When you think of how you could be more effective in life, where does your mind go first; working on improving your strengths, or fixing your weaknesses? If you’re like most people, you want to focus on your weaknesses first. However, I’ve never yet worked with someone who succeeded because they had a well-honed set of strong weaknesses. This may seem obvious, but considering how many people myths have become conventional wisdom, I’m going to debunk the most common of them, one by one.
1. People’s Basic Weaknesses Will Change If They’re Coached
Leopards don’t change their spots. People should be coached and mentored, but you need to recognize that the best-case scenario for any employee is that he will become a better version of who he already is.
While a wise person learns and develops skills and talents throughout the course of his life, his basic temperament won’t change much. He’ll have the same basic strengths and weaknesses at fifty that he had at twenty.
If you like the basic package of who your employee is now, know that he will only get better in the future when you help him with coaching and training. However, if you don’t like the basic package of who he is today, you’re not going to turn him into a different person once you’ve spent all of that development time, effort, and money on him. As the old English proverb says, “What’s bred in the bones comes out in the flesh.”
2. The Point of Coaching Is to Help People Manage Their Weaknesses
Everyone has weaknesses, including your Star employees. While it’s true that his weaknesses will kill him if he can’t tame them to some degree, the focus of coaching should be to capitalize on a person’s strengths, not manage his weaknesses. When I’m coaching a person and we’re discussing weaknesses, I’m hoping for four main outcomes:
- That he will increase his self-awareness. Not many of us have a high degree of self-awareness. People are often unaware of how their areas of weaknesses affect others. My first goal is to help them see how others perceive them so they understand what they’re best at, and what collateral damage is caused by refusing to work on controlling their areas of weakness.
- That he will own his areas of weakness and confess them to his team. I’m a big believer in sharing areas of weakness with your colleagues; not to inform them of what they are—believe me, they already know—but to let them know that you know. People can forgive you for your weaknesses if they know you’re aware of them and are at least trying to get better. But if you don’t even know what they are, people laugh behind your back. The difference between a sage and a fool is self-awareness.
- That he will adjust his role so that he can take advantage of his greatest strengths. When coaching someone, I don’t expect him to change the basic construct of who he is, because I don’t believe that sort of change is sustainable over time. Neither is controlling weakness a winning strategy. You win by finding out your unique talents and gifts, and using them for most of your work day. As to your weaknesses, a better strategy is to get so amazing at what you’re already good at that people will forgive you for your weaknesses.
- That his newfound self-awareness will lead to some changes in his behaviour. He needs to focus on his strengths. I don’t necessarily mean tasks that he’s good at—we’re all good at some things that drain and exhaust us—but finding those tasks that make him feel alive and excited and give him energy; areas where he can achieve more than anyone around him, because he was born to do those things. Once he identifies his natural talents, focuses on them, and builds skills around them, he will achieve far more than he ever thought he could.
3. Coaching Will Change the Behaviour of Stubborn, Poor Performers
When was the last time you tried to make a grown up try to do something that she didn’t want to do? It doesn’t work. Unless she wants to do the task you’re asking her to do, you’re wasting your time.
A good acid test of your poor performer is to mention the possibility of receiving coaching. If her ears perk up and she expresses interest, maybe there’s hope. If she doesn’t seem enthusiastic about it, don’t waste your time with elaborate, ongoing coaching efforts that go beyond the basics.
4. Tough Conversations Damage Relationships
Ironically, more often than not, just the reverse is true. When there’s an elephant in the room and you have the courage to address it with kindness, it very rarely turns out as badly as you think it will. In fact, the great majority of tough conversations I’ve had have resulted in very positive outcomes.
Star leaders are able to have difficult conversations without making enemies. They earn respect and loyalty because they’re willing to tackle these issues. They also approach tough talks from a place of care, not judgment, wanting to make the situation better for everyone.
5. Being Successful Is about Making Sweeping Life Changes
Typically, sweeping changes are short-lived. Real change happens more gradually, and takes more enduring effort. Each day is a choice to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and stay running in the right direction.
A successful coaching engagement is more like a marathon than a sprint. At the beginning of a marathon, participants are excited and enthusiastic about running. They feel fresh, they’re rested, and they’ve trained for months. A new day is dawning, and tremendous energy from spectators and other runners surrounds them. The situation changes though when they’re into the third hour of the race. There isn’t any cheering, the pack has thinned out and they feel alone. Those who complete the race are the ones who keep on running at mile nineteen, even though it’s hard.
Here’s the encouraging news for anyone who’s trying to make a life change: If you get 1 percent better every three days, in seven months you’ll be twice as good as you are today. If that feels too difficult, maybe you can get 1 percent better each week. At that rate, you’ll be twice as good as you are today in about a year and a half. It doesn’t take a super achiever to do that. All it takes is someone who is committed to getting a little bit better each day, and to finishing the race.
It is also worth noting that we typically overestimate what we can accomplish in six months, but underestimate what we can accomplish in three years.
6. The Person with the Best Qualifications Wins
Qualifications alone don’t guarantee that a person is going to be a fit for your company. This truth is borne out by the fact that I’ve made some unlikely hiring recommendations that turned out really well. How about an academic serving in the president’s office of a university, never having sold anything in his life, being hired as a sales team leader? Or a career leader of a millwork business moving over to run an agriculture company with a global marketplace?
These hires might not make sense at first glance, but these unlikely moves were successful because the academic was bright, people-savvy, and eager to learn and grow; the millwork manager was a natural-born leader with incredible drive, vision, and a keen eye for quality. While they didn’t precisely “qualify” for the jobs on paper, they had all the right “fit” characteristics. They both shared values with the companies that they transitioned to. All they had to learn was how the new businesses ran. Within a year, both were at full gallop.
While skill is needed, if you have to weigh skill against the fit, choose fit every time.
7. When Someone’s Personal Life Is in Tatters It Doesn’t Necessarily Affect His Work
I don’t believe this to be true. While we all go through hard times personally and keep things together at work in the meantime, we’re also deeply affected by what’s going on at home. At the end of the day, your personal and professional lives are the same life. If your work life is going badly, your loved ones feel it at home. If your home life is in turmoil, people often feel it at work.
It’s not your job as coach to help people fix their home lives. It’s your job to help them understand that what’s going on at home can affect their coworkers, and to learn and manage this important principle: leave your personal life at the lot line. This means that when an employee crosses the lot line and walks onto the work site, she does her best to shake off what’s happening at home. Co-workers shouldn’t feel compelled to be counsellors, nor should they endure poor treatment because things at home are tough.
Bad behaviour that spills over from personal to work life needs to be addressed.
Action steps you can implement immediately
- Sit with each of your direct reports and help them identify their greatest strengths, and brainstorm with them about how they can capitalize on them in their roles.
- Stop pouring time into people who aren’t interested in growing.
- Focus your time on coaching and developing those who are eager to move ahead.
- Develop your team’s self-awareness by having them identify, in a group setting, their own greatest areas of strength and challenge. Lead the way by going first and being very honest. Laugh. Make it okay to have both.
- Help each of your direct reports set one small, achievable goal that takes advantage of their strengths, and provides something they can focus on for the next three months.
- Leopards don’t change their spots, and the person that you are coaching will one day be just a better version of who they already are.
- You should coach people primarily to build on areas of strengths, not just control areas of weakness.
- You can never make a grown-up do something that she doesn’t want to do.
- Tough conversations from a caring career advocate strengthen, not weaken, the relationship.
- Getting 1 percent better every week through consistent coaching means that you’ll be twice as good as you are today in about a year and a half.
- Hire for fit; train for skill.
Our work lives and our personal lives are the same life and one always affects the other