We’ve known for a while that leaders who focus on eliminating their weaknesses are far less effective than those who identify their strengths and work to leverage those. That’s not to say that all of us don’t have weaknesses and that sometimes these are truly priority areas that we need to eliminate to get out of our way. But for the most part, strengths-based development has been shown repeatedly to have a greater and faster impact than trying to make ourselves perfect through targeting weaknesses.
Nonetheless, leaders still focus on weaknesses, often because they don’t really know how to develop their strengths. An article in the October 2011 Harvard Business Review addresses this issue with some interesting ideas around “competency companions.” In short, John Zenger and a few others from Zenger-Folkman (a leadership development firm) have conducted intensive research and surveys on leadership competencies finding that leaders can develop strengths to outstanding levels by focusing on competencies that enhance the strength. They also found that it is not necessary to develop everything to that level. Just one or two outstanding strengths can make a difference.
For example, a leader who has strength in taking initiative will likely not develop the effectiveness of that strength by simply taking more and more initiative. But if you think about what it takes for “initiative” to be effective you can see that organization and planning are important as well as follow through and the ability to inspire and motivate others. The competency-companions tend to be areas or characteristics that may not be directly related to the strength but are related to the ability of the outcome to be fully realized.
While the article itself is worth the cost of this month’s issue of Harvard Business Review, the principle doesn’t really require data from 250,000 surveys. Look at what you do well, what you are known for in terms of strengths. Ask yourself, “What could I develop that would make this strength even more effective” and you’ll find there are ancillary areas of development that will reveal themselves. These may be the keys to taking strengths that are average and making them outstanding.