Thursday, February 22, 2007

"Spirit and Mind" -> Play To Your Strengths

From an old Fast Company article:

Ask any CEO, "What's your company's most precious asset?" Without hesitation, the answer will be, "Our people." Ask the same CEO, "What's the primary source of your competitive advantage?" Chances are, the reply will be, "Our unique culture."

This kind of talk drives Marcus Buckingham nuts... "You won't find a CEO who doesn't talk about a 'powerful culture' as a source of competitive advantage. At the same time, you'd be hard-pressed to find a CEO who has much of a clue about the strength of that culture. The corporate world is appallingly bad at capitalizing on the strengths of its people."

I have been at four Fortune 1000 companies, and the above statement is so correct that it is almost scary. At every company that I have been at, regardless if we were doing well or poor, the CEO would talk about the unique culture, yet this was not why the company was doing well or doing poor. Indeed, the main reason why a company does well or poor is do to the expertise or the lack of expertise that a company has.

I am amazed as how deliberate practice echoes through the hallways of success. Deliberate practice is important because you want experts.

My latest reflection of deliberate practice concerns Marcus Buckingham, formerly of the Gallup organization. Marcus Buckingham has written several books that have been business best sellers. Today, at work, one of our women got the purchasing group to agree to purchase a web cast of him talking about his latest "discoveries."

I certainly think that Buckingham overstates a few things, and on the webcast, he takes credit for a lot of stuff that isn't his, but a the main thought of his writing is 100% correct. Basically, he has an idea that he stole from Donald O. Clifton. Clifton, in turn, stole his work from others. The problem with Clifton and Buckingham is that they almost completely, and I mean almost completely, miss the point of why working to your strengths is so critical for company success. They have a bit of the flavor, but they don't have the recipe.

Let me explain.

When you think of Gallup, you might think of the Gallup poll. However, the bulk of Gallup's work is helping businesses figure out employee effectiveness. Gallup was actually purchased a number of years ago by SRI, the company founded by Clifton.

Clifton's whole message is simple: Work a bit more on your strengths and worry a bit less about your weaknesses.

When Clifton did research on effective teams, he found out that the best teams are playing to their strengths 80% of the time. The least effective teams were playing to their strengths 10% of their time. The answer for Clifton and Buckingham is to get people to identify their strengths and everything is going to be okay. They have established a correlation between highly effective people and people that get to use their strengths.

So, why isn't this obviously used in corporate America?

When you work in corporate America, often the phrase that is used is "well rounded." We want employees that can do everything. Therefore, when we come to employee evaluations, we focus on those areas that they don't do well. We ask them to become all around players.

This, of course, will lead to certain disaster, as any coach will tell you.

For example: Let's say that you are managing a baseball team, and you need a pitcher, and you will need a catcher. You bring in two people, one who is a catcher and one who is a pitcher, and you ask them to both pitch and catch. You have them play two positions for a while.

So come the practice days, you are asking the pitcher to catch for a while, then we turn around and ask the catcher to pitch for a while. When the pitcher does a lousy catching, we then point out that "he needs to work on his catching skills."

To the catcher, we'll say he doesn't know how to pitch, and if he could just work on that fastball, he'd be a lot better.

Neither one of our employees are going to do very well trying to play two different positions, and when you finally play a team that specializes in different positions, they are going to kill you.

The word "specialization" is the key that I don't see Clifton or Buckingham using enough. See the issue is that you want the absolute best specialists that you can find. You want people that are clear experts in their field. So, how does a company create specialists? And why are specialists and experts so valuable to high tech?

This brings us back to deliberate practice. In the age of knowledge work, you want experts running your business. For example, the business that I am in creates a technological product that is replicated, in some cases, over 100 million times. If you have the right initial design, the product is great. If you have the wrong initial design, the product is horrible.

Therefore, you want the experts working on this design. What is the best way of getting an expert? You allow somebody to spend lots and lots of time becoming an expert in a particular field.

How do you get people to spend lots and lots of time in a field? If somebody likes a subject, they will be willing to spend a lot of time on something. If they spend enough time on something, they will become very, very good at that thing. They will become an expert.

However, let's say that we ask our people to work on stuff they really don't like. Then they don't dream and think about it. They simply do a job. They never become experts, and you are stuck with a poor performing team.

The last thing that any business needs is "the general player." Indeed, they want the players that absolutely are compulsively good at one thing. While your competition is swirling around "trying to come up with people that see the big picture," you want to launch your group of trained commandos that don't care at all about the big picture. All they care about is doing their own job, really, really well.

Now, do you need a few people that see the big picture? Sure, but just don't try and make an army of them. You can carefully pull out a few people and cross train them. Just don't expect them to be an expert in all the different areas. They can't be. They don't have enough time.

So, Buckingham has an example, which I think he blotched a bit, so I'm going to tell the same example, only with the right flavor.

Let's say that you have a child that brings home a report card. In the report card, he has an A in Reading, B in Mathematics, and F in Writing. Now, what are you going to do? Chances are that you'll only focus on the F in writing. However, this is the wrong thing to do. First you should focus on why this child got an A in Reading. What is it that allowed the child to do so well?

If you child answers, "well, I really had a good teacher. He only gave 1 A, and I got it." You might start to thinking about what allowed the child to be successful. Perhaps, you need to find a better teacher for the subject where he got an F. If you ask why the F on writing, and he says that he hated the teacher, you now have a clear cause and effect.

If the child simply dislikes writing, and loves reading, you should probably think about how to get the child to a C in the writing, but then start to think about "how do I get my child to an A+ in reading. Don't obsess on fixing the lowest spot. Get the low spot to a place where it will be "okay," and then focus on how to get the leadership position even higher.

*The secret in success in life is focus.

*The secret in success is finding out what you like so you'll put in a bunch of time on it.

*The secret in life is making this area of focus into a strength.

*Once you have a strength, push the living daylights out of it to become an expert.

You are probably weak in an area because you don't like that area. If you don't like an area, you aren't going to focus on it. If you don't focus on it, you will never become better.

So, focus on your strengths.

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