Playing to Strengths = Death by Cape

blog Feb 21, 2016

I don't get this whole strengths-based leadership thing.  It smells funny. If you're a baby boomer, I bet it smells funny to you too. Were we completely wrong about "if you don't succeed try, try again"? I guess that's so last century since now we're all just going to win by doing what we're already good at, resulting in better, faster successes with fewer tries. This strengths-based thing is so compelling...reduces stress, reduces the need to train, reduces errors of all kinds, seems intuitive...Can we back up a minute? Remember when your mother told you "if it looks too good to be true, it probably is"? Here's why mom thinks this new trend may be a wolf in sheep's clothing for individuals and for companies...

5 Downsides of Playing to Strengths:

#1. It limits vision - If doing things we're not naturally good at is off the table, who will dream of going to the moon?

#2. Makes us stupid - Neuroscience tells us we actually get smarter by working on new skills. If we don't push our limits we won't be as smart as we could be with a little more effort. 

#3. Makes us brittle - Stretching can be painful, but once you break out a new move, or learn a new skill, you've expanded your range and can go farther, with less effort next time. Doesn't playing to strengths run counter to cross-training and up-skilling? How will our next generation of leaders understand the company big picture if they never have to walk a mile in another department's shoes?

Example: How can you expect engineers in R&D to be transparent with early designs if they've never owned delivery or quality?

#4. Limits the talent pool - Isn't it hard enough to find talent? Now add "we're only looking for someone who has already mastered the role". Plus, great people don't want to just do what they're already good at. They want to learn new things. Top performers want to be tested. A culture where we revel in hitting the "EASY" button is not a talent magnate.

#5. Breeds mediocracy - The comfort zone is always a long way from the end zone.

Granted there are times when hiring or positioning work for an existent strength is exactly the right thing to do. When time is short, when a hard-to-find skill is needed or for some repeatable work where the worker is not expected nor desires to move to a leadership position, playing to strengths makes sense. 

For people and companies who want to win and expect to pivot and innovate, playing to strengths is at best one tool in the box. As a cultural philosophy, it's a wolf in a store-bought super hero cape.

Barbara Shannon is a CEO coach and advisor to mid-market businesses. Her CEO peer groups, TheCEOBoard and ATHENA - The Peer Group for Exceptional Women Solopreneurs, provide high-performance direction, coaching and networking to a select collective of exceptional Bay Area business leaders. Barbara is a seeker of CEO clients who pair a holistic view of business, community, and family with a persistent drive for personal and professional growth.
If you're curious about Barbara's CEO groups or would like to inquire regarding elite private client service, please email [email protected]
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