Playing to Strengths

I was working with a group of senior managers and execs last week and they were practicing giving each other honest feedback.  One of them, a senior partner in a City law firm, listened to all of the positive things that the others were telling him and then, brushing quickly past the compliments and encouragement as if he were wading through some warm, comfortable but vaguely unpleasant body of water, he said: “Yes, yes. But what do I need to work on? What’s not good enough?”

To be clear, the people in the room were not sycophantic underlings trying to weasel their way into his good graces with breezy compliments. Nor were the positive things being said to him just vague, feel-good dross. His strengths were being articulated and validated by a group of high performing, objective observers.

And he brushed the comments away like so many bothersome gnats. What he wanted to know was where his weaknesses were. He wanted to know what wasn’t good so that he could try to fix it.

You may well be asking, “So what is wrong with that? That’s how we improve, right? By seeing what doesn’t work and focusing on fixing that.”

Well, yes and no.

As lawyers, we tend to focus on weaknesses. Where is the weak point in each party’s case in the upcoming litigation? What is the thing most likely to scupper the deal we’re working on? What could go wrong in this business relationship that I need to try to cover off in the contract?

Let the Director of Sales be blinded by his starry vision of pounds and dollars and euros flying in hand over fist. Leave the entrepreneurs to focus on the opportunity, on the upside. Our job is to see the risks and to do the best we can to mitigate them.

We could of course debate whether this hyper-sensitivity to risk is the proper role of the lawyer (and I have my own views on that), but whether we have managed to temper ourselves or not in that regard, there is no doubt that mitigating risk is a major part of what we are paid to do.

But in our own personal development and in the development of our teams, focusing on weakness is not the best starting point.

The things we are good at, we tend to enjoy. And the things that we enjoy tend to give us energy and confidence. Others see that energy and confidence and it motivates and sometimes even inspires them.

I put it to you, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Blog-Jury, that it is a much better use of our limited time and energy to focus on our strengths than our weaknesses. For the high performing executive, weaknesses only become an issue when they are impeding your progress towards your goals or otherwise holding you back. And the interesting thing about weaknesses, is that we tend to become usefully aware of them when they begin to become an impediment.

I say “usefully” aware, because simple awareness of a weakness in and of itself does us very little good and may even do us a disfavor.  But when we see clearly how that weakness is impeding us, we suddenly have something we can work with.

That is the time to tackle the weakness. Because then, we are identifying it not simply as a “weakness” or “flaw” that needs improvement to make us better in general, but rather as a specific obstacle that is preventing us from reaching our goals.  This then provides the impetus we need to improve in those areas.

Our progress in overcoming those hurdles is then much faster because we have a clarity of vision and a specific context for wanting to improve.  Being told “You’re not good at X” (even if it is that internal voice telling it to yourself), will never have the same effect as discovering that “If I improve a bit at X, then I’m going to be even better a Y (which I really am already quite good at).”

As a little illustration of this concept, I leave you with this: Mozart probably had a passable singing voice (his sister was apparently quite a talented singer), but singing was neither his passion nor his forte.  What if Mozart had decided to invest a much greater proportion of his time and energy into that area of weakness, instead of really focusing on what he was already good at? By siphoning off some of the energy he used for composing, he might have become a reasonably good singer. But at what price?

To be clear, I am not saying that we should not try to identify areas that we can improve.  I am saying that focusing on general weaknesses rather than on your strengths may not the best use of your time and energy. 

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