Stop Being Average! Make The Best Of What You Have.

Do you know what your strengths are? And think carefully. Only because you are good at something, you have the skill, doesn’t mean it is your strength. It is just an ability. Strength shows in an activity that brings you joy. It is the sort of activity that allows you to get to a flow when you forget about the rest of the world. You may not even be at the master level, you can still keep learning it. When you finish the activity, you may be tired but feel fulfilled and proud of your performance and achievement.

Based on the data analyzed by Buckingham and Goodall, as summarized in their book Nine Lies About Work, there is one particular condition that the high-performing teams have in common. It is true across national cultures and industries. Members of the best teams can say that they have a chance to use their strengths every day at work. Regardless of what your team is doing, it will be the most productive when most of the team members can say these words.

It sounds like great news until you realize that most systems and processes companies use to measure performance compare their work against standardized models. Instead of cultivating strengths, they focus on improving weaknesses, essentially making everyone the same. Average at everything. This leads to people not being proud of their strengths, not utilizing them in everyday work, and not feeling the joy of working.

Competency models

You may have heard about competency models. Each level on the career ladder is described in terms of seniority level, competencies, and proficiency level. As you get to higher, more senior levels, you need to be proficient at more and more competencies. Your performance and career prospects are then being rated according to these competencies. If you want to get promoted, you need to show you have the required competencies. If you are missing some of them, you are asked to get better. The set of these competencies and any potential gaps are used to judge your worth for the company. This then leads you to work on your weaknesses and ignore your strengths. You are being molded into a beautiful average human whose skills can easily be cataloged.

Unfortunately for you and the company, this drive towards sameness prevents people from being truly great at something. Just look around you. I’m sure you will identify a couple of individuals who are experts in their field. The chances are good that they have tons of weaknesses. They decided to ignore the system and keep improving their strengths even though they may get disadvantages during performance reviews and may have a hard time getting to the next level on the career ladder. That doesn’t change the fact that when you need help in their particular field of expertise, you go to them rather than someone with a fancier job title.

This is especially true for leadership roles. Jim Clemmer addresses this topic on his blog and identifies six reasons why leadership competency models fail. Based on his research, the first reason is that they are often pulled out of thin air in management workshops or HR brainstorming sessions without proof that they will deliver the results the company expects.

The second reason is the fact that they focus on improving a considerable number of areas, and that is just impossible in the real world.

The third reason is that they assume there is a blueprint for an ideal leader regardless of culture, function, or industry.

The fourth reason is the focus on improving weaknesses, which is never fun, and the best you can hope for is to get from weakness to average ability, but not to excellence.

The fifth reason is the way performance and skill gaps are evaluated as they keep digging into weaknesses instead of focusing on strengths.

Finally, the sixth reason is the fact that many managers mix competencies and performance and use competency models to evaluate work outcomes.

Buckingham and Goodall also analyzed the concept of competency models and concluded that to be able to measure something about the individual, you need to decide whether it is a trait or a state. Each of them would be measured differently, and while you can improve a state, you can’t do much about a trait.

For example, one of the favorite competencies in leadership competency models is “strategic thinking.” Is it a trait? If yes, then you either have it or not. We can ask you to take a personality test to understand whether you possess it, but we can do anything about it once your level of proficiency is identified. By definition, a trait is unchangeable, and there is not much point in trying to improve it. If it is a state, then you can improve it, but how do you measure it so you know how much to improve? There needs to exist an objective method of measuring it. We need a test of some sort with correct and incorrect answers that you can take to prove whether you possess this strategic thinking thingy. We shouldn’t ask your boss or your peers to rate you as they can’t objectively measure it. Only a proper test can.

Just look at some of the competency models out there and see what’s included for leadership. Goal orientation, drive for results, customer orientation, innovation, political savvy, strategic thinking, teamwork, transparency, proactivity, influence, and many others. They are a mix of traits and states, and each person asked to evaluate you on these competencies sees a bit different definition behind them. It is all so subjective.

True excellence is idiosyncratic

Outside of competency models prepared by human resources departments is the real world. In the real world, the top performers are unique, they have their quirks and strengths, and they have weaknesses in areas they don’t care about. It is then up to managers to help the team identify what strengths they have, help them to use them every day, and cultivate them. And if these unique individuals have some weaknesses, then we need to build a team so that the team members complement each other. If one person is terrible at presenting the results of the team’s work, then have someone else on the team who is a master of that skill.

If you want to increase performance and make a bigger dent in the world, don’t try to build an ability where you have a weakness. Instead, focus on improving the impact where you already have the ability.

This is also true when it comes to leadership. Based on studies done by the Gallup Organization, there is no single recipe for how to become a great leader. There are hundreds of competencies you can say would make a great leader. But when you look at some of the poster leaders in politics and business, you realize that all of them also have significant flaws. Yet, they are still seen as strong leaders. Why? It is not because they check all the boxes on competency models. They are seen as leaders because of their strengths in a couple of areas. Something unique only to them. Once again, even in leadership, excellence is idiosyncratic.

It is the need to simplify the world that leads companies to use competency models and try to fit everyone into a box. It makes an order in the chaotic universe. It just doesn’t lead to improved performance and excellence.

So how do you use this knowledge when building a team?

You need to build a team where everyone plays to their strengths. The only way to do that is to adjust the job to the person doing it, rather than the other way. Make sure people have enough flexibility in their jobs and required outcomes to use their strengths daily, at least for a portion of their responsibilities. You can point out great performance when you see it, but it is incredibly difficult to pinpoint what ingredients exactly went into it. Exceptional performance is highly individualized.

Combining the right people into a team, so each of them uses their strengths and complements each other weaknesses, leads to high-performing teams. That is the whole point of a team. The output of such a team is higher than the sum of the output of each individual on their own. If you don’t build a team like this, you haven’t built a team at all. You just put together a random group of people.

Hiring groups of people rather than building teams is also one of the reasons why there is so little diversity in many organizations. If you hire a group of people who fit your competency model, you shoot for sameness. If you build a team where people’s strengths offset others’ weaknesses, you shoot for diversity. You end up with a team that is more diverse and more inclusive. It is more creative, innovative, and high performing.

What is your take on personal development? Is it better to focus on strengths or weaknesses? How do you build your teams? Do you focus on sameness or uniqueness? What strengths do you have, and what are you doing to build them up?

Photo: kalhh /

For more, read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, introversion, software development, and career The Geeky Leader, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter: @GeekyLeader

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Categories: Career, Leadership

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