Thursday, August 24, 2006

Strengths & weaknesses

Should we focus on our weaknesses and try to improve? Or should we focus on our strengths and make them even stronger?

Which approach is better?

Conventionally people have been more focused on their weaknesses or shortcomings and tried very hard to improve. Strengths - many times we do not know at all. Other times we take them for granted. Sometimes we think strengths are strengths because there is not much to improve on them.

However, the theme appears to be changing regarding how we look at strengths and weaknesses. Now experts are saying it provides only marginal benefit to focus on our weaknesses and spend inordinate amount of resources on improving them. Experts say our resources are better spent in working on our strengths and trying to become one of the best in whatever we are good at.

However, it is big change. Our weaknesses get most of our attention because they stick out like a sore thumb. Experts say as long as you work on your weaknesses to bring them to bare minimum level, that is good enough. Improving anything beyond is first of all takes a lot of resources. Second, you will  be only marginally good.

This phenomenon is easily observable when you prepare for standardized tests. You can improve your scores only to certain extent. After that regardless of the amount of resource you spend, your score hovers around a value and does not change much. Keep in mind this occurs only with standardized tests such as GMAT, GRE etc. I personally have observed this while preparing for GMAT. After 3 months, there was no much difference in the score.

There are server al other reasons to focus on strengths and  become even better at them. It is much easier to get better results at something we are already good at. Benefit-to-cost ratio is also very plosive. Small effort and your strength will improve by many folds.

Some people take this concept to people management also. HR experts advise that as a manager you are better off spending more time with your top performers than your bottom performers. For a small effort you would improve the overall output by many folds by improving the productivity of the team. I think here one has to keep in mind Jack Welch's 10-70-20 rule. Only 10% of your people are really top class. Fundamentally they are even better than you in terms of raw talent. If you do not have any in your team, then your team is really skewed. Smart managers always hire people who are smarter than them. 70% of your people are good performers and bring the maximum value because of their sheer number. These people need clear direction and support and they move mountains with their flawless execution. Bottom 20% are not necessarily poor performers. They are not just able to perform in your organization. They may be far more successful in other organizations.

Take a simple example - One of your salesmen sells 10 widgets and other salesman sells only 4 widgets. If you spend certain amount of time to coach them, first salesman will sell another 4 more widgets. Second salesman will sell another 3 more widgets. With your help, you improved the productivity of first salesman by 40 percent and second salesman by 75 %. So, should you spend more time with the second salesman? No. You should spend more time with first salesman and see if you can help him improve more than 40%. Because even without any improvement in second salesman's improvement, you are now selling 18 widgets versus first 14. With focusing on second salesman, you would only get 17. Most of the times it is more fun to work with high performers whose enthusiasm to get mentored will go a long way in keeping your enthusiasm going. The bottom performer may improve his productivity marginally. To get that probably you spend much more effort and do not enjoy the experience as much.

So, should you always ignore bottom performers? Not at all. Not communicating with your people is the biggest sin  any manager can commit. Selectively isolating people should qualify for capital punishment. There is no pardon for that. You must keep everyone up-to-date with all the information they need. Extra time is what you spend with your top performers. Instead of taking your ire against low performers in all indirect ways, there are several ways you can be fair to them and provide them a exit path. If you were involved in hiring them in the first place, you are more to be blamed. Majority of the personnel mistakes can be avoided with careful hiring.


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