March 14th, 2012 | 1:00 pm

Which of Your Strengths is Holding You Back?

filed under Ask A Career Coach

Contributed by CEO Coach Henna Inam

You’re an achiever. You can put in long hours without burning out. You have a great ability to get started on new tasks and take on new challenges. You set new goals and levels of productivity for your group or work team. This has made you successful throughout your career. Keep doing what you’re doing because it’s all good, right? Wrong. Our achievement drive applied in the wrong situations can cause us to be blind to the needs of others and drive our teams to exhaustion. Many of the strengths we have can also be sources of derailers in our career. Does this mean we abandon our strengths? How do we truly leverage our strengths AND prevent them from becoming derailers?

The following are three leadership practices that can help.

1. Fully Understand Your Strengths. I am a big fan of Strengthsfinder 2.0 and recommend it to all of my executive coaching clients. The first step to success in our careers is to fully own and understand our strengths and to look for opportunities to exercise these strengths in our work situations. Research indicates that our success comes from fully developing our strengths rather than focusing on our weak points. So take a moment to:

a.) Discover your strengths. You can take Strengthsfinder 2.0 or use performance reviews and other 360 feedback tools to discover your strengths.
b.) Look for situations in work and life where you can bring these strengths to drive success.
c.) Proactively plan your career toward those kinds of roles where your strengths will help you stand out.
d.) Proactively think about how you can further develop these strength areas.

2. Understand The Derailer Potential in Each of Your Strengths. As we get comfortable using our strengths we start to believe that the strength is applicable in every situation and rely unconsciously on applying this strength to whatever situation presents itself. For example, one of my strengths is “Activator.” I have a great bias for taking action in any situation, which is great …in situations which require action, and not so great in situations where action by me is not required.

For example, in order to create a space for others to lead and take action, I have to now consciously step back and hold off from taking action myself. This requires much greater awareness of each leadership situation I face. It requires stepping back to see what the desired outcome is and determining what my role is in the outcome. It requires leadership to be a conscious act. This is especially true in leadership transitions when we face new roles or projects and they call for us to consciously adjust how we apply our strengths.

Another potential derailer of us unconsciously applying our strengths is that we can expect others to have the same strength-related behaviors or standards as us and we devalue them when they don’t. For example, my “Activator” strength comes with a high sense of urgency in taking action and often I find myself expecting others to have that same sense of urgency.

So take a moment now to:

a.) Understand the derailer potential in each of your strengths.
b.) Think about situations you are currently facing where this strength does not need to be practiced, and if practiced can be a derailer.
c.) Think about situations where if you practice your strength unconsciously you don’t leave space for others to grow and develop in that area.
d.) Practice being aware in the moment when a leadership action is required and take a step back to determine the right action.
e.) Think about what expectations you place on others to have similar behaviors as you and think about the unique strengths they bring that are different than yours and how they might be complementary in a team environment. What are their potential derailers and how can you help coach them to greater awareness?

3. Reframe the Context of Your Strengths. As human beings we have tremendous potential to grow and develop. Neuroscience research shows that human brains remain elastic and we are constantly developing new brain pathways and synapses as we learn new behaviors. So take some time to understand what would be the opposite of a strength you have and start practicing it where it would be applicable. It will make you a more well-rounded leader with a much greater set of tools and behaviors in your tool kit to apply to a given situation. Know that I am not advocating that we ignore or disregard our strengths (see Step #1). I am advocating that we take the time to reframe the context within which we apply our strengths.

For example, I have a client who has a high personal standard of excellence. This is what got her promoted to leading teams. She now has high standards for the work product of her team. This is a great strength until it causes her to not delegate even the small decisions to her team and start to micro-manage them. It also prevents the team from growing by learning from their mistakes and takes away any accountability the team feels as everything is double-checked. Practicing the opposite in this instance would mean that she practices giving up the tight controls, she practices allowing people to fail in certain circumstances so they can learn and accept accountability. In reframing the context of her strengths, she can continue to exercise her strength of high standards of excellence by now applying it to how she learns to coach and develop people.

Take a moment to:

a.) Discover the opposite of a strength you have. For example for “Activator” the opposite strength could be “Do Nothing” (I just made this up as a strength, and I encourage you to make yours up too).
b.) Think of situations where the opposite would be a great behavior or strength to have in your toolkit. Look for situations that call for you to practice this strength so it too can be part of your toolkit.
c.) Reframe a current strength in how you apply it, particularly in leadership transitions or taking on a new role.
d.) Continue to practice being conscious of what strength is required in each situation versus applying your strengths unconsciously.

I wish you great luck in trying these leadership practices and would welcome your comments or connecting with you regarding how you can fully leverage your strengths and avoid the derailers.

Henna Inam is a CEO Coach focused helping women become transformational leaders. A Wharton MBA, and former C-Suite executive with Novartis and P&G, her passion is to engage, empower, and energize women leaders to transform themselves and their businesses. Sign up for her blog at www.transformleaders.tv.

1 comment

  1. Tanvi

    Really enjoyed reading the article. The power of context can not be over emphasized. A strength in one culture can also be seen as weakness in another. So someone from an ‘action’ oriented culture would not be appreciated in a ‘wait and watch’ culture.
    Thanks again for sharing !

    Tanvi
    @G_peopletree