Ask almost any business leader how to most effectively develop people and build teamwork and you’ll hear, “tap into employees’ strengths.” Yet when it comes to their own careers, many managers still focus the majority of their personal development efforts on shoring up areas of weakness.
Sometimes this is due to well meaning critiques by superiors. Other times managers moving up the career ladder try to emulate those who have gone before.
While all managers need to hone their communication and people skills, learning these skills and adding knowledge is simple. Recognizing, developing and deliberately leveraging ones own strengths is more difficult.
Many programs are available to help the ambitious manager improve performance, but a review of typical business practices points to a common fallacy. Whether in individual development plans, performance reviews or 360 evaluations, efforts to help people change for the better often focus more on weaknesses than on strengths.
From our earliest years we are programmed to believe that our greatest potential for growth is in our areas of greatest deficiency. Think about it. If your child received an A in English and a C in Math, where would you focus most of your attention?
This is not necessarily wrong. In fact, everyone can and must develop a basic competency in multiple important areas. The problem is that this philosophy can perpetuate the focus on weakness long after basic competency has been achieved.
Social psychologists have found that focusing on strengths leads to higher performance, greater productivity and increased satisfaction. In fact, honing your abilities to their greatest potential can essentially make your weaknesses irrelevant.
Today’s business environment offers many more opportunities for advancement than ever before. But to take advantage of these opportunities, you need to recognize your areas of greatest competency, work to develop those to their fullest potential, then match your strengths to the right challenge and the right role.
To maximize your effectiveness, follow the example of high performing organizations. The most successful companies identify their core competencies, then work to develop those in order to maximize their potential. Functions that the organization performs less well are outsourced, markets that don’t fit core competencies are abandoned and divisions that don’t add to the company’s strengths or advance its purpose are sold or spun off.
Attaining the next level of performance involves identifying and enhancing your core competencies — your strengths — rather than attempting to remedy every weakness. Delegate every possible activity that doesn’t fit your strengths, and only attend to areas of weakness that stand in the way of doing what you do best.
First Determine Your Strengths
While it seems that most of us should be aware of our strengths, we often confuse strengths – what we do well – with traits (our personality characteristics) or work habits (the conditions under which we perform). Many of us also take our strengths for granted. In doing what seems absolutely natural and logical to us, we fail to recognize that we are actually creating outcomes far superior to what others might have expected.
Harvard psychologist and pioneer of Multiple Intelligence theory, Dr. Howard Gardner, points out that people have many more areas of intelligence – or capacities to produce useful outcomes – than previously realized. Where traditional I.Q. testing measures linguistic and mathematical ability, we now know that other abilities such as interpersonal intelligence – the ability to understand and relate well to others – and spatial intelligence – the capacity to create or plan in multiple dimensions – can have a significant value.
So how do you determine your greatest strengths?
One way is to examine your own past and present performance and try to discern a pattern of successful behavior. What comes easily to you that might be more difficult for others – negotiating a tough contract, analyzing financial data, creating an advertising strategy, leading a team?
Or you could use feedback analysis as described by management guru Peter Drucker in his book management Challenges for the 21st Century. Whenever you undertake a key activity or make an important decision, write down your expectations. Then, a few months later, reexamine your expectations and the actual results you achieved.
Colleagues, family members and friends can also serve as resources for helping you determine your strengths. In the January 2005 issue of the Harvard Business Review, management professors Laura Roberts and Gretchen Spreitzer and their colleagues propose a Reflected Best Self Exercise, in which you actively solicit feedback from those who know you well. Critical to this exercise, however, is that the feedback focus on describing the specific areas where you have excelled – not on the areas where you could use more work.
Match Your Strengths to Your Tasks
Once you know your strengths, you need to figure out how best to use them. It used to be that organizations managed the careers of their people, but today that obligation belongs to each one of us. You have the responsibility to know yourself and determine where and how you would perform best.
Often the difference between success and failure is not learning additional skills but rather figuring out how, given your strengths, you can adjust yourself to the demands of your specific position.
This is particularly important when the nature of your job changes. Jack was a star sales manager for an educational products company. His ability to form strong connections with his team and develop his people resulted in lower turnover and significantly increased sales.
Jack also worked well with his colleagues, leading brainstorming sessions that resulted in a new integrated product and service offering – with significant profit margins for the company. Jack’s abilities both in the office and in the field caught the attention of company executives who saw him as a natural leader. When the opportunity came for significant career advancement, Jack jumped at it.
Jack had the advantage of following in the footsteps of Ellen, an admired veteran. Unlike Jack, Ellen had risen through the ranks of finance. She spent three weeks helping Jack transition into the new position before leaving to head operations in Europe.
Yet a few months into his new job as regional manager, Jack found himself becoming more and more frustrated with his work. He productivity was down and his former sense of eagerness to get to work each morning had disappeared.
As we worked with Jack, we began to see that his strengths were largely interpersonal and creative. He shone as he worked with his team, made presentations and coached his direct reports. But most of his work now involved written reports, formal strategy sessions and routine management tasks that had little to do with Jack’s greatest competencies.
After pinpointing his strengths, Jack began the work of redesigning his job so that it fit better with his
abilities. He began to spend more time in the field, visiting customers and prospects to gain a first-hand understanding of their needs.
He used his natural team-building and creative abilities in meetings that brought together representatives of the sales and product design departments to brainstorm ways of better serving customer needs. He found an assistant who excelled at writing reports and organizing data and began delegating these tasks as much as possible.
With this new focus on his areas of greatest competency, Jack felt a renewed satisfaction in his work. His productivity and performance improved greatly. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and while there will be many who encourage you to work on your deficiencies, the key to high performance is to look for what you do uncommonly well and focus there.
Armed with this self-knowledge, you will better be able to determine how you can best contribute — both now and in the next phase of your career.
Your greatest successes will come from placing yourself in a position where your strengths can meet opportunities for their regular expression. And, as maximizing your strength becomes a habit, you’ll be in a better position to help those around you maximize their abilities, leading to greater productivity and satisfaction for you, your team and your organization.
© 2007 Dr. Robert Karlsberg & Dr. Jane Adler