January 21, 2020

Is it OK to be me?

Recently a friend asked me, “Is it OK to be me or should I work at being more corporate?”  It’s one of the hardest aspects of being part of a corporate culture – should you tackle your perceived ‘weaknesses’ and become a better fit or maximise your strengths to realise your full potential for your OWN good AND that of the organisation.

At the time I wasn’t sure how to answer the question – there’s a LOT of heated discussion about whether it’s better to address your weaknesses or amplify your strengths.  Then I came across an interview Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor at University College London and Columbia University and CEO of Hogan Assessments, gave to Harvard Business Review in January 2016.  This comment in particular stuck in my mind: “There is a lot of evidence showing that to some degree, talent is really personality in the right place. That when you match people to environments or roles that are congruent with their skills, knowledge, and assets, they will do better.”

Square pegs.  Round holes.

Trying to be something you’re not is always a bad idea, yet so much of conventional leadership and human resource development is a process of assessing, coaching, mentoring, reviewing, monitoring, measuring, and rewarding – with an emphasis on how well you fit in.  Increasingly I believe that’s the wrong approach.  Yes, there should be values that define the culture as well as rules and standards for acceptable behaviour but where’s the sense in hiring talented people and then forcing them to conform if, by doing so, you suppress their inherent strengths – the reasons you hired them in the first place?  You just end up with a group of mediocre performers, all trying to be like someone else.

I think the better approach is to embrace diversity and use it to build better teams.  As a leader, you need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of everyone in your team.  Allow them to play to their strengths and ensure other members of the team can cover their weaknesses.  Deliberately build teams with depth and breadth of experience, skills and cognitive diversity.  Think about the team as a whole rather than individuals in isolation.  Help your people understand the part they play in the collective whole.  Recognise and value differences, rather than try to impose conformity and, inadvertently, mediocrity.

I find team sports a great source of inspiration and wisdom on this subject.  Success comes from integrating individuals’ strengths into a cohesive team, not by adopting a cookie cutter approach.   I’m a big sports fan, particularly of Formula One and football.   I follow both Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ team principal and Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool FC’s manager.  Both have repeatedly been quoted on the subject of harnessing the power of teams and in particular the importance of a sense of purpose.

Toto Wolff gave a memorable example in an interview.  Mercedes’ engine team might view success as developing as much horsepower as possible but, if that extra power comes at the cost of additional weight, the chassis team might not see it as a benefit because it would cost aerodynamic performance or the ability to translate that increased power into either greater acceleration or deceleration.  To avoid these kinds of issues, the entire team has one overall measure – lap time.  A change is valuable if it reduces lap time.  This allows everyone to play to their strengths but guided by a common purpose.

Clodagh Hughes wrote an excellent article on how Klopp’s leadership style can be applied to business for The Sunday Business Post.  I particularly liked this comment: “He recognises that his team members are emotional beings first and players second. Creating the conditions where team members can be themselves releases a different type of energy, allowing leaders to get the best from their teams.”  She summarised a key principle behind Klopp’s success as follows:Don’t create a team of clones. Embrace different personality types, talents and preferred team roles. Diverse teams with different but complementary characteristics perform best.

On a personal level, until there’s a definitive answer as to whether it’s better to work on your strengths or your weaknesses, I ask myself a couple of pragmatic questions.

  • Is there a clear benefit in amplifying a particular strength? Does mastery matter in this case?  If you are an Olympic 100-metre runner, the answers to those questions are clearly “yes” and “a lot” respectively.  In my case, will an incremental improvement deliver a benefit that outweighs the effort of attaining that improvement?
  • Is your weakness either a vital skill for what you do or acting as a bottleneck that diminishes your strengths? For example, as a programme manager, an inability to plan would a debilitating weakness.  Similarly, a lack of interpersonal skills will limit my success, even if I was a world-class planner.  In both cases, it would be worth me improving these particular skills.

Smart leaders understand that the power of teams lies in diversity, not conformity.  It raises the challenge of integration and orchestration but it brings huge benefits.  Smart individuals practice self-awareness and understand how their strengths and weaknesses contribute or detract from how well they can perform their role.  And both know never to force square pegs into round holes.

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