It has become vogue in talent management to focus on strengths as a means to developing leadership skills. This is hardly a new idea since Peter Drucker was talking about this over 40 years ago when he wrote in The Effective Executive, that “Unless an executive looks for strength and works at making strength productive, he will only get the impact of what a man cannot do, of his lacks, his weaknesses, his impediments to performance and effectiveness. To staff from what there is not and to focus on weakness is wasteful – a misuse, if not abuse, of the human resource.”  This idea became popular again in 2001 when Gallup introduced the book Now Discover Your Strengths.

The question lingered though, once you have discovered your strengths how do you go about developing them further. Clearly, finding out about ones natural talents and abilities is powerful, but after you have done that, how do you take them to the proverbial “next level.” What do you do? The answer is to build around that strength with complementary skills. Here are four insights that will help you to do this.

1.  You don’t build strength in the same way you fix weakness.Improving weakness is a straightforward activity. Say, for instance, you want to get better at your average capacity to focus on results. That may entail getting clear on outcomes of projects you are working on versus just understanding the process steps. It could include setting goals, beefing up your work ethic, following through on commitments, and seeing assignments through to completion. If you are already strong in your focus on results though, these developmental actions are not likely to do anything more for you. It is probably more of the same of what you are already doing and you need a different approach.

2.  Use interaction effect to your advantage. Leadership abilities cluster around and reinforce one another.  They don’t operate in isolation. That’s, in part, why very effective leaders frequently have a number of complementary skill sets working together to make them great.  In the same way that diet and exercise work together to help you get in shape, leadership characteristics play off each other too. They interact with each other and produce an impact that is greater than the sum of the parts. For example, many leaders who are recognized as talented innovators excel in the areas of building trust and change management. These behaviors don’t necessarily cause the leader to be more creative or pioneering, but they do support what it takes to create a culture where innovation thrives. That helps them to be more inventive and come up with groundbreaking ideas. In the Harvard Business Review article that I coauthored in 2011, “Making Yourself Indispensable,” we found that most leadership characteristics have between 8-12 complementary behaviors that serve as a sort of building block for a given area of strength. By using complementary behaviors to advance your skills, you can dramatically improve your leadership capabilities. And so, you build around your strengths.

3.  Follow your passion. In order to successfully develop your strengths you need to ignite your interests. When I work with senior leaders, one of the questions I always ask is “What are you most interested in improving?” The reason for this, is that when it comes time to integrate their leadership development plan into their work, it better not feel like drudgery or it won’t happen. (Or if it does happen, it will in some perfunctory way.) Done well, this kind of development becomes meshed into the day-to-day work of the leader, so that it changes the overall texture of their leadership effectiveness. Not just something they do at 4:45 on Friday afternoon to check the box on some plan they aren’t truly committed to. This only happens when you are excited about what you are working on. Think about it, when was the last time you gave 100% effort to something you truly didn’t feel like doing?

4.  You won’t overdo it. I’ve heard people say that our greatest strength can also be our greatest weakness, but I don’t agree. How could strength of character, or being incredibly inspiring and motivating to others be a weakness of a leader? My guess is that when people say this, what they are observing is a lack of complementary skills. Like a leader who is great with building relationships, but becomes one-dimensional and relies exclusively on those relationships to produce results. It’s not enough to get the job done. I suspect that what you are really seeing, is not that they are “too good” at developing relationships, but that they lack a results focus or a strategic orientation. Add those skills and the leader balances out their strength. Like adding diet to exercise, it increases the likelihood of success.

There are of course times when we need to work on weaknesses, particularly if a deficiency is getting in the way of reasonable performance. My experience has been, however, that most of the time, leaders thrive when they develop their strengths. And the best way to do that is to build around them.

Edinger Consulting