Beyond Strengths and Weaknesses

Recently, I spoke with a client who was struggling with his business development activity.  Nate (as usual, the name and identifying details have been changed to protect his privacy) had experienced great success in converting acquaintances who heard him talk about the kind of matters he handles into clients, and he decided that if speaking casually to small groups works well, speaking formally to large groups would deliver even better results.

As it turns out, though Nate is a spellbinding speaker in small, informal groups, something happens when he steps onto a stage.  Nate transforms from an assured, confident, knowledgeable lawyer who can chat at length about his clients’ legal issues and possible solutions into a stiff academician who says “therefore” and “whereof” entirely too much.  He becomes (I hate to say it, but I’ve seen it firsthand) dull.  When he speaks to large groups, nothing good comes of it.  The audience gets restless, and no one calls Nate for help afterward.

This isn’t news to Nate.  I gently broached the subject after I saw him speak, and before I got very far, he beat me to the punch – sort of: “I know, I know, I was a terrible speaker last time.  But I’ve figured it out, and the crowd next week is a new group of people, and this time, I’m going to impress them!”  Nate recognizes that speaking to large groups is not his strength, and yet he continues to use that approach, thinking each time that he’ll finally nail the presentation.

The problem is that we tend to talk about strengths and weaknesses as if a weakness is just an undeveloped strength.  Not so.  Sometimes, a weakness is an inability, pure and simple, that can be corrected only by bringing in assistance from another resource.  Here’s what I explained to Nate (with thanks to Don Blohowiak, a coaching colleague who shared this useful framework):

Potential refers to your native capabilities than can be (but have not yet been) developed.

Strengths refer to the capabilities that you execute competently to masterfully.

Limitations refer to the capabilities that you have in short supply.  Some limitations can be developed, and others will require replacement from another source.

Absences refer to the capabilities that you simply don’t have.  There is no shame in lacking capabilities.  No one has all of the capabilities possible.  Instead, the task is to find someone whose capabilities are complementary to your absences.  (If, for instance, you are leading a client service team and complex accounting is an important part of the matter, if you lack masterful accounting skills, you must find someone who can bring that competency to the team.)

Weaknesses refer to the capabilities that you pretend to have but cannot actually execute.

Using this model, Nate’s speaking to a large audience is a weakness (as he recognized) but because he pretended that he could correct it, the weakness could not be eliminated.  Nate was failing at business development because he was leading from a weakness and pretending it was a strength.

Review your business development plan, your professional development plan, your career strategy plan – any plan at all that reflects your goals – and ask these questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How are my strengths reflected in my plan?
  • How can I develop my potential so I can deploy those capabilities in my plan?
  • What weaknesses am I denying?
  • Do my priorities coincide with my strengths?

If, like Nate, you lead from weakness, you will produce only frustration.  Spend some time in honest self-reflection and look for opportunities to shift what you’re doing based on your natural and developed capabilities.  And, if (like Nate) you find that you’ve been pretending that you are developing your weaknesses, stop pretending.  Shift your approach.

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