Run With Your Strengths

Prague Leaders Magazine, January 2010

Traditionally the celebration of New Year gives everyone the chance to reflect on the past 12months, take stock of what has been achieved or not and think about making new commitments for the upcoming year; for example, to stop smoking, to work less or spend more time with family.

In the professional world, it is also the time when employees and employers embark on the process of the yearly performance evaluation with the customary list of strengths and weaknesses and areas for improvement.

Interestingly, on the personal level, most people find it quite difficult to keep their New Year resolutions after the first few weeks. And in the professional world, while most employees and employers usually welcome the opportunity to meet to discuss the yearly results and future goals, few really take advantage of the opportunity the yearly evaluation offers.

One of the main reasons that opportunity is lost, in both cases, is that, regardless of how flattering or positive the assessment of what has been achieved the previous year is, most of the discussions focus on the areas for improvement and accentuate the negative instead of highlighting the positive.

In our personal life, our resolutions usually revolve around what we are not happy with: our weight, smoking, our relationships, our finances. And in our professional lives, around our flaws: time management, communication, talent management, delegation, etc..

Officially, the objective of the yearly evaluation is to help employees become more aware of their competencies, to help improve their work performance. But focusing on the negative has the opposite result, as no matter how nicely or politically correctly it is presented, most feedback regarding our weaknesses is perceived as criticism.

As the psychologist Carl Jung said, “Criticism has the power to do good when it is something that must be destroyed, dissolved or reduced, but it is capable of only harm when there is something to be built.” Criticism makes us feel bad and inadequate, and is therefore not a proper tool for building confidence or positive results.

Unfortunately, we often have limited awareness of our talents and strengths, much less the ability to build our lives around them. Instead, influenced by our parents, our teachers and our managers, we become experts in our weaknesses and spend our lives trying to repair these flaws, while our strengths stay dormant and neglected.

Laura Morgan Roberts, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, has said that “Organizational researchers have shown that when we develop a sense of our best possible self, we are better able to make positive changes in our life.”

But according to management guru Peter F. Drucker, author of several indispensable management guides, “Most people do not know what their strengths are. When you ask them, they look at you with a blank stare, or respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer.” And most of us don’t believe that the secret to improvement lies in a deep understanding of our strengths since we have a tendency to consider that our weaknesses surpass our strengths.

Identifying and cultivating our strengths

The old maxim says that we cannot see the picture when we are inside the frame. Since we have spent our whole life inside the frame of our strengths, we often have become blind to them.

It is important to identify our signature strengths, not just knowing what we are good at, but identifying what we are great at. This distinction makes all the difference in the world.

We also need to cultivate our strengths.  The key is to focus on our strengths and not our weaknesses. Most people have a tendency to think about what they are not good at before what they are good at. But we cannot build performance on weaknesses, even less on what we cannot do. Reducing our weaknesses is not the path to greatness – improving our key strengths is.

Here are a few suggestions to identify your strengths:

  • Talk to people and ask them about what they think your strengths are
  • Think about the aspects of your life you are the most proud of
  • Think about the skills you have learned easily
  • Think about what you do comfortably and effortlessly
  • Think about situations when you feel most like yourself

Once you have identified your strengths, you need to think about how you can use them more frequently and more effectively in your life, and keep focusing on them.

Focusing on what we like and are good at

We all have innate talents and abilities, but they often go unnoticed, or diminish, because we tend to focus on our weaknesses, striving to eliminate weakness instead of working to perfect our talents.

If we excel at sales but struggle with marketing strategy, we believe that our difficulty to create a marketing plan will limit our chances to succeed while all we need to do is delegate that task to someone who is good at marketing.

Many corporate leaders have great people skills but not necessarily deep knowledge of finances. To succeed, instead of trying to become better accountants, they’re better off honing their communication talents and delegating the financial side of their businesses to a great CFO.

But the emphasis on weakness is deeply rooted in our western upbringing. Growing up, while I might have come home with an A in French and Latin, a B in history and an D in math, which grade do you suspect got the most attention ?

That is not to say that the D in math should have been ignored, only to suggest that our balance is off and that we might benefit from a more even perspective. Paying attention to our weaknesses might help us avoid failure, but to reach excellence we need to work on our strengths.

Another benefit of focusing on our strengths versus our weaknesses is that what doesn’t work has a tendency to provoke frustration and even anger, while focusing on what works and is positive make us feel good and builds self-confidence.

Warren Buffet genuinely believes that his reputation as the world’s greatest investor is due to his ability to leverage his particular strengths. Like many successful people he found a way to cultivate the strengths he had and put them to work.

He turned his natural patience into his now-famous “twenty-year perspective” that leads him to invest only in those companies whose trajectory he can forecast with some level of confidence for the next twenty years. His practical mind prompted him to invest mainly in those companies whose products and services he understood, like Coca-Cola and The Washington Post. And thanks to his trusting nature, after a careful evaluation of the managers of the companies in which he invests, he steps back and rarely interferes in the day-to-day operations of the their business.

What makes Warren Buffet special besides his financial success is what he did with his strengths. First he became aware of them and then chose not to focus on his weaker characteristics. Instead, he identified his strongest aptitudes and fostered them with education and experience.

Looking inside ourselves, identifying our strongest characteristics, and then fostering them with learning and practice allows us to find a role or a job that taps on our strengths. Only when we are able to do that do we become productive, fulfilled and successful.