Having ‘grown up’ in the recruitment and selection world towards the end of one millennium and the beginning of another, much of my psychological training and experience focused upon helping managers and leaders to identify their ‘development areas’. In reality, this heading in assessment reports was a thinly veiled euphemism for what were more bluntly called ‘weaknesses’ in the robust and emotionally charged discussions within integration sessions, talent review and promotion boards.
Any feedback and subsequent development plans typically majored on these development areas. What were the gaps and risks in the individual’s profile? How would they learn, practice or at least cover these areas in order to become the fully rounded and super-human being that our leadership competency frameworks frequently demand? Weary and undermined leaders would then redirect much of their energy towards these areas – frequently at the expense of those (that were given far less air time) where they had excelled or impressed. If re-assessed at a later date (unfortunately a relatively rare occurrence due to the cost, enthusiasm and sponsorship required) it was likely that their profile would have ‘regressed to the mean’. Perhaps achieving some small increase in those areas that were previously flagged as risks – but at least an equal (or even greater) loss of performance in those areas that were previously a strength.
This philosophy presents a significant paradox for all who are engaged in leadership development. How do we ensure that our interventions protect and grow areas of current strength whilst still enhancing performance in areas that may currently be below par?
An approach that has been quietly gaining support over the last several years seeks to address the imbalance of focussing on the negative at the expense of celebrating and reinforcing the positive. Of course, much of this is not new. Well respected tools and practitioners (including Belbin’s team types and the ubiquitous MBTI typology) had long advocated the value of respecting difference, recognising the importance of diversity and enabling teams to integrate and benefit from a variety of mind-sets, experiences and perspectives. Interestingly, these invariably take a ‘Type’ based approach – describing an individual as a member of one of several types. Each embodies a cluster of behavioural and values-based characteristics that differentiate them from others.
The step-change in leadership development has been towards the availability of tools that help us to better identify, stretch and reinforce strengths in a more multidimensional (‘trait’) way. These (such as StrenghscopeÔ, StrengthsFinderÔ etc.) enable the individual to reflect upon their strengths – not just in terms of their observed competencies (as seen in development centres or 360 reporting) but, importantly, in terms of their own motivation and energies. Drawing upon a rich body of evidence from diverse sources such as community responses to adversity; mental health and resilience, as well as innovative teaching methods in education, this strength-based approach advocates the core philosophy that our peak performance occurs when we are playing to our strengths. Enabling leaders to demonstrate, celebrate and stretch these will result in far greater increments in performance than focusing upon limitations and weaknesses.
Clearly this approach, if taken in its purest form, can be difficult to swallow in some organisational contexts. A finance manager who is inaccurate with key numerical data? A business development manager who is unable to develop new customer relationships? But many competency frameworks cover every possible angle – often without direct reference to the priorities of the role, the profile that will be optimal, and the areas that may be forgiven or supported.
Those selecting Olympic athletes know this intuitively. The profile of a marathon runner is very different to that of shot-putter. A great equestrian may not transfer at all well to the high diving board. Their strengths and energies must be pinpointed and then stretched to achieve their peak performance. If we expected all of our athletes to be able to swim, jump, ride and run and we would win very few coveted gold medals.
When we develop talented people we need to recognise that, whilst we need our leaders to be agile and resilient – we also need to be able to tap into their natural talents and personal drives. When we maximise their opportunities to demonstrate and stretch these, both they and our organisations will perform well beyond the ‘acceptable’ or ‘mediocre’ towards which we otherwise risk regressing.
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