News & Insight
May 2004

When Strengths Become Weaknesses

I once counseled an executive who was very bright, very well educated and very successful. Only in his mid-30s, he had risen rapidly through a major business organization only to reach a plateau. In talking to some of his peers and subordinates, I discovered that this executive had developed a reputation for arrogance. He thought that he was smarter than other people and dismissed the importance of developing and nurturing relationships.

Another executive I know overdid his analytical skills to the point where he had a difficult time making decisions. Because he was so cautious, he insisted on gathering more information than was truly necessary. As a result, his obsession with the need to amass and analyze data detracted from his performance, and adversely affected his advancement.

In a third case, a woman whom many members of corporate management had identified as a “high potential” candidate derailed her career to a degree because she was reluctant to make difficult personnel decisions. Known as a “people person,” she was a natural leader with the kind of personal charisma that caused others to want to work for her. But when she had to confront a subordinate over an issue of performance, she just could not bring herself to do it. As a result, the performance of her team suffered.

While the facts of these three cases appear quite different, they all have one thing in common: the executives involved, consciously or subconsciously, turned strengths into weaknesses.

When you open the business pages of newspapers today, the headlines are filled with similar examples of well-known executives whose intelligence or management style led to their downfall. Frequently, a contributing factor is the insularity that comes with the job. As many observers have noted before, as people ascend in organizations, they become further removed from their roots. Intelligence becomes arrogance. Analysis leads to paralysis. And the need to be liked translates into avoidance of interpersonal conflict.

Sometimes even the factors responsible for the success of an entire organization can be an Achilles Heel. An executive I know recently interviewed for a senior position at an established company in the Midwest. The people he met there said to him, “We’ve been around for 85 years and we’ve been very successful …we have no plans to change.” He accepted the job, but quit after three months. They didn’t want to listen to any of his ideas.

So how can you prevent strengths from turning into weaknesses? One way is to seek the truth, however painful it might be at first. Another executive I know, who prided himself in doing a good job, was shocked to learn that people around him felt he couldn’t be trusted. That perception came from his habit of taking on too many projects, and not delegating enough of them to his staff. In an effort to ensure quality, he created the impression that he didn’t trust others enough to share tasks with them. It’s amazing what a little feedback can do.

Talk to colleagues and subordinates, or ask a professional advisor to talk to them for you. One reason 360-degree interviews are so popular in executive development programs is that their shield of anonymity invites people to open up. Some executives have gone so far as to form a “personal board of advisors” -- consisting of two or three close colleagues and friends -- from whom they solicit candid feedback on a regular basis. Psychological assessments, when integrated into hiring and developmental programs, can take the process a step further.

In the end, preventing strengths from becoming weaknesses is all about self awareness -- being honest with yourself, listening to others, and taking their comments to heart in an open and constructive manner.

Max Lorenz, based in St. Louis, is a member of WJM Associates' executive assessment and coaching faculty.

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