NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When someone wants to bolster his leadership skills, often he will focus on his weaknesses as the best way to improve. But this kind of improvement plan is flawed, according to best-selling author Marcus Buckingham, who was keynote speaker for the opening general session of the SHRM 2014 Talent Management Conference on April 28.
“The greatest potential for areas of development for every one of us is our strengths,” Buckingham said. “We all have weaknesses to work around, but we really need to learn how to leverage our strengths to win.”
One of the biggest mistakes business leaders can make is limiting their employees and holding them back. Buckingham said that often employees feel that their bosses actually shrink their potential instead of allowing them to grow.
“What does that tell you about a business when you hear an employee say: ‘You shrink me.’” Buckingham said. “We must understand what people do best and give them an opportunity to do it.”
He gave an example of a student’s report card: when the report card has two or three As, a B and an F, most parents will automatically focus on the F.
“They will ask what went wrong and how can we fix this?” Buckingham said. “When actually, they could be missing the best opportunity to improve their child’s learning by focusing on the As.”
The better method, he said, is to look at the grades and understand how the student learns, and then use those learning strengths to keeping building on and improving academic performance.
“What the grades can show us is how a student has a certain way with engaging with the world,” Buckingham said. “We should help students and our employees learn how to do that better.”
Employers often will point out when and where an employee failed and then focus on how to change or improve those problem areas.
“Feedback is fraught with peril, and feedback is often seen as a threat,” Buckingham said. “Most people just don’t like feedback.”
The best approach for leaders, instead, is to find out how they can help members of their team do their work and meet their goals. According to Buckingham, the best team leaders perform what he called “frequent strength-based check-ins.” Frequent means at least once a week and depending on the work, daily check-ins can be helpful.
“This is coaching about near-term future work,” Buckingham said. “The best leaders who get the best performance out of their teams ask questions like: What are you working on? What do you need? How can I help to make sure you can do your job?”
The best leaders also know that they can continue to improve and build upon their strengths to become better at their jobs.
“All of us are in a state of becoming; we are constantly learning and growing in our understanding of the world and ourselves,” Buckingham said. “No one ever announces one day, ‘OK, I’m done. I am fully actualized; I can’t learn any more or make myself any better.’ Instead, we are always growing and improving and the best way to do that is to build on your strengths.”
John Foley, a retired lead pilot for the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels, gave the afternoon keynote address. He said the best performing teams are ones that are constantly learning and striving to do better.
“The Blue Angels never have had a perfect flight performance, and it’s probably impossible to reach perfection, but that’s our goal because we know can always do better,” Foley said.
Foley referred to Buckingham’s presentation several times, saying he agreed that the key to success for top-performing teams was to recognize strengths and then use these strengths to make the team better.
“People at our core essence—we are the same and we want the same thing,” Foley said. “So, we can use that to understand one another and help us reach our goals. By working together like this we all can achieve great things.”
Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.
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