Unleashing the Crucial Leadership Skills You Already Have
By Thuy Sindell, Milo Sindell
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2015 Thuy Sindell and Milo Sindell
All rights reserved.
What are Hidden Strengths?
When we are faced with a new challenge—playing a new game, building a new relationship, or getting a promotion—we usually rely on what we consider our strengths. And why not? Shouldn't what has worked for us in the past work in the future?
On the other end of the skill spectrum, however, we tend to get mired in futile attempts to fix things and improve the skills that are our true weaknesses. Our glaring shortcomings become the most obvious targets for improvement. Why is it so easy to focus on the extremes—our strengths and weaknesses—and overlook the gold that lies in the middle? This book is about what lies between what you are already great at and what you are inherently just not good at doing: your Hidden Strengths. These underdeveloped skills are your richest resources for growth.
In our experience working with hundreds of leaders, we have identified twenty-eight skills that are necessary to achieve professional success (see Chapter 3). What we have also found is that for each person, these twenty-eight skills fall into three buckets: Natural Strengths, Weaknesses, and Hidden Strengths (Figure 1).
1. Natural Strengths (the top 20 percent): the abilities you default to because they come easily
2. Weaknesses (the bottom 10 percent): the things you are simply not good at and will probably never be good at
3. Hidden Strengths (the middle 70 percent): the things you neither excel nor fail at
Despite being the largest pool, the skills in the middle are often overlooked by people who are too busy relying on their strengths or working on improving their weaknesses; that's why we call them "hidden." Effective leaders evolve and grow throughout their careers, whereas failed leaders get stuck in a pattern of overusing their strengths. It is important to call out that our emphasis on the relationship between continual growth and long-term leadership success is not new. What is new is our system for creating a growth mind-set, identifying learning opportunities, and setting the stage for your ongoing professional evolution.
Why Hidden Strengths?
The subject of strengths in both popular and business culture has been a positive force helping raise the bar on personal and professional development. In Now, Discover Your Strengths, the book that ostensibly started the strengths movement, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton define a strength as a combination of the following:
1. Your talents (natural traits or propensities)
2. The knowledge required (both content/classroom-related and experiential)
3. The skills (or steps) you need to actually do it
When these three components—talents, knowledge, and skills—come together naturally, we call it a Natural Strength (Figure 2). What is the likelihood of this occurring? The answer is about 20 percent—as in your top 20 percent of skills.
Understanding what you are naturally good at is very valuable in finding the right job or career path. The more overlap there is between what you are required to do and what you are inherently good at, the easier your life will be. Conversely, finding yourself in situations where you are forced to rely on your Weaknesses—meaning areas where you have no talents, knowledge, or skills—will make it much more difficult to be successful in your chosen profession. From a job security and personal well-being standpoint, you should not be in a role that requires you to rely heavily on your Weaknesses.
Understanding your Natural Strengths and Weaknesses is most relevant for determining job fit. Awareness of these two extremes sets the parameters that allow you to find your place in the work world.
Where Hidden Strengths come into play is in the ongoing evolution of your career. For the vast majority of us, the skills we are hired for or are naturally good at in a given role will not be the skills we will need to progress. So how do we remain agile and ensure continued professional development? The answer here is by developing the rich pool of Hidden Strengths in our middle 70 percent.
Developing Hidden Strengths is fairly straightforward. Anybody can do it! First, it requires identifying which of your skills fall in the middle 70 percent range. You can find the Hidden Strengths Self-Assessment to help you with this first step at HiddenStrengths.com. Second, you must identify which of your Hidden Strengths you want to focus on (there will be many to choose from!), depending on your professional goals. Third, with practice and focus, you can begin to develop those Hidden Strengths and move them from the middle 70 percent to the top of your skill set.
Take this example: Jenny is an individual contributor in the Finance Department. She has a natural talent for Influencing Others, but she has never had the opportunity to use it. To unleash this Hidden Strength, she needs the knowledge and skills to reveal it. But what if her boss never gives her the opportunity to lead? Because she is not familiar with the existence of this Hidden Strength, she may never ask for leadership responsibility. Resulting in a lost opportunity to grow into a leadership role.
Here's another case to consider: Reese, a middle manager in a paper factory, is intent on moving up the career ladder. At the moment, his Natural Strengths seem to be well aligned with his job, but he is ambitiously focused on what comes next. He takes the Hidden Strengths assessment and discovers that Influencing Others is one of his Hidden Strengths. He sees how this skill would be helpful if he were to be promoted to regional manager, so he takes the time to learn about it and practices developing it. Unfortunately, influencing others doesn't come naturally to him—it's not a talent—but with time and experience, he develops the knowledge and skills to be quite influential. Influencing Others becomes a Learned Strength for him, and by practicing on the job, he has proven to his boss that he's ready for more leadership responsibility.
Unlike Natural Strengths, identifying and transforming your Hidden Strengths into Learned Strengths are actions you control and drive. You decide how to evolve, grow, and change to meet the demands of the world around you. We look at this as not only empowering but exciting! Even if the stars don't align and endow you with all the right Natural Strengths, you can still become a leader and top performer in your chosen field. The first critical step is an awareness of your Hidden Strengths.
The Risk of Focusing on Weaknesses
The problem with focusing on weaknesses is that it takes a tremendous amount of effort to move the needle to a point where you can demonstrate improvement. Using economic terms, the investment in resources (i.e., time, dollars, and energy) and opportunity costs (i.e., not focusing on other skill development opportunities that yield higher returns quicker), result in a negative return. We suggest a bandage approach for managing your Weaknesses: avoid or delegate them if you can, or learn to do them adequately if you must, knowing full well you might never be great at it.
In situations where you have to perform despite a weakness, you should invest the necessary time and energy to become proficient, but you shouldn't try to turn your weaknesses into strengths. For example, if you are a CEO of a publicly traded company and you are horrible at giving presentations, you don't have the luxury of delegating this kind of responsibility. In this case, you will have to learn to speak publicly with a minimum level of competence.
You should invest the necessary time and energy to become proficient, but you shouldn't try to turn your weaknesses into strengths. In some cases, this will never happen, so just accept it and move on. Spend only as much time and effort on it as you need to so you can focus on other, more fruitful endeavors.
One of our clients, Nicolas, was a great organizer and manager of very complex projects and problems. He knew where to get the right people and resources and how to organize them to get the job done. Planning and Organizing and Leading Implementation were the Natural Strengths that he consistently depended on. Nicolas was tasked with building a world-class team. His manager wanted the most experienced industry leaders in product management to want to work for him. The problem was that people perceived Nicolas as an execution machine who lacked vision and was too focused on results. He often alienated others along the way.
The challenge for Nicolas was to evolve from a leader who was known for getting things done whether or not his team felt good about it to a leader who was more inclusive. He also needed to be more of a product visionary and to communicate his strategic thinking more effectively.
Nicolas's lowest score was on Inspirational Vision; he couldn't see more than two years out. He also lacked technical expertise because he was not an engineer, and he didn't have the strong connection to the industry that his manager and peers did. He would need to spend a lot of time and energy honing his technical skills and building a stronger network of thought leaders to get marginally better at these skills. It didn't make any sense to focus on them. We encouraged Nicolas to let go of trying to develop his weakest skills and instead work on three of his Hidden Strengths that could be more rapidly learned and applied: Leading Others, Verbal Communication, and Strategic Thinking.
Within a few weeks of focusing on Leading Others, Nicolas strengthened his ability to recruit top-notch people. At first, Nicolas did not want to hire people whom he perceived as more talented or skilled than he was; he was afraid it would highlight his own shortcomings. Once he got over that fear, however, he was able to make much more effective hiring decisions. Nicolas took the time to thoroughly screen prospective new hires. He carefully onboarded and integrated them to ensure they became productive quickly. He developed processes to help them hone their skills to fit the needs of the organization. Finally, he provided ongoing feedback, mentoring, and coaching. Over time, with his help, these employees became valuable contributors to the company.
Nicolas also focused on growing and leveraging his Strategic Thinking and Verbal Communication to counterbalance his lack of Inspirational Vision. He learned how to reframe his projects and decisions as if they were a chess game. If he thought of the end goal one year from now as the equivalent of check and checkmate, he could identify the moves he needed to make now and in the future with an eye to the resources he had at hand. His deployment of these Hidden Strengths along with his Natural Strength of Planning and Organizing made it possible for Nicolas to give his team and coworkers the opportunity to be involved, feel included, and understand his procedures.
We have also worked with many great leaders who were the opposite of Nicolas. They were excellent at getting people fired up and excited about their visions. They naturally defaulted to rallying employees around what was possible. However, they were horrible at presenting details, planning, and organizing the work that needed to be done to realize the vision. They rightly ignored developing their weaknesses and instead delegated the planning and details to the managers who reported to them (who were much more analytical) and to their assistants (who were much more organized). To better bridge the gap between Inspirational Vision and Effectiveness, they built their Hidden Strengths of Teamwork and Collaboration and Partnering and Relationship Building, focusing their time and attention on developing the strategic relationships that were necessary to get the job done.
The Risk of Overrelying on Strengths
The problem with relying on our Natural Strengths is that it can lead to stagnation. We all unconsciously default to the skills that come easily to us, but always relying on a particular set of skills—even if you're great at them—is not enough to stay on top. It is a potential dead end. Your agility in evolving your abilities to meet an ever-changing environment will be the hallmark and foundation of your success.
If agility leads to success in today's business environment, then rigidity and overreliance on current strengths must be avoided at all costs. It would be so much easier if we could just stick with what we do well today for the rest of our lives. But research shows us that to be effective, leaders must constantly adapt to their changing environments. Those who don't adapt eventually see their strengths turn into weaknesses through overuse. In fact, leaders who lack the insight, ability, and willingness to evolve will find that their environment provides the most damning feedback in the form of career stagnation or ejection from their roles.
James was one of our executive coaching clients. He wasn't great at listening, but he wasn't terrible at it either. He found that focusing on this skill set was a waste of his time because he knew exactly what it meant to display Listening skills, such as making eye contact, checking for understanding, and paraphrasing for clarity. We pointed out to him that although he knew the skills, he didn't demonstrate them most of the time. He only did it when the stakes were high or when there was a senior leader in the room, but not with his peers and direct reports.
James's story is an example of how we often "pooh-pooh" the obvious things that hold us back from being even more amazing: our Hidden Strengths. He was faced with the decision to develop his Listening skills or risk not getting promoted because people didn't like to work with him. Unfortunately, however, this knowledge failed to translate into behavior, and it continued to undermine his effectiveness with his peers. Why would James sabotage his career instead of developing a skill he could easily turn into a Learned Strength?
Consider another example: Bill was a manager in a large manufacturing company. His work often involved managing complex projects, and he became adept at assembling and leading teams. His Assertiveness and technical know-how were his strongest leadership attributes. At his level in the organization, he was considered trustworthy. Not surprisingly, senior management swiftly spotted his talent. He was moved to headquarters for a job rotation that would be good preparation for further career advancement.
Unfortunately, things started to unravel when Bill was at headquarters. Naturally, he relied on his current strengths, but the head office was political, and Bill soon found that his straight talk hit many wrong notes. He received feedback that he didn't seem to fully understand the nuances and complexities of situations and was encouraged to develop better skills for Organizational Awareness. Bill tried to curb his directness, but he was never able to adopt his superiors' politically savvy behaviors. He struggled with his values and never came around to accepting that the politics were what they were. Instead, he shunned them with his forthrightness in public forums.
Bill stayed with the company, but he never advanced in his position. His rigidity prevented him from navigating the politics. He resisted growing his Hidden Strength of Organizational Awareness. Although he was good at being direct and making sound technical decisions, he needed to find the time and place when people were more apt to listen. In addition, he had to be mindful of the organizational history of the company and learn how to help others save face. The development of strong Organizational Awareness skills would have made Bill more trustworthy at both senior and lower levels of the organization. With that trust, he may have had the opportunity to influence the organization and even shift the politics, but he couldn't embrace adapting his behavior to work within the system. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Hidden Strengths by Thuy Sindell, Milo Sindell. Copyright © 2015 Thuy Sindell and Milo Sindell. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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