Remove the Cap on Your Career Progress
Addressing your weaknesses can help you grow from good to great to world-class
LARRY SEEMED TO have everything you are looking for in a business leader. His professional competence was without question. He was intelligent, hard-working, and dedicated. He knew the business inside and out and was a major driver in the company’s advances. Larry’s character and values were also widely acknowledged.
He also had a problem: Many people didn’t want to work with him or under him.
Despite his unquestioned professional assets, Larry was stumbling as a leader. My job as an executive coach was to find out why. What was Larry doing or not doing that was putting a lid on his career progress and undermining his ability to win followers?
Professional competence is not enough
If you ask executives why they are good at what they do, they will typically answer with some version of “I know my stuff and I work hard.” They list the knowledge and skills that constitute their Professional Competence. But that is not the whole story. Just as important as Professional Competence is one’s Personal Conduct or Behaviors.
In Sherpa Executive Coaching we use a model called Impact On Business (IOB for short) to illustrate someone’s complete contribution, plus or minus, to their organization. Your IOB is a combination of your Knowledge & Skills plus your Behavior. “Behavior” obviously covers a lot of territory, everything from leadership ability, to listening and communicating, to motivating, to collaborating, to building and maintaining professional relationships.
These aren’t side issues. They make a huge impact on a person’s career success as well as the bottom line. Ultimately, it’s the IOB of a company’s leaders that determines its ROI, effectiveness, and profitability.
Why talented executives fail
Daniel Goleman rose to prominence with his popularization of the concept of emotional intelligence. He writes (emphasis mine),
“When it comes to leaders, effectiveness in relationships makes or breaks. Solo stars are often promoted to leadership positions and then flounder for lack of people skills.”
According to Goleman, a major research study in America, Europe, and Asia demonstrated that failed executives show a common pattern: They are typically hired on the basis of their drive, IQ, and professional expertise, but they are eventually fired because of their behaviors. He says,
“They simply could not win over, or sometimes even just get along with, their board of directors, or their direct reports, or others on whom their own success depended.”
In plain language, it’s not just what you know and how hard you work. Business has always been about people leading people, cooperating with people, and serving people. The qualities often dismissed under the blah label of “people skills” turn out to be the critical factor in determining how high someone can rise and succeed.
The strengths vs. weaknesses debate
In the world of executive coaching, there is a perpetual debate over approach: Whether coaches should focus on their clients’ strengths or weaknesses. This issue is a red herring, and the two sides are shooting past each other. The answer depends upon what question is being asked.
In Sherpa Executive Coaching, we zero in and address our clients’ weaknesses. But author Marcus Buckingham, comes down heavily on the strengths side. In Now, Discover Your Strengths (co-written with Donald O. Clifton), he writes, “You will excel only by maximizing your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses.” In some passages, he sounds as if addressing weaknesses is a waste of time, but then he allows, “The people we described did not ignore their weaknesses. . . . They found ways to manage around their weaknesses, thereby freeing them up to hone their strengths to a sharper point.”
If the question is, “How can I build a successful career?” I agree totally with Buckingham: Discover your strengths and passions and build your career around them. I also believe in emphasizing strengths when putting together a team or organization.
However, the problem with that is that all of us have weaknesses — no exceptions! The best of us has weaknesses that will eventually cause our career to hit a plateau or ceiling, and possibly lead to decline or failure. Buckingham seems to agree with this when he later writes,
“The point here is not that you should always forgo this kind of weakness fixing. The point is that you should see it for what it is: damage control, not development.”
I disagree with Buckingham here. Working on weaknesses is much more than “damage control.” When you’re talking about proven high performers, addressing their weaknesses is where the most dramatic growth and improvement can take place. This is how they can truly transition from being good to being great, even to becoming world-class.
The speedboat metaphor
Imagine you are enjoying a ride in a powerful speedboat. You are racing across a lake with the throttle 95% open. But at the same time, you are carrying excess weight and dragging an anchor. Question: Where is your greatest potential to pick up more speed?
By adding more power (increasing thrust)? How? You are already 95% open. How much more power is available? But what if you can throw overboard some excess weight (reducing drag)? Or better yet, cut the anchor line?
The open throttle represents your strengths. If you are a mature executive, you’ve already learned to apply your strengths, and have been doing so for many years. The excess weight and anchor, on the other hand, represent your weaknesses. If you can find a way to reduce the drag they create, you can make dramatic improvements and uncap your career progress.
If you observe the methods of world-class golfers, you’ll see this dynamic in action. Differences at that level being so small (an average difference of a stroke or two over the course of a season), pros work diligently on the weaker parts of their game. Just getting up and down from the sand more efficiently, for example, might move them into championship contention. As excellent as they already are, the best in the world continue to work with a coach or teacher to make up those small differences. The best business leaders do the same.
Larry improved his IOB
Larry and I dug into what behaviors were limiting his success. As I find so often, the overuse of his strengths and unintended consequences were the problem. Larry lasers in on objectives and goals, is driven to accomplish them, and is extremely fast in thought and action. That’s great. They’re good qualities that account for much of his previous success. They were also, however, causing him to run rough-shod over people, often offending them as he pursued the objective of the moment, always impatient with others and letting them know about it.
By becoming aware of these tendencies, Larry was able to broaden his focus, consider the people around him, and slow down to listen and lead. Through his honest desire and effort to do so, he made great strides. His positive Impact On Business grew steadily. He was promoted twice and is today the President of his division of the company.
In proven high performers, weaknesses are most often found on the behavioral side: Leading, communicating, use of time, maintaining relationships, delegating, inspiring, coaching, teamwork, and so on.
If you want to improve your Impact On Business (IOB), look at your behaviors and consider working with a Sherpa Coach. Li