By Lilian Abrams, Ph.D., MBA, PCC
One of the hardest things for any of us to see clearly are our own strengths and development areas. Yet it’s vital, especially for leaders, to know their own strengths. These are likely the foundation for how they got to where they are, and what keeps them there, both for their own success and that of their organizations.
Of course, development areas are also important, so that leaders know the new behaviors they need to display to keep growing and achieving. However, it’s a leader’s strengths that are often under-utilized as a powerful tool for greater impact.
Gaining accurate, objective knowledge of both is an important reason why executive coaches like myself typically collect key stakeholder feedback for the executives we coach. In conducting interviews with key stakeholders, I work hard to obtain as long a list as possible of all of my clients’ strengths, from the people who matter most to them at work. The good news is, I usually find that the importance and momentum of their strengths far outweigh any minor reverse-drag provided by their development areas.
You might think my clients are glad about this – right?
Well, funnily enough, not always. Time and again, when I give their feedback to my high-achieving clients, they brush right by the list of their positives to zero in, tightly and narrowly, on their stakeholders’ suggestions for their development. Often, I need to stop them, haul them back to the initial and foundational Strengths area that is listed first, and do my best to force them to look, really look and absorb, the list of their strengths.
Why? Katie, a recent coaching client, offered me a possible explanation for this phenomenon.
For Katie, I did an end-of-coaching-engagement re-survey of her key stakeholders. The purpose was to help her assess her gains from coaching. With my support, Katie had worked hard throughout our coaching engagement to unearth and reprogram her old ways of thinking and acting, and to try out new ones. She did this so successfully that she was about to be promoted to the partnership level at her firm. And her coaching re-survey’s scores reflected these gains: Her average was 4.5 out of 5 (5 being high.) This meant that most of her stakeholders saw strong improvements in her most important areas for development as a leader.
Was Katie pleased at the evident recognition this represented, for all her hard work? Not exactly.
Rather than absorbing the good news of the many 4’s and 5’s she had received and being pleased at the apparently visible evidence of her progress as a leader, Katie instead searched the entire report for her lowest (sole) score of a 3 rating… and that’s all she wanted to talk about. Katie explained it to me this way: “I expect the ‘A’s’! It’s the ‘B’s’ and lower grades that I worry about.” On the one hand, Katie felt this belief had helped drive her to keep on working hard and achieving career success. However, once we discussed it, she also saw that it has blocked her from truly noticing, owning, using and effectively building on those same successes.
Happily, many leaders do start to own and build on their strengths through coaching. Just yesterday, a client I’ll call Maria had a flash of insight that will likely prove critical to her continuing growth as a senior executive. One of Maria’s focus areas for coaching has been to develop herself and her division into a “leader of choice” in her firm, including building her personal brand as an effective, engaging leader of others. What is important to know is that early in Maria’s career, she succeeded against the odds in a different industry – the hard-driving world of investment banking. As evidence of this, out of her entire entry-level cohort of 150 trainees, Maria was one of only nine analysts who, three years later, were offered the coveted next-level promotion – and its annual $350K salary, at the age of 26. Instead, however, Maria quit and took a job at a more family-friendly firm in a different industry, where she has steadily risen to a senior level over the past decade.
During our coaching meeting yesterday, Maria suddenly realized that her intense early work training had been getting in the way of her using natural strengths in relationship-building with clients and colleagues. Using both her initial assessment feedback and recent incidents at work, Maria suddenly saw that she had been suppressing her innate caring and warmth in her second career, because those qualities had been completely de-valued at the first firm for whom she had worked. Her relief and joy at realizing that she already had what she needed to succeed further, exactly where she already was, was both exciting and inspiring for Maria and for me as her executive coach.
Would you like to discover, own, and better utilize your own strengths as a leader? Contact Lilian for a consultation.