Playing to Your Strengths? Really?

1 Mar

atlas

I came across this article from the CEO of Gallup Jim Clifton about how his dad advised him to “follow his strengths”, saying “Your weaknesses will never develop,” he told me, “while your strengths will develop infinitely.” This mantra was then a big reason for his success. Apparently this also allied with the Gallup Strength Finder, a tool that has been used across enterprise for a lot of psychographic profiling.

You know, I actually agree with this in general – to be successful, it is important that you work in an area of your strength – this will a) make you work well, b) enable you to give your best to your organization, c) make you happy, and finally d) be the incentive to become even better at it – like the Gallup CEO above said.

But I think to do the above you first need to take a simple step – this sometimes takes a LOT of time even though it shouldn’t – it is finding out what a person’s strength is. It is something that education should direct you towards finding, but very often doesn’t really.

I wonder about this thing fairly often – my kids go to umpteen classes – Dance, Hindustani classical vocal, Western classical guitar/ piano, Tennis, Swimming, Drama – really, they try everything. And this by the way is a continuously rotating thing – in the last 8ish years we have tried skating, basketball, art, soccer, ballet, robotics, chess – what have you. Many of these we give up because the kids protested loudly – it was such a struggle to send them to those classes every week – they would call at really inconvenient times at work – and whine and whine and whine! Others we gave up because it was not sustainable to take them way out logistically.

But what was clear – or started becoming clear was that my kids really did NOT like certain things – and more often than not those very classes were skills they were not good at/ showed no signs of developing. Ofcourse, they very often did not like some things they were good at as well! And herein was my dilemma – should I keep encouraging them to go to classes that they showed promise at (dance and drama for my older one and skating and swimming for my younger one), or atleast kept them at classes that they weren’t good at, but I thought were good for them – till atleast they acquired a threshold level of dexterity at those. I think most parents deal with this, specially if u throw in the “like” equation on top of the “good at/ good for them” one.

I think what I ended up doing probably works for parenting just as it does in corp life – you give everyone exposure to all business functions – so u allow them to test all, and you get a chance to evaluate their inclinations at it (I’m talking freshers here obviously). This is why “management traineeship” in most orgs is a fairly successful one year program. Then you slot folks according to their interest and aptitude.

This allows them to find out what they are good at, and then build on it. One also has to recognize that the more u rise in the hierarchy, you need to have atleast a working knowledge of many functions whilst you keep your specialization active. This is what I had referred to in my earlier blog on focus vs. multi-tasking. Typical corp journey makes you first a generalist, then a specialist and finally a generalist again! (On multi-tasking btw, my 7 year old Achchu has caught on like fire! The other day sitting at the pot executing bodily functions 🙂 before school in the morning – she said “mom, why don’t u change my T shirt while I’m pooping – see we will multi task then!”)

I see this in my aerobics class also – Niru sets up a routine that basically through the week works each set of muscles in a particular, pre determined order – they’re not all done the same day, they aren’t even done in the same sequence, and as I wrote earlier, she varies her routine EVERYDAY (in two months I have yet to see her repeat something – I guess that’s what a true artist does!). But she does work every muscle individually – and THEN builds some up more than the others — the “threshold level of competence; with a view to attaining strength in others” principle.

Look at how academics runs it – most higher level studies have a “core” level – basic knowledge, and then an “elective” level – where you specialize!

What spices up this from time to time is if u throw in a little bit of change – at Gillette we used to have a program of Job Rotation where folks sat at any other employees desk for – hmm – actually I forget how long. I think it was a month.. The idea was, one cross trained a bit, changed the routine of one’s work, and more importantly, developed empathy for the “other guy’s issues” – so it facilitated team work and collaboration. Pretty nifty I thought.

job-rotation

I remember seeing an old Hindi Movie – I think it was called Nayak – where a common man gets to be the Prime Minister of the country for a day. Ofcourse, being a Bollywood movie, he got to perform all kinds of miracles despite insurmountable odds, but the basic premise really was job rotation.

Then ofcourse you have the actual/ real job rotation – my earlier company Genpact was pretty good at this. The head of infrastructure and admin, as an example, had never done it before in her life – she was a lawyer. There were senior folks in HR from business and vice versa. And ofcourse everyone was/ had been – in sales (that’s my next post btw – so watch this space). In that space, maybe it made sense – as one of the HR folks once told me – we are all BPO people – we made this industry, we grew it, and that’s all we understand ☺. Like most home-grown business, early pioneers pretty much have to wear many hats at different times – sometimes many hats at the same time. But the concept is the same.

In our entrepreneurship journey, we kind of took turns at doing both these – but at different stages of our lifecycle. In the beginning, all four of us did everything – sometimes all together, but we certainly consulted one another on every single thing! This was very inefficient probably but great fun and also immensely comforting – remember we were all first time entrepreneurs, with NO clue about what to do – so there was comfort in consensus. As time elapsed, and we became comfortable with each other and also with the whole entrepreneurial thingie, we graduated to our areas of respective strength – Debjani the eternal striver and super networker/ convincer to Business Development, Kyung the troubleshooter and Mr. Client Man to Account Management, Shoma the meticulous process person and executor par excellence to all admin etc support functions and Media Monitoring, our division that was very process oriented; and yours truly into making something out of nothing – i.e. creating solutions where none exist – both in research and information support services divisions.

It doesn’t work in some situations by the way – think Sports – and what would happen if your quarterback was made your goalkeeper – or, as we see very often in India at moments of desperation, when the 7 down/ bowler/ allrounder is sent in to bat at 2 down! There IS something to be said for specialization and making sure you win competitions!

Where it does work ofcourse is the outsourcing industry – this was the very fundamentals of the industry – concentrate on your strengths, and outsource the others. I am sure most of you have seen this funny parody of 12 days of christmas – you should be Indian to appreciate many of the allusions) (specially focus on the 9th day for context), but for those that havn’t, enjoy!

And then not to forget there is the SWOT! I think all Marketing 101 techniques are great – even though simplistic, they really apply to most situations, and can help analyse even contemporary problems. SWOT was one construct we used a lot in our initial days as a business research company. Ofcourse, we always had difficulty finding the “O” and the “T” – we essentially ended up making up really obvious/ simplistic stuff but couched it cleverly – like “macro economics ordain that marginal utility of xyz product is diminishing so there will be a competitive share of wallet participant that will usurp this fm its leadership position” – just kidding – this sentence made no sense, did it ☺?

swot

But all said and done, there is immense merit in finding out stuff you are good at – and then working in that area to hone it further. Now, the problem arises when what you are good at is not what you like doing (and vice versa) – I think that’s what triggers many start ups and alternate careers….book writing anyone? (that’s my future career, you know ☺ )

If all above is true, isn’t it a pity that most performance appraisals focus on weaknesses and how to improve them rather than strengths and how to “make them develop infinitely” ? Is it time to abolish the bell curve? Your vote?

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4 Responses to “Playing to Your Strengths? Really?”

  1. wendynewell March 2, 2013 at 7:26 am #

    Change tshirt while pooping!!! Hahahahah. That kid is going to go far. (Btw I would have likes a few more actual HR folks in hr.)

    • joshsang March 2, 2013 at 8:42 am #

      i think the head was HR actually 🙂 but….

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Merit of Moderation/ The Golden Mean; or 50 Shades of Grey! | joshsang - March 13, 2013

    […] as well as professional life – doing vs. managing; theory x vs. theory y; focus vs. multitasking; strength enhancement vs. weakness consolidation etc etc. Also, in most of them, my advice at the end is pretty much – the golden mean. In effect, […]

  2. Is Excellence a De-motivator? On How to Walk the Motivation Tight Rope | joshsang - December 11, 2013

    […] vs. managing”). As a corollary, we also learn to “play to our strengths” (omg, here’s ANOTHER earlier post on that!), so we gravitate towards professions/ hobbies/ people/ organisations that help us […]

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