One of your most promising leaders will be dropping by your office in a few minutes for a development chat. In front of you are the most recent leadership 360 and performance reports. They include high and low scores, strengths and weaknesses.
So where will you focus?
Glance over to your bookshelf for guidance. There is your collection on strengths-based development: Tom Rath’s Strenghfinders and Marcus Buckingham’s Now Develop Your Strengths. You can almost hear these authors urging you to skip the negative news and help the leader build assets.
Yet there on your bookshelf is another collection of wisdom. Dave Dotlich’s Why CEOs Fail and Lominger’s For Your Information are telling you to dismiss the happy-talk about strengths and dig into the gaps and low scores. Besides, your experience is that the negative comments and low marks are where people naturally dwell.
I experienced this debate live while pitching a proposed global executive development program to my CEO a few years ago. He was buying just about everything – leaders teach leaders, cross-business groups for collaboration, business application topics, 360 feedback. But he stopped me as I was describing the new, ‘build your strengths’ based approach.
“Won’t people miss the messaging on what they are doing wrong and need to improve?” he asked. “Well,” I responded, “if we totally focus our efforts on getting below average leadership scores to average, we might end up with only average leaders.” That seems to end the debate for the moment and the program was launched with the CEO’s endorsement.
Now a days, I’ve come to appreciate a more nuanced approach. So my advice to coaching a leader through a feedback report or designing a system-wide development effort would have three parts.
First, Face The Reality Of Leadership Gaps That Matter
Obsessing with slightly below average behavioral ratings may not be productive, but ignoring strong signals of career derailment is dangerous. In prepping for a coaching session, I first look through feedback reports to uncover any indicators of significant gaps. High on my list while mining derailment clues:
- Lack of trust and questionable integrity
- Inability to consistently deliver on commitment and results
- Gaps in leading change through organizational savvy and influence
- Failure to build a strong team and motivate others for high performance
- Missing the right balance of executional excellence and strategic thinking
With one or more of these factors present, the game plan is to help the leader understand and accept the potential derailment indicators, generate genuine energy to improve and then structure the outline of a practical plan. Building on strengths can wait.
Second, Lean Into Strengths
Recent research has helped shape my rule of thumb that in a typical population of leaders, only one in four should be focused on addressing major gaps and potential derailment factors. That leaves three out of four coaching session to move beyond low scores. In The Extraordinary Leader Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman remind me:
“Great leaders are not defined by an absence of weakness but the possession of a few profound strengths.”
This insight is backed up by the authors with some impressive research in the latest addition to my bookshelf, How to Be Exceptional.
High on my list of big payoff strengths:
- Operational excellence and constantly driving for results
- Amazing ability to inspire and motivate
- Uncommon ability to provide strategic perspective
So if the time is right to steer a leader into strength building, the discussion is a blend of identifying a positive leadership capability where there is passion for expansion plus a relevant fit with current job and organizational needs. Great strength-based development plans happen when all three elements line up.
Third, Flex For Versatility
Over time, I’ve come to add another dimension to leadership development which bridges the strength vs. weakness chasm. Aside from shoring up significant gaps and investing in strengths, winning leadership today requires the ability to draw upon a broader range of skills and adapt to changing circumstances. In a world of constant change and transitions, leaders need to ensure they are adding to their leadership toolkit to meet the unexpected challenges ahead not just limiting themselves to two or three key capabilities.
So your expected visitor is now at your door, eager to hear the good news or the bad news. My advice would be to provide coaching on the three parts of development news: first check for derailment, then move on to building profound strengths yet keep stretching for versatility.
© Kevin D. Wilde