Sunday, September 20, 2015

Is it Better to Work on Strengths or Weaknesses?

It takes far less energy to move from first-rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity. – Peter Drucker
Throughout my career, I’ve put a lot of effort into overcoming my weaknesses.  As a result of coaching and reading numerous books and articles on self-development, I have always viewed my weaknesses as barriers to success and something that I needed to work hard to overcome.  I’ve recently begun to wonder, though, whether focusing too heavily on my weaknesses took time that could have been better spent developing my strengths.
In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker wrote that, by focusing on our weaknesses, the best we can achieve is mediocrity.  On the other hand, working to further developing our strengths can result in greatness.
Most people excel in the areas that motivate them.  Alternatively, weaknesses tend to come from the things in which people are not really interested.  Focusing attention on developing the things people either can’t improve or aren’t interested in improving can lead to frustration, stress, and an overall lack of motivation.
People are motivated when they are able to do meaningful work, learn and develop, and have fun.  And continually developing in an area of strength and utilizing the strength to contribute to an organization’s success help make this happen.
Addressing the Organization’s Weaknesses
It is obviously important to understand and continually close the critical skill gaps that exist within an organization.  Doing this effectively requires hiring the “right” people and continually making them “more right.”  One of the critical objectives of hiring is to put together a team where individual strengths complement one another and people are able to effectively cover each other’s weaknesses, but focusing the hiring process on minimizing the organization’s weaknesses, however, will never lead to greatness.
The performance review process in most organizations targets an individual’s weaknesses.  Although strengths are usually identified – although more in terms of results than the fundamental strength that led to the result – the individual is often expected to work on the weaknesses before the next review.  There is rarely conversation about how the person can further develop strengths during the coming year.
Knowing Your Strengths
Developing your strengths assumes that you know your strengths.  For most of my career, I have approached people and asked for feedback and coaching about my work, interactions with others, and overall performance.  Whenever I have these conversations, however, I try to get the other person to talk about the areas in which I need to improve – in other words, my weaknesses.  Lately however, I’ve tried to turn the discussion around and have asked for feedback on my strengths.  What I’ve found is that it puts the other person much more at ease and comfortable giving me the feedback I need to improve.
Although this has helped improve the conversation, I have found that it is important for the other person to know that I’m not looking for compliments.  I am looking for feedback on my areas of strength where, if I got even stronger, could greatly help the organization and my own career.
Like anything, this type of conversation takes practice to provide real value, so it is important to stick with it and be consistent about holding the meetings.
PDSA to Understand & Develop Strengths
To better understand strengths and weaknesses, Peter Drucker suggested writing down goals related to a specific objective or project.  After six months or so, he recommended returning to the list and reflecting on which goals were achieved and which were not.  After doing this over a period of time, a picture will start to emerge that identifies strengths and weaknesses.  In addition to showing strengths and weaknesses in execution, it will show how strong the person is in planning and selecting the right things on which to work.
This is closely aligned with W. Edwards Deming’s Theory of Knowledge and the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) Cycle.  Within a PDSA mindset, learning only takes place when the hypothesis is clear, which means that the person or team clearly and consciously understands the expected results from a given action or plan.  I believe Drucker’s advice deals with applying PDSA on a personal level to drive learning.
For this approach to be successful, I believe that the list must be remain personal.  As soon as something like this becomes public or part of a person’s performance review, there will be a tendency to skew results and show more success than really occurred and, as a result, interfere with reflection and learning.  Most organizations are not mature enough in their thinking for people to be truly open about their performance and, in particular, their weaknesses. 
It’s Not All or Nothing
Focusing on your strengths does not mean completely ignoring your weaknesses.  This is not about developing knowledge or a particular skill.  It is about using knowledge and skills to be successful.  If you have a weakness that is interfering with success, the more you know about it and address it, the more successfully you will be.  The key, though, is to avoid spending significant time overcoming a weakness.  Once it is addressed to the point where it no longer interferes with using your strengths to be successful, stop worrying about it and refocus on your strengths.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Confidence and Humility: Two Critical Leadership Characteristics

There are many traits that make one an effective leader.  Among the most important of these are confidence and humility, two attributes that many think cannot coexist in the same person.  I have found, however, that confidence and humility actually work together to improve the ability to lead and, although some people tend to possess these traits more naturally than others, they can be developed through effective coaching and feedback.
Confidence enables a leader to possess an unwavering commitment to purpose and direction of a team, while humility opens the leader up to continual learning.  And when defining confidence as self-assurance resulting from demonstrated capabilities, it is not possible to possess or have true self-assurance without the commitment to continual learning.
W. Edwards Deming listed constancy of purpose as the first of his 14 points for effective leadership and lack of it as a deadly disease or barrier to improving business performance. Without clarity and confidence in the purpose of a business, a leader and/or those within the organization will continually question the direction and continually jump to the issue of the day resulting in very short-term, if any, success.
Confidence resulting from true abilities and understanding of the business, on the other hand, can give the leader the assurance that the purpose is correct, and prevent the daily distractions from taking the organization off course.
Another aspect of confidence is the belief that developing the abilities of team members is not a threat to the leader’s power or position, but a necessity to maintain it successfully.  A confident leader makes developing people, including the next set of leaders, a top priority for the business. 
Many people tend to confuse confidence and arrogance.  The characteristics of confidence that make it a vital leadership trait are not present in ones who display arrogance.  Discussions that include condescending remarks, as well as an overall lack of focus on developing others are clear signs of arrogance rather than confidence.  Conveying negative energy, a lack of openness to questioning of decisions and actions, and overall uncomfortableness are other characteristics of arrogant leaders.
Basically, people want to be around confident leaders but will do whatever they can to avoid arrogant ones.
As mentioned above, humility gives people the belief that there is much they don’t know and lead to the desire to continually learn.  Humility enables a leaders to comfortably use inquiry when attempting to investigate a problem or develop the skills of team members because they don’t worry about others questioning their knowledge or abilities. 
Leaders who lack humility have trouble with structured problem-solving because of the tendency to jump to the countermeasure without truly understanding the root causes of a problem.  The kaizen process only works when an individual or team go into it with an open mind and the realization that they don’t always know the answer.  To do this effectively requires humility.
When possessed together, humility and confidence can drive leaders toward constancy of purpose for the area they lead, along with the PDSA mindset needed to continually adjust the approach to remain on course.  When the leader models these behaviors regularly, people will be more receptive to following him or her and adopting the same traits in their own work.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Simple Method for Achieving the Vision

The best way to predict the future is to create it.” – Peter Drucker
Many companies today have vision statements that are well-written and effectively describe future organizational aspirations. One has to wonder, though, that as common as they are, and as long as organizations have been doing vision statements, why so many companies continue to have trouble staying focused and miss the mark. Rather than staying focused and driving toward the future, organizational ADHD takes over and the vision turns into a virtually meaningless slogan.
One of the biggest reasons for failing to achieve the vision is a lack of understanding and appreciation of what a vision can truly do for an organization. A vision should be carefully created around what the company is expected to become over the next 5-10 years (or whatever time period makes sense for the company). It must be meaningful and able to drive all planning and improvement activities for the organization. It is a deliberate aspiration for the company; not something to be used only when convenient.
A Simple Solution
Achieving the vision is a simple process of understanding where the company wants to go, where is currently is, and continually closing the gap between the two. Just because the process is simple, though, does not make it easy. Without keeping the approach simple – and frankly most companies do not keep it simple – there is no chance of making it successful.
This post is meant to address the how of achieving the vision rather than the what. There is a process for creating effective vision statements that some leaders have obviously done very well. The method covered here assumes that the vision statement is one that clearly and effectively describes what the organization wants to become in the future.
  1. Define the Gap In the same way that a problem on the shop floor requires first to define the gap, achieving the vision requires understanding how far the organization is from the its ideal targets.
    Determining the gap involves breaking down the vision, which is often stated as a generalization, into specific 3-5 year objectives (which often include targets for safety, quality, production/schedule, and cost, although other areas can be covered). The objectives are regularly compared to current performance to determine the gaps that needs to be closed to move the organization closer to the vision.
  2. Set Annual Targets The 3-5 year targets become annual targets for different areas of the organization. Individual teams create their plans to achieve the targets, keeping the leadership team in the loop throughout the year.  The annual targets are deployed through the catchball process to ensure buy-in throughout the organization and to give the leader confidence that those accepting the objectives understand the intent as well as the targets.
  3. Establish Regular Meeting Rhythm There needs to be regular meetings to ensure: (1) the annual targets are being met; and (2) the organization is closing the gaps toward the 3-5 year objectives and ultimately the vision. The meetings are focused on problems in achieving the targets and closing the gaps toward the vision. The term rhythm is important here because the meetings need to happen on regular intervals based on the pace of the business. The key is to meet frequently enough to allow corrections to be made before things get too far off course.
    It is also important to remember that the rhythm meetings are not witch hunts. They are meant to ensure that problems are being handled effectively and to identify where additional help is needed. To keep the meetings focused, it is necessary to run them from the dashboards and only refer to the plans when needed to address a particular problem.  This keeps everyone focused on the same things, looking at the same data, and removes debate and confusion about where the problems lie.
  4. Repeat the Process Steps 1-3 need to happen every year to keep the team focused on the vision and to make sure the gaps are closing effectively.
The above process is a method that successful companies have used to turn their vision from a generalized statement of hopes and aspirations into a deliberate attempt to create the future. Developing and communicating the vision, when done correctly, can be energizing and motivating for the organization. Without a process for making it happen, though, the motivation, as well as the improvements driven, will likely not last.