Your Strengths May be Killing Your Career

By Tom Davidson

It’s true that we all have natural abilities that are important factors in our career success. Some of us are naturals at sales and negotiation, while others are terrific at data analysis. Some managers are detail-oriented planners, while others are gifted at seeing the “big picture.” 

However, the emphasis on strengths in popular management literature for the last decade has done a disservice to a generation of young managers who are predisposed to thinking of themselves as “gifted and talented.” The pendulum has swung from too little emphasis on strengths to too much, and it’s time that everyday leaders start striking a better balance.

Strengths Theory Revisited
Our strengths are generally considered to be a combination of born-in talent, skills acquisition, and practice. It takes all three to develop a potential strength into an actual one.

For example, I might want to be a project manager, but no amount of skills development and practice will make this a strength of mine without in-born talent for details and organization. Similarly, I might have outstanding creative abilities, but unless I acquire skills and practice them over time, my ideas are likely to remain idiosyncratic, odd ideas without traction.

The late Donald O. Clifton, who founded strengths theory and co-authored Now Discover Your Strengths, told a famous story about the 1984 Chinese Table Tennis Team. The team’s coach focused players on developing their strengths, which would help each one dominate their competition in a unique way. However, their best player had a major weakness; he couldn’t hit a backhand. But as strengths theory prescribes, his forehand was so strong he never needed a backhand shot!

The Weakness with Strengths
Theory is one thing, but practical application is something else, especially for leaders. As individual contributors, we can leverage our strengths to the maximum, but once we become leaders of others, we must also develop our weaknesses.

New supervisors and experienced managers simply can’t rely on their “forehands” (i.e., their strengths) and be sufficiently well rounded for the job. Once you become a first line manager, it will be nice to know your strengths. But if you focus on them without sufficiently developing your weaknesses, you’ll plateau in your leadership career far sooner than you should have and wonder why your strengths weren’t as impressive to senior executives as they were to your parents.

To get over your strengths and start developing your weaknesses properly, flip your focus by doing the following:

  1. Get out of your comfort zone. When people are too focused on their strengths, they tend to stay close to their expertise. After all, it’s easier, more fun, and less risky. But to develop your weaknesses, you have to stretch your less-used muscles, even though it may be uncomfortable.
  2. Become fascinated by feedback. Ask for performance reviews at least twice as often as your organization requires them. Seek out 360-degree feedback at every opportunity. Look for the patterns. Take them to heart, and get to work on your “backhand” too.
  3. Develop your support team. Even the greatest sports champions and chief executives have coaches to help them improve. You can too. Find a mentor or network of mentors you can speak with informally to find out what they know and how they learned it, or hire a certified coach to help you think, learn, and adapt.

Whatever you do, don’t get seduced into thinking that your strengths will carry you through your leadership career. Unless you’re already the CEO or a permanent individual contributor, you’ll have to develop your weaknesses or you’ll find the weakness in your strengths.

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