Building on Your Strengths Is Not Enough

You can’t walk into a conference these days without bumping the door on a speaker who is trumpeting the value of building on your strengths. It’s easy to understand why this message resonates. From the time we start school, we are evaluated on our weaknesses. Most of us dread this. “Build on your strengths” sounds like one of those alternative schools where people painted or sang and danced all day instead of memorizing dates in history or taking pre-algebra. Who wouldn’t rather sing and dance?

But building only on your strengths is not enough if those strengths do not create value for those you lead. Leadership is about delivering value and value is ultimately defined by the receiver. Making sure your strengths build value for others means that you must focus on your team before yourself.

Effective individual contributors who want to become great supervisors or managers must stop doing what makes them successful and build new competencies if what made them successful isn’t what your constituency needs. It’s about identifying what it is that delivers value to those you lead and then assessing what you need to develop to meet those needs.

Some examples of possible constituencies: Those you serve inside the company, employees who report to you, peers you collaborate with, and executives who lead the company. Others who get value from your leadership include customers, investors, communities, and company partners. If you really want to lead, find out what these stakeholders need.

One way to do this is to ask each stakeholder what they want from you. It’s likely that each stakeholder has different perspectives about what you can do to create value for them. Listen to them, spend time with them, observe them, and understand them. When you know what they want, only then can you figure out what to do. You may find out that what you are good at isn’t enough. In these cases, you shouldn’t build on your strengths.

One turnaround specialist CEO we know asked analysts, investors, franchisors, customers and employees what they wanted from the company in the upcoming year. Analysts and investors said they wanted the CEO to build on his strengths by continuing to cut costs. Franchisors, customers and employees argued against cost reductions, saying the company needed to focus on service improvements in order to ensure customer loyalty. The CEO realized that the easy path for him would be to implement cost reductions–it was his strength and it would likely raise the stock price incrementally if he were to promise another round of cuts. However, he believed that the franchisors, customers and employees were right. But he didn’t have strength in this area, so he hired additional leaders into his management team that knew how to do customer service.

This was something that he had never done before. He had always flipped companies before they got to this next stage. He told us how hard it was to allow resources for things he always cut in his previous turnaround experiences. He worked against his strengths but did it to create value. As a result of his efforts, the stock rose dramatically and things continue to go well. By not building on his strengths, this leader created more value for everyone.

Have you found success working against your leadership strengths do you always go with what you’re good at?

Taken from a blog post written by Norm Smallwood, Kate Sweetman, and Dave Ulrich. Unabridged.

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