Leverage Strengths for Peak Performance
By Dr. Robert
Karlsberg and Dr. Jane Adler
Friday, March 11, 2005; 4:00pm EST
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
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
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
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
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
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.
About the Author
� 2005 Dr. Robert Karlsberg & Dr. Jane Adler. Dr. Robert Karlsberg and
Dr. Jane Adler are senior leadership consultants and founders of
Strategic Leadership LLC. They work with senior executives to
maximize performance, facilitate transitions and accelerate major
change initiatives. Contact them at 301-530-5611 or visit http://www.ExecutiveEffectiveness.com