a man who has changed the way we see leadership and use it in the world around us. Zenger’s lecture will be on Thursday, October 11 at 11 a.m. in 250 KMBL.

Developing into a leader

Zenger grew up working alongside his father, a self-made man and an administrator at Utah Valley Hospital. Watching his father direct and lead a full staff of MDs when he himself had never had the opportunity to attend college made Zenger contemplate what leadership truly means.

“I watched the ability of a leader to impact an organization and what they could do and the amazing leverage they had. As a very young boy, I became interested in the phenomenon of why people go into leadership and what made them good leaders.”

Zenger’s personal experience with great leaders, coupled with his love of solving practical issues, spurred him to attend Brigham Young University to get a degree in psychology in 1955 where he was able to be a leader himself in student government. He later pursued an MBA at the University of California, Los Angeles and a doctorate in business administration at the University of Southern California so that he could apply psychology to real problems and real issues in the workforce and in individuals’ lives.

Starting his career in business management and HR, Zenger recalls, “I found it intellectually fascinating, rewarding, a place where you could impact a lot of people’s lives and help them be more effective not only in their personal lives, but in their community life, in their church life, and certainly in their business life.”

Guiding professionals (and a profession)

Zenger has had a major influence on changing leadership from a “command and control” role to a constantly developing role where individuals work together to succeed in both organizational and personal goals.

When Zenger first entered the field, supervisors learned to lead by sitting in lectures and being told how to perform leadership tasks. But by watching and observing examples of frequently-occurring scenarios and good leadership practice in videos, instead of just listening about leadership, organizational leaders could observe effective leadership in action and practice it themselves, a tactic Zenger and his peers found to be both more engaging and more successful.

“When people saw it they thought, well of course that’s the way you’re supposed to do it, that’s the way a little kid learns how to tie their shoes, how to eat, or how to get dressed! You watch [your] mom or dad do it and then you do it by practicing. You make mistakes and you improve on the mistakes you’ve made, and that’s how you get success…[at the time] it was a revolutionary idea.”

These simple principles fascinated Zenger and built a base for the way he helps train hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals in leadership development for organizational effectiveness initiatives every year.

Today, Zenger is the Co-founder and CEO of Zenger Folkman, a consulting and leadership development firm that focuses on providing leaders with a greater understanding of their effectiveness with their peers, their weaknesses, and their strengths that they can capitalize on to be the best leaders they can be.

For Zenger, it is because of an individual’s strengths and passions that they can become a truly effective and successful leader.

“Great leaders are great leaders not because they’re perfect people but because they have a handful of strengths that they do really well. It’s because of those things that they do really well that they have such great success.”

Defining success

It’s pretty safe to say that John Zenger is a successful individual.

He is an academic with multiple degrees, he is an entrepreneur who has created multiple successful companies, he is a best-selling author or co-author of 13 books and 180 articles and blogs, and he has a large, loving family.

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Zenger points out individual grandchildren’s pictures on a wall in his home. While Zenger enjoys his career, he finds great joy in his family.

But according to Zenger, success isn’t the same for everyone.

“Success really comes down to if you are you able to achieve the goals that are most rewarding to you. Your success is different from someone else’s success and my success. I certainly don’t measure [success] in the number of zeros on your bank statement or degrees. I think for more people [success] has become your impact on the world around you, it’s defined by leaving a positive dent in the world.”

As Zenger has started companies and firms, he has had the opportunity to make an impact on a large number of individuals that will never be erased: he has not only changed careers, but he has helped change lives.

“It is that impact on business life as well as [an individual’s] personal life that is for me the great measure of success,” says Zenger.

Continuing to lead (and learn)

Having one foot in research and the other in hands-on business matters has made Zenger a contemporary leader who is constantly aware of new ideas and is consistently applying them in novel ways.

By always being open to learning, Zenger has in turn found more opportunities to lead.

Zenger is an avid reader, an amateur magician and an engaged community leader. By actively learning and leading, he finds and has purpose. For Zenger, it’s “almost something moral” to be constantly learning and contributing to the world to make it a better place.

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So how will you define your success? What will you learn so that you can lead in your field? How will you find and use your own intellectual curiosity to make the world a better place?

Learn more about John Zenger and how you, too can be a leader in your career by attending the BYU College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences Alumni Achievement Lecture Thursday, October 11 at 11 a.m. in room 250 KMBL.


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