Wednesday, August 27, 2008

One of the best strengths-based selections of the 20th century

Our talents are "recurring patterns of thoughts, feelings and behavior". As such, they describe very much our preferred work-style. Once you are promoted to into a management function, it is very likely that your work-style strongly influences your leadership style. For example, if you have always preferred to work independently, you may tend to give more independency to your employees as well.

In the book “First Break All The Rules”, the authors even suggest to select employees based on how their talents match with your leadership style (p. 101):

“Think about who you are as a manager and who will mesh with your style. Do you prefer short-term goals and expect to check in regularly with each person to monitor incremental progress? If so, you need to surround yourself with direct reports who yearn for structure and detail and regular updates, the thinking talent discipline. Or are you the kind of manager who likes to hand off as much responsibility as possible, who sets long-term goals and then expects employees to orient themselves toward those goals without much help from you? If so, your direct reports will need the thinking talent focus, which we described previously.”

This sounds like good advise, but in real life it may not be so practical. In your career, unless you build up your own company, you are likely to move from one department to another department, from one company to the another, or even from one country to another and you will always encounter new employees with different talents which may not be to your liking. So what do you do? Fire them all, just because they don’t match with your leadership style? Or adapt to them, thereby compromising on how you work and lead best?

This is a really tricky question. For one, it is obviously an ethical one. Can it be right to dismiss someone just because he needs more structure while your working and leadership style craves for independence, delegation and empowerment? It seems to be very unfair, and yet I believe it happens all the time. Only that people won’t talk about a mismatch between talents and leadership style; more likely, you will hear things like "he just does not seem to fit any longer into the team", "she just doesn't seem to get it", "he seems to be unable to deal with the inevitable changes", and so on. I have no scientific evidence, but I would not be surprised if the number one root cause for dismissals was a mismatch between a manager’s leadership style and the employee’s working preferences, and both have a lot to do with talent.

Apart from the ethical concerns, there are also practical concerns. These days, as a manager you are expected to deliver quick results. Thus, there is little time to overhaul your team to make sure that it matches with your leadership style! But if you don’t change them, you will have to adapt. If you are blessed with Individualization or Maximizer, you have a chance to do this well. But otherwise, you will probably soon feel quite uncomfortable. For soon, this kind of mismatch will manifest itself in many unpleasant ways, from misunderstandings, frustrations, to disengaged employees and key people leaving the company.

The conclusion that I draw from this is that the wisest thing to do is to think twice before accepting a new job; and to choose a new assignment based on how well your leadership style matches with your possible new employee’s working preferences and the company’s overall culture and strategy. That may sound a bit like wishful thinking given the competitive rivalry that often exists about getting the next promotion. However, consider this: Emmett Murphy and his associates studied 18’000 managers and 562 large and small organizations in the United States and around the world. In his book “Leadership IQ” he comments on a very important activity of successful leaders, selection (p. 30) along with this most interesting anecdote of when Marshall selected Eisenhower to be the General for the European campaign:

“Hearing that [=Eisenhower’s answer to a probing question of Marshall], Marshall knew he had the right man. Eisenhower, on the other hand, wasn't quite as confident. He did accept the position, but only after more thought and discussion. He carefully and objectively analyzed the leadership needs of the European campaign and finally agreed to consider his own candidacy. With reservations that reflected his strategic humility, he came to agree that Marshall was right:

In spite of his limitations, he could do the job. And, of course, he did the job brilliantly and later went on to serve two terms as President of the United States.

For Marshall and Eisenhower, a well-executed selection process led to one of the best selection decisions of the twentieth century. Each played an active role in the process: Marshall decided that Eisenhower was the right person for the job, and so did Eisenhower.

Marshall and Eisenhower demonstrated the central goal of the selection process: Put the right person in the right place doing the right job at the right time. Selection is a pragmatic and collaborative process. Both the prospective employer and the prospective employee share the responsibility for making a wise decision. It is as unwise to take a job for which you are unsuited as it is to hire someone you know cannot succeed. Too often, people feel that the selection process is one-sided, and that the "more powerful" person is making all the decisions. Our research revealed that people with high Leadership IQ believe exactly the opposite: They see themselves as decision makers in all situations. Like Eisenhower, they are more concerned about making a choice themselves than whether someone else will offer them that choice. When asked to chronicle their growth and development, the exceptional leaders we studied consistently focused on the process of making an active selection as the pivotal event at every stage of their life histories. Even though they acknowledged the occasional relevance of luck, they invariably attributed their successes to their readiness to make choices. Being in the right place at the right time is important, but only for those ready to act on opportunities.

I find this story "beautiful" from a strengths- and Maximizer point of view! And note that Emmett Murphy’s book is not part of the “Gallup/Buckingham strengths canon”.

So how do you choose a new job or assignment based on your talents and strengths? In one of my next posts, I will offer some ideas. But at this point, I would already like to recommend a good book, which -although it does not declare itself to be a "strengths-based" book- uses a lot of strengths-based concepts, such as its "Business Career Interest Inventory" test to discover nothing less than your career related strengths!

Book: "Discovering Your Career in Business", by Timothy Butler and James Waldroop
I found also this article/blog of Rajababu Nivraaj quite interesting.


Anonymous said...

I found your blog through a google search. I am currently reading the book Now, Go Discover Your Strengths. And while this book is radically opening my eyes to my own experiences, it is also causing me to consider these ideas in regards to children/adolescents.
I just wanted to say Hi and I will be looking forward to your blogging journey.

Matthias said...

Hi Michelle

Thanks for your positive words!

It seems to me that the whole idea of strengths psychology has its strongest supporters in the area of child education. You might be interested in the website of the Strengths Movement (see under the Favorite Links in the main page of my blog). There seems to be a good book of Jennifer Fox "Your Childrens' Strength". I haven't read it but I definitely will when I have my own children (which is "work in progress"!)


Matthias said...


I forgot to mention that Gallup has developed a special "StrengthsFinder" for children, the "Clifton Youth Strengths Explorer" for Ages 10-14. You can find it in Amazon at: