Between the leaders I’ve worked with in our Next Level Leadership® group coaching program and the individual executives I’ve coached over the last 20 plus years, I’ve delivered around 2,000 colleague feedback reports. And there’s one thing I’ve seen again and again in so many of those feedback conversations. High achieving, ambitious leaders want to blow right past the strengths that have enabled their success and dive right into what they need to “fix.”
Having once been a high achieving, ambitious leader myself, I get it. “Yeah, yeah, all those positive comments are nice, but just tell me what I need to fix to be better.” What I know now after coaching so many leaders that I didn’t know back when I was an executive is that your strengths are typically where most of the leverage is.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in the camp of it’s all about your strengths and you should focus on finding roles that allow you to just optimize them. That’s a path to limiting your opportunity to grow and take on leadership roles that don’t just play to your strengths. That’s why the core premise of my book, The Next Level, is that there are behaviors and mindsets that leaders need to both pick up and let go of as their scope increases.
But, if all you focus on is “what you need to fix,” you’re missing a lot of the opportunities available to you by leveraging your strengths. Based on my coaching experience, here are three ways to leverage your strengths to be a more effective leader. I hope they encourage you to think about your own strengths and not blow past them:
Deploy Them Elsewhere: Early in my coaching career, I coached a senior executive who was his company’s primary representative to a key customer. When I talked with his peers who saw him in action with the customer’s leadership team, all I heard about was how collaborative and open he was and how he made it feel safe for people to contribute. On the other hand, when I talked with his direct reports, I mainly heard about how autocratic and harsh he could be and how that shut people down. Needless to say, when we read through the feedback report together, he wasn’t happy to read what his direct reports shared but he recognized that he needed to change. When he said that, my response was, “That’s great because you already know what to do. Whatever you’re doing with the customer, do it here.” That was the simplest coaching conversation ever and it worked. He was able to take the strengths of collaboration and creating an open environment that he exhibited with his customer and deploy them with his team. When I did follow-up feedback with his team six months later, the news was focused on a dramatic turnaround in how he showed up with and worked with them. Since then, I’ve worked with so many leaders who, once they understood the strengths they exhibited with one stakeholder group, were able to successfully deploy them with others. What worked for them will likely work for you too.
Dial Them Up: Being a big rock and roll fan, for years now, I’ve said I think about strengths like the dials on an amplifier. You can dial them up or dial them down depending on what you’re trying to accomplish with your performance. The key to doing that is understanding your strengths well enough that you have a handle on your natural set point. For instance, you might have the strength of being a confident communicator and your natural set point on that is around a 6 or 7 on a ten-point dial. There may be times though when you really need to come through with an extra dose of excitement and conviction in your communications so you dial it up to your version of an 8 or 9. It’s still you with your strength of confident communications, it’s just an amped up version of you that you’re deploying based on the need. When that moment has passed, you can return to your typical level of 6 or 7. It all depends on your understanding of two things – your strengths and how to dial them up to the moment.
Dial Them Down: Conversely, there are times when you need to dial your strengths down. Over the years, I’ve seen that as an opportunity for leaders in both tactical and strategic ways. As a tactical example, you may have the strength of being able to quickly identify the next steps for action. While that’s a great strength, you may choose to dial it down when working with your team so that they have space to come up with their own solutions and not rely on you for all the answers. From a strategic viewpoint, the cliché that a strength when overused can become a weakness is a cliché because its true. Especially when I review the summary pages of a Next Level 360-degree feedback survey report, I’m often able to predict what a leader’s development opportunities are just by reading through their highest rated behaviors before I even turn to their lowest rated behaviors. A common pattern is leaders who score really high on behaviors related to driving results often score low on the more relational behaviors like listening and staying open to other points of view. The coaching in those cases usually focuses on helping the leaders identify ways to strategically dial it back a bit on driving results so they have the space and the bandwidth to collaborate with others to create even bigger and better results. They’re still results-oriented leaders; they just end up being better at getting results by dialing it back a bit while they build their relational muscles.
So, the next time you get a comprehensive round of feedback, don’t blow past your strengths. Slow down a bit to consider how you can deploy them, dial them up and dial them down to be an even better leader.
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