Midnight approaches. People turn their attention to the clock on the wall, or the big ball falling from above. The countdown continues with those around you raising their voices as the seconds tick by….5 …4 …3 ..2 …1 ….HAPPY NEW YEAR!.
A fresh year. A fresh start. Resolutions to do better in the coming 12 months. But in the midnight hour consider how many pledges are focused upon fixing a weakness. Thus we start off the promise of this new beginning by dragging in our baggage from the past.
This personal attitude bleeds over into our lives as employees and leaders. We become preoccupied with identifying what’s wrong and then pouring massive amounts of resources into fixing “the problem”. But what if we were to take that same precious energy and used it to build upon what we do well? Might we benefit more by improving what we are doing right? Is there value in building upon strengths versus fixing weaknesses?
We’ve Been Trained All Wrong
Much of basic management literature up until recently lionized ‘problem solvers’. Too often our organizations rewarded those who could fix problems, even when it meant the heroes were surreptitiously creating new problems to be solved. Then in the 90s a fundamental transformation in thinking began to take hold. Research revealed that what made leaders great was the presence of strengths and not the absence of weaknesses. Our view about how leaders can improve suddenly shifted. Thus was born the Strengths Revolution.
Humans are a diverse lot. Each of us come with a combination of pluses and minuses. What we now understand is that it’s our strengths that make us super-successful. Pick an effective person from any field at any time in history; Abraham Lincoln, Madonna, John D. Rockefeller, LeBron James. These are winners, but they are not perfect. They do have weakness, but these shortcomings do not hinder their ability to thrive. Their limitations did not hurt them because they played to their assets.
This principle of building upon strengths is a significant revelation for us. When people are failing at work, it generally is not the problem of the employee as much as it is the problem of management having the employee do tasks for which they are ineffectual. Bob Parsons, the legendary founder of GoDaddy accepts personal responsibility anytime he has to terminate an employee. “Either I hired the wrong person”, he says, “Or else I put them in the wrong position”.
We get into trouble by asking people to do things outside their core strengths. Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of our time and a superb athlete. But not all athletes are basketball players. If you put Jordan in a pair of skates and made him a goalie in the National Hockey League you’d probably refer to him as a failure and a lousy athlete.
Are you being asked to skate on ice when your core strengths are better suited for a basketball court? Two ways to tell are: 1) You are getting strong negative feedback from managers or 2) you believe you are performing below average in an aspect of your work which is critical to your job.
Do we ignore shortcomings? No, but the fact that these limitations are showing up in our work may indicate we are in the wrong job or even the wrong organization. Far too frequently, staff get moved or promoted to a new position where an aptitude not critical in the past becomes crucial in their new position. When a capability is critical to success, average performance is never good enough.
An Eye Opening Moment
Let me tell you about “Janice” one of my recent coaching clients. Janice served as the Executive Director for a regional human service nonprofit, a position she came into quite by accident. Seven years prior the previous executive suddenly resigned due to health. Thus Janice, who at the time was Finance Manager, was forced to step in on an interim basis. Because the Board never got its act together regarding succession, the ‘Interim Director’ tag haphazardly morphed into Janice being named the permanent replacement by default. The next seven years were filled with anxiety and depression with Janice losing not just sleep but her passion for the mission of the nonprofit.
By engaging Janice with the StrengthsFinder, she came to understand that the stress of her job was not caused by her deficiencies, but by the fact she was ill-suited for executive leadership. Janice is a numbers person who loves order and the certainty of a spread sheet. Executive leadership required navigating the personalities on her board, meeting frequently with donors, addressing the media as well as engaging the public at large. These demands were way outside Janice’s strengths resulting in poor performance and diminished satisfaction with work.
In this case, it was the Board’s fault for putting her in the job and keeping her in a job for which she was not equipped. Armed with this revelation, Janice turned in her resignation. Today she is the #2 as VP for Administration at another nonprofit and is back to dealing with numbers and logistics. She sleeps 8 hours a night.
So when the next New Year’s Eve rolls around, do yourself a favor and resolve to take yourself to the next level. Then do this by rooting your resolutions in what you are already doing well. This way you can make the coming days, weeks, months and years a journey of going from good to great, from average to awesome.
Photo Credit: Scott Feldstein