The Fantasy of Strengths

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So how is it that a strengths-based approach to leadership development and coaching can become a liability? Earlier this month, I was chatting with a seasoned CFO about the narrative 360 feedback results for one of her direct reports. She insisted that follow-up actions should focus exclusively on leveraging strengths identified from the feedback – not on the few ‘imperfections.’ While there’s definitely merit to leveraging strengths – failing to address pivotal weaknesses has potential for significant personal, professional and organizational downsides, to put it mildly.

As many of you likely know, the strengths-based approach first appeared in the mid-1990s in the social work field but quickly migrated to other industries and applications. In 1999 Markus Buckingham and Curt Coffman introduced the approach to the business world in their bestseller ‘First, Break All the Rules.’ This was followed in 2001 by another (even more popular) bestseller authored by Buckingham and Donald Clifton titled ‘Now, Discover Your Strengths’. The strengths-based approach had been adopted and soon became an enduring phenomenon (some say ‘cult’) within the business world.

strengths and weaknessesThis ‘stop worrying about your shortcomings and focus on building on your strengths’ has its merits. Encouraging people to enhance key competencies that they already possess makes sense – those attributes have proven to enable success. In addition, giving feedback on what’s strong is much easier than identifying key shortfalls. However, relying only on your current repertoire of strengths will definitely be limiting in terms of greater levels of success and bigger opportunities for the future.

Leaders, just like anyone in a craft, trade or profession, can gain big advantages by improving on their ‘soft spots.’ Avoiding dealing directly with the ‘potholes’ in someone’s leadership behaviour creates impairments that can impact both short- and longer-term personal performance as well as that of the team and broader organization.

Here are some questions on how best to leverage feedback that you receive – on both your strengths and weaknesses.

1. Is this feedback meaningful?

Gauge the relevance of feedback you receive – don’t respond immediately or take action until you’ve done so. Firstly, decide if this is the perspective of one person and, if so, ensure that they’re credible from your perspective. Secondly, ensure that the focus of the feedback is on a relevant observable behaviour (or absence of one) and not a wishful preference by your feedback provider.

2. How important is this feedback?

Determine the importance of the feedback: Is it of an urgent nature or is something that can be deferred? Then ask yourself how significant a difference it will make to you, your team members and your organization – both in the short and longer term. If it’s important – move forward – however, if it’s of minimal impact, set it aside.

3. Do I have capacity to respond?

Given everything that’s going on in your team and organization, decide whether you have the capacity to address the feedback. Whether further leveraging a strength or improving on a weak spot, it takes effort and time to bring about change. Other immediate priorities may take precedence but don’t use ‘other priorities’ as an excuse to avoid making change if it’s important.


4. Am I motivated and committed to change?

At the heart of successful personal growth is a strong inner desire to see different outcomes. In regards to feedback you receive, determine if you’re interested and committed to make the effort and do the work required. If you don’t possess the inner motivation, then set in place some external motivation (e.g., coaching) or, alternatively, set aside your change effort for the time being.

5. How will I measure progress and celebrate success?

If you’ve decided to make changes, it’s not enough to simply identify key actions you’ll take to further leverage a strength or address a weakness. You’ll want to gauge progress by establishing some clear measures of success. This will undoubtedly include follow-up feedback from key stakeholders such as your supervisor, trusted peers or your team members. Finally, be sure you identify some notable way to celebrate success, particularly one that has taken significant effort and time – either with your feedback provider(s), trusted colleagues or team members.

You’ll need to take a two-pronged approach to truly improve your leadership effectiveness – by leveraging key strengths and addressing relevant weaknesses. Favoring one approach over the other is not an option in today’s challenging and rapidly changing workplace. Before you decide to embark on any change effort, determine whether the feedback you receive is meaningful and important, that you have the capacity and motivation to move forward and have put in place suitable measures to gauge progress.

If you want to explore how best to get meaningful, important and actionable feedback as a senior leader, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at [email protected] or 250-882-8830.

About The Author

Scott Borland, Founder & President of CYGNUS Management Consultants Inc, , is a recognized expert in helping executives host strategic conversations and obtain high impact feedback. He brings insightful perspective and proven strategies to strengthen the alignment between strategy and leadership behaviour. Scott has presented frequently at regional/national conferences and is a regular contributor to online journals/blogs. Follow Scott on Twitter or add him as a connection on LinkedIn.

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