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April 1, 2007 - Forbes.com

Your 2012 Leadership Secret: Be A Better Self-Diagnostician

Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles

This article is by Nathan Bennett, the Wahlen Professor of Management at Georgia Tech, and Stephen A. Miles, vice chairman at Heidrick & Struggles. The two are authors of the recent Stanford University Press title Your Career Game.

Ten years ago Marcus Buckingham published a book titled Now, Discover Your Strengths. In it, he presented what was to many a counterintuitive approach to personal development. The idea is simple: The return on investment from sharpening an existing personal asset is easy to recognize and may in fact be significant. In contrast, time spent remedying a weakness might simply be throwing good money after bad. There may be a good and somewhat inevitable reason for your weaknesses. The book remains a bestseller. In the decade since its publication it has helped to shift our focus from concentrating on improving weaknesses to improving what are already strengths.

Buckingham’s approach may have changed the way many people think about their own development, but it hasn’t yet changed the way many companies design and conduct performance reviews. Those tend still to disproportionately focus on identifying weaknesses. There is no reason to believe building on strengths won’t help. That said, we aren’t convinced there is evidence that building strengths brings a result superior to that produced by remedying weaknesses. Either raising your floor or lifting your ceiling improves you.

There is a different way of thinking about personal effectiveness that we’d like you to consider as you plan for 2012. It’s an approach we are confident will yield better results than focusing inward on your strengths or your weaknesses. Our experience with executives across their careers leads us to believe that something each of us can do to improve our results, in and out of the workplace, is concentrate on improving our ability to diagnose situations so as to better understand which of our strengths can be relied on—and which weaknesses may increase risk. It’s our contention that your strengths and weaknesses don’t matter nearly as much as your ability to recognize what a situation will demand of them—and your ability to display or disguise strengths and weaknesses accordingly.

Below we offer some examples of new challenges we’ve seen leaders face, and we describe how they show that the ability to find and properly characterize situational cues was the key to success. We use these examples to make the point that you can’t blindly rely on what has worked in the past. That backward-looking focus will lead you to think too generically about both your strengths and your weaknesses. The better strategy is to first be a great diagnostician.

Learning to Lead in a Matrix Structure

An example of a failure to adapt to a new situation occurred when a top- performing executive was recruited away from a company organized in traditional business units to one that had a matrix structure. He had been remarkably effective in his previous role, but he quickly slipped and failed in the new one.

What happened? Leading in a matrix organization is a different challenge. In the traditional business unit structure, this executive had clear responsibility for profits and losses, and everything he needed to hit his numbers was under his command and control. Add to that a capable, experienced team, and you can easily see that an aggressive, hard charging style could deliver outstanding business results. In a matrix, executives don’t “own” everything they need to get the work done. Therefore they must demonstrate more nuance and patience. They must invest time in developing trusting relationships with others across the matrix. They may need to think a few steps ahead to anticipate who will be affected by key decisions and should be brought into the process early. This executive relied too heavily on the behaviors that had brought success in his last job. His failure to understand and adapt to the different demands of leading in a matrix created considerable friction with other leaders and angst among employees, and ultimately caused this previously high-flying executive with a Midas touch to be dismissed from the company.

Managing the Big Promotion

A fast-growing technology company was looking for a new chief marketing officer. It instructed a search firm to go find someone big at one of the really large, established technology companies. The recruiter found just such a top performer. Everyone loved the candidate. An offer was quickly extended and accepted.

At the large company, the executive had been responsible for brand and advertising. In the new job she assumed the much broader responsibilities of CMO. Her new employer likely assumed that great results in a narrower job would translate into quick progress in a much broader role. The halo quickly wore off. The CMO was unable to hit the ground running at the smaller company. There were two reasons she derailed, one rather obvious and the other less so. The obvious reason was that the new job simply required too much learning. It’s likely the company would have been better off hiring someone who already had experienced the full range of CMO responsibilities at a smaller company and scaled them up in the new role (this is a common mistake made when recruiting). The less obvious reason was that the team she inherited was much less experienced than she had grown accustomed to in the large company. Also, the work demands in a rapidly growing company are different from those faced in a more mature one, and much more quick to change. She didn’t realize how much time she needed to learn her new areas of responsibility while also spending time explaining strategies, developing skills, and coaching performance with her team. They weren’t ready to simply execute. Neither she nor the leadership team she joined was able to recognize how her previous experience wouldn’t translate directly in to future success. And she was unable to make the proper assessment of her team and her inherited situation—and to then adjust her leadership style.

Understanding the Lasting Effects of Your Predecessor’s Style

We have seen many new leaders derail because they failed to sufficiently understand how their predecessors’ leadership styles had shaped the teams they inherited. Team members become accustomed to a style of leadership. When a new leader too quickly changes how things are done, the team’s performance can suffer. New leaders can’t afford to create additional challenges—yet that is precisely what happens when they fail to understand how to carefully shift a team from the predecessor’s style to what they prefer.

For example, imagine a leader who manages relationships with subordinates as a basically disconnected set of one-on-one relationships—as a hub and spokes. This approach allows the leader to control information flow. The leader likely keeps cards close to the vest and most decisions are probably made with little involvement from subordinates. The problem is that when that style is ingrained over a long period, the team becomes used to being told what to do. The team likely is quite good at getting things done once the direction has been set. Under this leader, subordinates likely haven’t developed very trusting relationships with one another and may, in fact, be rather uncertain about one another.

Now imagine that a new leader, one who prefers a more participative approach, is assigned to the group. If he’s unable to understand how his predecessor’s style created work norms and individual habits that pushed against a participatory approach, then he may be at risk of derailing. Should he move too quickly to a more distributed communication network, his team members may take some time to adjust. If the predecessor kept cards close and the successor wants to distribute responsibility and increase transparency, he needs to understand how difficult it may be for the team members to come along.

Leading in a Foreign Land

One of the greatest development opportunities for leaders is an assignment to a different part of the world. It provides a great example of the difference between: (a) building on strengths—for example, your acumen regarding the company, its products or services; (b) remedying weaknesses—for example, language skills; and (c) diagnosing situations. Time and time again, we see that the executives who succeed in expatriate assignments are those who immerse themselves in trying to learn all they can about their new environment. Executives who underperform are those who expect their surroundings to adjust to them.

Success in an expatriate position requires an executive to become a student of the culture and the business environment. National cultures vary greatly in how people respond to power and accept hierarchy, for example. Command and control leadership works much better in some countries than in others. The degree to which people are likely to be forthcoming in communication differs as well. Leaders have to understand these situational demands on their style. Without an appreciation of context you can’t know which strengths are worth strengthening and which weaknesses require quick support.

As an example, we observed an executive as he undertook a new assignment in Santiago, Chile. His first move was to enroll in an accelerated Spanish class. He sought out fellow executives who had spent their entire careers in Chile and quizzed them about its business culture and norms. He also spent time understanding his predecessor’s leadership style and approach. His investment in understanding the context has paid a solid return. He has been very successful in his first year.

Your Work for 2012

Challenges like these—and like those you will encounter in 2012—are not insurmountable. Success won’t be about you or your strengths or your weaknesses. Success will demand that you function as a great diagnostician. Success will be about how well you understand the way your team’s strengths and weaknesses matter; it will be about how well you understand how particular business situations create unique demands on a leader. Our advice is for you to make becoming a better diagnostician a resolution for 2012.

What makes a great diagnostician? Great diagnosticians:

Ask lots of questions and work to carefully integrate the answers.

Remain agnostic about a situation for as long as necessary to develop a more objective understanding of the people and forces involves.

Spend time as observers.

Know and are sensitive to the relevant history.

Are willing to experiment before going “all in” with a solution.

Each of these five characteristics is something each of us can improve at by making a deliberate effort. Successful people often have little incentive to change. They are encouraged to simply build on their strengths. We hope you’ll consider making becoming a great diagnostician a part of that effort.