Leading Fully

Patrick Ogburn's Leadership Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘strengths’

Many times, leaders who attain a level of success by advancing through their technical discipline reach a level where their strengths don’t seem to be getting them the results they expect at the next level. “What got you here won’t get you there” is the title of a recent business book by Marshall Goldsmith. The reason the title is so catchy is that it’s idea that’s been around for awhile, and has some intuitive truth in it. There are valuable lessons from this idea. I’ve also seen some logical fallacies often applied in the wake of this insight.

Tone it Down?

Too many times I have heard a well intentioned coach tell someone they need to “tone down” their strengths. I ‘m not sure I agree. I understand where this idea comes from. All of us have known leaders who are insufferable know-it-alls, or leaders who leave people bewildered as they rapidly jump from initiative to initiative, or many of us have experienced the pain of working for a “control freak.” I won’t disagree that we could point out aspects of overused strengths to each of those leaders, and all would agree that they seem to need to “tone it down” in some way. I would further suggest that in each case, it’s often not a simple matter of toning down a strength. Rather, it’s more often a matter of better understanding and judiciously applying the real strength, and/or balancing that strength with new talents and perspectives that help to make more productive use of the best of who you are.

By way of illustration, let’s look at the first example on the list: the “know it all.” This is a reasonably common scenario. For the purposes of this illustration, we’ll narrow it to a specific variety of know-it-all;  a technical expert who became a leader of people. In this case, let’s say the leader’s name is “Kelly.” Kelly is a brilliant technician, and clearly and quickly sees to the heart of most technical issues, effortlessly fashioning elegant solutions before most people understand the problem. Suddenly, when leading other competent people, his best skills don’t seem to be helping. His skilled engineers don’t want his elegant solution — they want to create their own. Truth is, he probably wants them to do that also.

Misapplied Strength

Very often, this is the point at which some well meaning coach will say: “You need to throttle back your analytical and problem solving skills.” Not so fast. While there is merit in the intentions, the suggestion is rooted in incomplete logic: “If a skill is getting in the way, don’t use it as much.” What this misses is that the skill or “strength” as we’ll call it, is not the issue. The issue is behavior. A subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference when making an adjustment. In this situation, the behavior of solving direct reports’ problems for them is one aftereffect of applying the problem solving strength – or more accurately stated: misapplying that strength.

OK – Now what?

The real question, especially for the practical minded among us is: What do I do with this insight? Here are five things you can do to move the needle

  1. The starting point is to work hard to gain clarity about your unique mix of strengths. Sometimes the mere action of building self-awareness will move you in the right direction. There are many ways to do this, the most effective of which collect input from others which feeds a meaningful dialogue about your unique gift mix. Multi-rater questionnaire based feedback (often called 360 feedback) can be a very cost-effective and efficient way to gather feedback – when done properly.
  2. Work towards balance. Very often, rather than simply “scaling back” your strengths, better results can be gained by identifying counterbalancing strengths, that, if present, could help you be more effective. In our example, Kelly (not his real name) could be more effective by strengthening his receptivity behaviors. By intentionally developing behaviors that force him to elicit solutions and be open to the input of others, he would be able to mitigate some of the counterproductive effects of overusing his own analytical ability.
  3. Look for ways to reframe and reapply your strengths. Sometimes the shift can be achieved by reframing the challenge to which you are applying your best self. Back to our example: Rather than being a great engineer managing his team of engineers, Kelly could become a leader of great engineers. First and foremost a leader of people, whose depth of knowledge in engineering strengthens him as a leader. When you apply analytical skills to being a leader, the subtle shift results in  solutions that support their analytical prowess rather than highlight your own.
  4. Build in mechanisms for ongoing feedback. Development is, by its nature, a challenging and somewhat risky endeavor. If you are really developing and growing, you will be trying out new perspectives, approaches, and behaviors. Rarely do we get it right the first time. Find people you trust to give you meaningful feedback. If you have direct reports, cultivate dialogue with them that will allow them to give you meaningful feedback.
  5. Make sure that you don’t do this alone. Develop relationships with leaders you respect through which you can get meaningful, objective coaching. When you can find these relationships within your company, they can bring the added dimensions of providing some specific insight about the company and building influential allies. There can also be value in having someone outside of your company as an objective observer and coach.