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Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Weaknesses are often strengths misapplied

posted by Joshua on October 16, 2012 in Blog, Education, Leadership
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[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Today I’ll cover one of the most encouraging perspectives for many students and clients whose reports show they underperform in a few areas. For example, this student’s ability to influence appears low (see my earlier post on these charts can help you understand them)

Client with low influence ability

… in both perspectives …

Client with low influence ability

Anybody would say this chart says this person has a weakness influencing others, right?

Maybe not, and it could be a strength. You may imagine you have an outlying weakness too that may actually be a strength. I’ll talk below about diagnosing such problems and the consequences of mis-diagnosing them.

This effect affects high-performing clients

All my clients perform highly. Getting into Columbia Business School means they’ve overcome many challenges and at least one world-class institution considers them excellent. I suspect if you’re reading this blog, you perform well too, so I expect what I write applies to you too if you have what appears as a similar glaring weakness.

Despite their outstanding abilities, most students who see results like this think they have a glaring problem that they need to work hard to fix. Actually, most students react that way to the leftmost or lowest point, no matter what.

Well, sometimes, but often not.

Why not?

Because leadership differs from most other skills in that its measures are fundamentally subjective. These charts tell us little to nothing directly about underlying skills.

One client illustrates how things can work differently than you’d expect. His case may sound unique, but my experience tells me it’s surprisingly representative, especially among high-performers.

An illuminating counter-example to what you’d expect

He scored very low in Perceiving Others — far below any other category. I expected when I met him to find someone who wouldn’t pay attention or showed low empathy. I observed his skills mixed — he paid attention but interrupted a fair amount.

What surprised me most came at one point when I accidentally lost my train of thought. When I asked him where I was, his answer amazed me. He not only told me exactly what I had said, when he said where I was going, he anticipated my direction perfectly. I felt like he had read my mind. He seemed to perceive me better than most, not worse. I asked him about other things I had talked about and he clearly had perceived me well. Why did he get such low ratings?

A few minutes’ discussion revealed the discrepancy: he perceived so well, he interrupted people before they finished. In his mind, he was trying to save people time. Yes, interrupting hurts your leadership skills, but it’s not a problem with perceiving others.

He didn’t lack perception skills. Nor did he devalue communication skills. He did value saving people’s time. But he didn’t realize the effect of interrupting — a common shortcoming. His colleagues and classmates registered being interrupted as poor listening and therefore poor perception.

His strength in one area — perception — appeared as a weakness. Successful people often have great skills that appear as weaknesses but don’t have an outside perspective to see it.

Note also how differing values obfuscates the issue too. No one would call valuing other people’s time a problem. In his mind, that’s what he was doing. It would be difficult for him to see how his thinking he was valuing their time would appear as hurting their perception of his ability to perceive others.

360-degree feedbacks can reveal such issues, but often a coach’s experience and outside perspective will help.

Consequences

The consequences can be significant when you create a strategy for change. If you believe your perception skills are poor when they’re strong, you’ll try to work on something you’re strong in and probably bore yourself with useless exercises.

Have you found yourself working on something people told you you needed to work on, yet found the exercises obvious?

In his case I pointed out an integral part of perceiving others was not just perceiving them, but, since all measures are subjective, communicating to them that you perceived them — like a handshake to confirm they know you got the message. In his case, that meant before responding to others asking questions like “Let me see if I understand you correctly, did you say…” and “I think I know what you mean, but let me make sure…”.

Separately, he didn’t realize he interrupted that much. Stopping interrupting is hard for many people, but at least he knew where to focus. I suggested if he felt utterly compelled to interrupt at least to preface the interruptions with “Sorry to interrupt, but I had to respond to something you just said…” or something like that to acknowledge knowing he was doing something potentially annoying and counterproductive.

Could this effect affect you? Other cases

This effect can occur across different skills. You can imagine how a strength in Decision Making could appear as a weakness in Working in Teams for a leader with poor communication skills but otherwise strong team skills.

There are too many combinations of how strengths can appear as weaknesses, but you may do well, especially if you generally perform well and have great skills, to examine if any of your apparent weaknesses are strengths in other areas filtered through misplaced values.

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