How to Help Executives Use Strengths for Development
I will concentrate in this section on how my colleagues and I as executive coaches go about helping executives internalize their strengths. This is something, however, that executives in their supervisory capacity as well as human resources professionals can do themselves, if not at the same depth or with the same power. This is also a direction that executives can take in pursuing their own development. Most broadly, don’t take the strengths for granted; also, engage the executive in reflecting deeply on his or her strengths and track record; and get personally involved and stay involved. (Executives working on their own development are well advised to involve someone they respect and trust to help them with this endeavor.)
This principle is of course the most fundamental: Executives must come to understand that there is great leverage available in internalizing their strengths. It is so easy to fall into the fix-the-weaknesses trap. Once they recognize a performance problem, executives, being an action-oriented breed, can’t wait to get their hands on it. Although there is always merit to this approach, it will at the very least be incomplete and therefore to some degree ineffective if it doesn’t get at the root of the problem. What may seem to be a straightforward skill deficit may turn out to be a product of something deeper. It is fair to say that roughly half or more of an individual’s potential to grow and improve may lie with the strengths.
An executive’s strengths may be as obvious as the nose on his or her face. Obvious to others, that is. But they are not necessarily obvious to the individual in question.
Gifts that are apparent to everyone else are not necessarily apparent to the person who possesses them. It is a common mistake for coaches and coworkers to assume that what they see and appreciate and feel that they can count on in an executive is what that person sees, appreciates, and feels he or she can count on. It is a careless assumption, an unthinking one, but they should be forgiven for making it when the strengths in question are not garden-variety managerial skills but dazzling talents.
This phenomenon stands the story of the emperor’s new clothes on its head. It is plain as day to the crowd of people watching the procession that the emperor is naked but believes that he isn’t (and wants the crowd to believe that too). In this case, the emperor (that is, the executive) seems to think he is naked when it is evident to everyone else that he is fully clothed. Or, perhaps more accurately, he thinks that he is dressed like a pauper when everyone else can plainly see that he is clothed royally. In practice it is not a matter of either-or. It is not usually that managers have no idea they possess a given strength; it is that they discount it.
It may be that people fail to realize that executives don’t see their strengths as others do because the impact of those strengths, especially when they are great strengths, is so powerful. Onlookers assume, without even knowing that they make the assumption, that the executives’ reality is their reality. It is as if it could almost not be otherwise. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to question whether these strengths exist in the individual’s mind any more than it would occur to anyone to consider whether that individual sees the same physical object, like the conference table or telephone, that others do.
It has been extremely helpful in working with managers on their development to discard my previous (tacit) assumption that I could take the data on strengths for granted—that executives were already aware of their major strengths or that if they were not already aware they could readily take in and digest the news. It is interesting to me that I made no such assumption about the data on weaknesses. What has been even more interesting is to discover the impact on the executive’s behavior of underestimating his or her strengths and the benefit that accrues to him or her from internalizing them.
Jim Merriam, looking back quite a bit later on his development effort, pinpointed his reaction to the data as pivotal. He recognized that his initial reaction could have taken him the wrong way: “When I got the feedback, I overlooked all the positive stuff and I focused on where I needed to improve.” He understood that this was part of a long-standing pattern, the tendency to fixate on the possibility that he did not measure up. Despite the accomplishments and his successes, “always I had to look for my weaknesses because there was probably something wrong that I wasn’t aware of.” He could now see the adverse effect on his performance, as generally good as it was, of failing to recognize his strengths:
I realize now that what I was doing was disrupting my effectiveness in many ways because I couldn’t accept who I was. I couldn’t be comfortable with myself and at times I felt I needed to play a role rather than just be who I was.
The whole notion that his job in working with the feedback was as much to take in the strengths as it was to face up to weaknesses he described as an “awakening”:
Your pointing out that I needed to accept the strengths and accept the balance in my leadership, that really was a significant awakening to me. So I learned that recognizing your strengths is just as important as understanding your weaknesses because if you can’t accept your strengths you don’t recognize you have a foundation. So it was realizing that I had that foundation, rather than feeling I had to search for that foundation. So I realized that the foundation was stronger than I had thought and broader than I thought it was.
In addition to having a good foundation, it does quite a bit of good to know you have it.
There are many ways to promote self-reflection effectively without bringing in an external consultant. It can happen in the normal course of a supervisory relationship, provided the supervisor takes the time to have bona fide performance reviews with his or her direct reports. It can also be part of the organization’s in-house management development activities, not to mention the informal tête-à-têtes that spring up between coworkers who have a personal connection.
In our activities as executive coaches we administer, for those individuals who elect it, a heavy dose of data, with much feedback on strengths. We administer a survey to fifteen or twenty of the executive’s coworkers, and we also interview them. The sheer quantity of the data is important. So is diversity in the data set. So we include several categories of coworker superiors, peers, direct reports, and nondirect reports. We also ask the executive to fill out several personality profiles that often provide clues. In addition, we routinely gather information about the life history of each executive as well as about his or her current personal life, at least from the individual’s point of view. The quantity of data and the variety in the types of data combine to create a good opportunity to have an impact on the executive, not just an intellectual awareness. Also, when the messages coming from the different sources converge, that cross-validation lends credibility to the assessment and adds to the impact.
Jim Merriam’s assessment report was very positive, so much so that I actually found myself worrying before the feedback session whether there was anything of value we could give him. It was evident from the comments that coworkers made about his overall effectiveness that he was held in very high regard.
I believe that Jim is one of the most consummate managers/leaders in our company.
Jim is a great leader whose potential has only begun to be tapped.
Jim is the best leader and manager that I have worked for.
In my opinion Jim has all the qualities of a great leader and has the potential to contribute to this corporation at a higher level. He is clearly a person capable of heading this corporation.
I admire his abilities. He’s been a role model for me.
The high opinion of him was also reflected in the ratings of his overall effectiveness as an executive. On a 10-point scale where 10 is outstanding and 5 is adequate, his average rating was 8.8. It is rare in our experience for managers to get an effectiveness rating that high.
Some executives are highly regarded overall and are recognized as having great leadership ability but are woefully lopsided, with towering strengths but also great shadows cast by those strengths. In those cases it is easy to identify areas for improvement. But Jim had no glaring weaknesses. He was strong across the board. A superior said, “I look for people who can cover the waterfront. Jim has a lot of it. There is a small minority of people who have that ability.”
Jim got good grades on both sides of several classic dualities. He did well on strategic thinking and on execution; on getting things done and on relationships; on being forceful and on enabling others; on having “mental toughness” and on caring about people; on contributing personally and on bringing out the best in others. He was intelligent, insightful, and a quick study; he set priorities effectively, was well organized, managed conflict well, had high integrity, and so on. On the 360-degree instrument, he got good scores on an unusually high number of items. On seventy of the ninety-eight items, two-thirds or more of the raters indicated that he had the managerial skill in question.
How did Jim react? On his own he saw how positive the report was, and as he told us, he was “pleased, humbled.” In going over the data with him, however, we emphasized the point. He asked how he compared to other executives, and we were able to say very favorably. In addition, we pointed out how balanced his leadership repertoire was. Following that discussion he said, “The positives are overwhelming to me.” We collected enough data and made enough of their positive nature that they had a powerful impact.
Even when the amount of data collected is modest, it is not a good idea to go immediately from feeding data back to goal setting. To get full value from the assessment, it is always useful to analyze the data carefully so that the major messages stand out. Given the large quantity of data that we in our practice collect, such analysis is mandatory. A month or so after the initial feedback session, which typically lasts a day or more, we hold a second session designed to consolidate the report into a definition of the individual’s leadership much more compact and useful than that in the original report. To prepare for that session we go through an exhaustive process of analyzing the data.
It was in Avery Stout’s second session several years ago, before the work with Jim, that I saw for the first time how executives could adjust upward their idea of their capability. I witnessed an executive take in the reality of his capability.
Early in this session, we handed Avery our summary of the long section of the report on his leadership. (By long I mean 125 pages. The consolidated version was half that length.) We asked him first to read the summary of his strengths, which consisted of fifteen categories, each of which was followed by all the comments people had made in the interviews that fell under that category.
When he had finished reading the material, we asked him for his reaction. He paused before he responded. Even the delay seemed significant. This was one of these exceptionally quick-witted individuals, quick to react, fast on his feet.
He looked up and, much to my surprise, said, “I’m sobered.” “Sobered” was one of the last things I would have expected him to say in response to a quite wonderful array of leadership strengths. He said sobered and he acted sobered. What had happened is that the evidence documenting one of his strengths had gotten his attention. He had long believed that he was “not that smart.” He had his reasons why. He had gone to high school and college with what he regarded as really smart people, and he didn’t get the top scores on the SATs and on achievement tests that they did. His scores were high but not as high as theirs. At work, as I mentioned earlier, he carried on a running debate with some of his colleagues about how smart he was. They said off-the-charts smart, but he knew better. None of those exchanges had ever penetrated his strongly held belief about his mental ability.
Suddenly, reading the long list of appreciative comments coming from superiors, peers, direct reports, and nondirect reports, he tumbled to the notion that he was, in his company’s population of smart people, above-average smart. He did possess exceptional intellectual ability. A concentrated dose of affirmation accomplished what the various one-on-one conversations over the years with many of the same people had not done. During the initial feedback session a colleague and I had brought up with him the disparity between his view and others’ view of his intelligence, but we had gotten nowhere. But in the original report the comments on this topic were scattered, not assembled in one place for maximum effect.
What difference did this dawning awareness of his gift make? Beyond a general enhancing effect on his self-esteem, it changed his behavior in one respect, as I described earlier. He put a stop to his destructive behavior.
This summary stage of the assessment is so instrumental to the process of internalization that it is worth looking at another example of a realization. This one concerns the senior manager mentioned in a previous section who equated confidence with arrogance. During his two-day session we had given him an overnight assignment to list all of his strengths on one page. Our clients are cooperative, but they do not necessarily follow our suggestions, nor do we always expect them to. He did. The next morning he fairly burst into the room, animated and excited, and handed us a sheet of paper: “I started listing this stuff and holy cow!”
“So it began to sink in?” we said.
“Yes,” was the answer. He had gotten up at 4:00 in the morning and done the assignment, and had also read an assigned article that included the point that enabling leaders like him sell themselves short and are proud of it. All of a sudden it all fell into place.
His task in that morning’s session was to consult the data and decide what, if any, changes he wanted to make. He listed three, which we characterized as all amounting to “more nearly sitting in the driver’s seat.”
He came right back with, “and I feel I can drive that car and not be arrogant.”
One of his goals was to “eliminate the aversion to confidence.” (He had picked up on the use of the word aversion from the article.)
The breakthrough he made can be summed up in his statement: “I’ve come to believe that being confident is okay.” He had broken through an emotionally loaded belief that had impeded his self-confidence. The cognitive wall crumbled when he was able to separate out arrogance from confidence.
The data are major leverage in our work with executives, but they would not have the same impact if we did not also work actively with each executive. This includes helping the executive review the data and see what is significant. But our involvement is not limited to providing technical assistance. We relate to executives in a way that they can tell we are genuinely interested in them and their well-being; we are invested in their success. Beyond that, we are prepared to put all relevant issues on the table and to deal with the emotions that may get stirred up.
The same approach can be useful to executives in their supervisory capacity. Superiors who are unwilling to put the issues on a table are no help. But it takes more than making an announcement; it takes getting engaged, having some two-way communication. The superior has a role to play in engaging the executive in self-reflection, in arranging for data to be gathered, in identifying any gaps between the executive’s estimate of personal strengths and the estimates of others, in dealing with any difficulty the executive has in seeing the light, and so on. This sort of personal engagement can be most unwelcome for supervisors who are otherwise able to step up to the toughest business and organizational situations. But it is one of the most useful contributions a supervisor can make.
It sometimes happens that the executive gets the idea right away, but when that idea is about oneself and is charged with emotion, internalization is a much longer-term proposition. Even when executives have a realization during the assessment, they have work to do in finishing the process of internalization and putting it to work for them. Instant development is a fanciful notion. Jim Merriam is a good example of an executive who stayed with the process, and it helped that we continued to take an active interest, with periodic conversations over a two-and-one-half-year period. Jim had good instincts. He knew on his own to continue to reinforce his grasp of the strengths: “I have referred to the leadership feedback frequently. I use it as reinforcement that it’s okay to relax. And to be comfortable with doing that. I find myself referring to the report when the pressure business wise goes up or strategic decisions need to be made. It gives me reinforcement.” Reflecting on his experience Jim volunteered, “The process has unlocked a lot of doors for me.” This image is suggestive of a process playing out over time.
I thought the experience was a great opening of a door that was inviting me to walk through. Even though it was a little scary on that side of the door, I have found that as I walked through there was a lot of life and light that I was missing out on. I would have lost a lot if I hadn’t listened to the feedback and to what you said. And I wouldn’t have known that.
In the striving, perfectionistic world managers and professionals inhabit, it is easy to fixate on shortcomings, one’s own and others’. Isn’t it refreshing to discover that a pathway to doing better is for people to dwell sufficiently on their strengths?
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