Managing Strengths and not Standards

I hate job descriptions. What we need instead, are strength descriptions.

Here’s what I mean, using my own story as an example.

One way I’ll surprise people, is with my honest self-assessment in regard to customer service; I’m strong as a customer service trainer, particularly in Ho‘okipa (the value of generous hospitality), but I’m not skilled in serving customers myself. I can teach those skills, and even coach people in using them, far, far better than I can do them myself. Yet I was able to forge a very successful career in the ‘Hawai‘i hospitality business’ where the expectation is that “first and foremost: we serve customers.”

That’s not to say I have a different philosophy personally, or that I’m being hypocritical or duplicitous in any other way. I knew the actual delivery of good customer service was a personal weakness for me, so I compensated for that, by working in other areas of service where my strengths were actively in play.

Translucent Strength

My strengths were in working with employees, peers, and other managers, and not in serving customers. The personal service I excel with as Mea Ho‘okipa, a customer service provider, is given to others in contextual relationships specific to co-working — to internal customers rather than external ones. I will never, ever be a sales person, unless I’m ‘selling’ someone on the fit of a good job for them within my Ho‘ohana coaching.

My story is not an unusual one. In his book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham tells us about Christine, a trainer in southern California:

“Like each of us, Christine has a number of distinct strengths. One of them is that she is invigorated by training trainers to be better. She loves nearly every aspect of the teaching process. She loves seeing the satisfaction a trainer feels when his students excel and the growth in his own confidence as he becomes more comfortable with his material. She has a third eye for fine distinctions, for the subtleties in how a trainer presents information and why those nuances make a big difference in turning students’ confusion into understanding.”

“Interestingly, she’s not particularly adept at doing what she’s training her trainers to do. Sit her down in a room with five senior trainers who want to dive into the details of program design, and she excels. But increase those numbers to twenty-five, turn the trainers into students, and tell Christine to hold their attention for a full day’s training, and she’s mediocre.”

“She’s not invariably a great teacher, yet she’s a great teacher of teachers. It may seem a bit strange, but most of us, when you look closely, have a combination of strengths and weaknesses that is not entirely predictable.”

“Strange or not, the challenge for Christine and her manager, is to figure out how to exploit this great strength for the benefit of the company. They have a lot to talk about.”

Those are the kinds of conversations we don’t have often enough in the workplace. One problem is the on-going challenge of making time for them — it’s the problem we try to solve in part, with the Daily Five Minutes, converting found opportunities into more productive ones.

However there’s a deeper problem in play; and that’s the expectation of managers. It’s an expectation which puts blinders on us. We’ll often expect employees to conform to standardized expectations (i.e. Job Descriptions) instead of personalized ones — the Ho‘ohana work which suits their spirit, innate talents, and strengths.

The expectation of conformity is as foolish as watering a seed and expecting it to bloom into an animal or piece of machinery.

Red Stems

We fail to have conversations about what people are strong at, and about the proficiencies they’ll truly shine at when we figure out how to stage them, because we spend way too much time talking about OUR standards for their performance instead. We work at fitting employees into our molds for them, and into our preconceived views of what the world of work should look like — even when we’ve begun to realize how dysfunctional that picture has become.

I was far happier, and far more productive for my employer, when my manager didn’t force me into the customer service roles I wasn’t suited for, whether to pay my dues, prove to the rest of the team that I could do it, or some other misguided reason. It wasn’t that I didn’t like customers, or felt that the work was below me. I wasn’t intimidated by it, and didn’t need to learn more. It just didn’t motivate me or reward me as much as other work did. I could go through the motions, choosing the all the right motions, but calling upon deeper passions with them was like trying to squeeze water from a sponge that is completely dry.

Customers could tell too. They never had a complaint about my customer service, but I didn’t routinely knock their socks off with it either. Not good enough for them, and not good enough for me.

However here is where I was extremely lucky: My bosses were not stubborn and unreasonable. When I showed them what I could do, doing it better, and in a way that filled another need of the business, they turned me loose and let me go for it.

And this is an important point: They did not have to create a new gig for me. All they had to do was not hold me back, and support me in figuring it out for myself, so I could find my own answers.

Peeling Petals

So, Mr. and Ms. Manager, what are the expectations you honestly have of your own staff? How can you honor their strengths, and share your savvy with workplace design by compensating for their weaknesses in smarter, and more respectful ways?

Here’s more from the story in Buckingham’s book: As he explains, Christine actually IS director of program development at a training company. Her job is to design the training programs, and then, once they have been sold to a company, to deliver them:

“They have a lot to talk about. Together, Christine and her manager have to figure out how to design a train-the-trainer product based on her strengths, how to market it, price it, and select a specific group of clients on which to focus it. They have to decide what kinds of materials are necessary and whether Christine is the right person to create them. They have to decide the optimal number of trainees Christine is capable of working with and how frequently she should check back in with them to assess their competence.”

“These are the kind of details that will determine just how productive Christine’s strengths are at work. Given how critical her performance is to the entire company, she and her manager should be talking about them all the time.”

You have heard my story, and Christine’s. Now think of someone you are managing. What are the strengths they bring to the job, and what are the specific details your conversations can address? What are their needs, in having you coach and support them?

Do this assessment for each and every one of the direct reports you have, and do it consistently. Don’t you dare give them a performance appraisal on the wrong expectations.

These are not difficult questions. Managers know the answers in the context of their workplace. The bigger question is if they are focused on them, and on the right expectations to begin with.

~ Some Archive Aloha which might help ~
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