Friday 6 February 2009

Play to your strengths

How the Moscow City Ballet reminded me that bringing out the strengths in yourself and others is a great deal more productive than moaning about weaknesses.

The week finished as it started, with a visit to the ballet. Moscow City Ballet danced their ballet slippers off in Sleeping Beauty last night. It was enchanting. The corps de ballet were in delightful harmony. The costumes were lovely. The applause was rapturous, loud and long.

Watching Moscow City Ballet twice in one week has made me think that Performance Management isn’t only about measures. Performance Management is as much about Management as it is about Measures – you need both. Measuring something that is not up to standard tells you only that - that it isn’t up to standard. It doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do about it (although analytics can sometimes give you a start).

While the heavenly Valeria Guseva and her Prince Sergiy Zolotaryov could steal any show, the performance isn’t only about the stars; it’s about the whole production. Moscow City Ballet played to their strengths and brought out all that is great about Russian ballet. Yes, it was traditional, but also had some lovely humorous touches. No, it wasn’t technically daring, but it was well done and all the better for it. And just for the record – Talgat Kazhabayev as the Bluebird was all that a male dancer should be – and more. Oh, those Russians!

In business, we tend not to like weaknesses. Yet we all have them, and we all have our strengths too. The counter argument of bringing strengths to the fore I think works much better. Yet often that isn’t what we do. The good stuff we just pass off as “it’s his job” but the poor stuff we complain about.

Getting an appreciation of your own strengths, and those of your colleagues or team, isn’t always easy. Unless we are looking out for strengths we can name, they often go unnoticed in the general noise of day to day work. But something special happens when you do identify strengths.

Finding that “Mary is particularly good at negotiations”, for example, opens up opportunities. Mary is flattered to be thought to have expertise in this area, and works even harder on it. She is keen not to fluff up a negotiation and so prepares better and works more diligently. As others see her expertise they ask her advice, or let her coach them in negotiations, both the benefit of Mary and the rookie negotiators.

How much better is the above scenario than making an example of Hubert who always seems to get it wrong? Bemoaning his lack of expertise, and the time and money wasted through his inept attempts, which may or may not be fixed through training. My guess is that Hubert’s problems with the subtleties of negotiation are because his strengths are of a logical nature. His abilities at maths or complex problem solving might be of huge help to Mary if more were made of them.

The difference is only a matter of perspective – looking for, and using, the strengths and qualities in people’s abilities. Our strengths are often deep seated. Whilst education and training undoubtedly play a part in making us more rounded players, our natural abilities will always be where we will shine. Applying education and training in the areas of our strengths can be magical. Yet, so often we do the opposite – apply training to our areas of weakness. Although it’s a little counter-intuitive, working on strengths can build better performance.

As teams large and small are asked to deliver more with less, tension can rise and tempers fray. Finding a few experts on your team and encouraging them could unleash hidden potential.

Try it – ask people who know you what they think you do best, and what you do less well. Listen with an open mind and write down all the comments (or get them to write them down in their own words). Then watch yourself at work and see what you agree with, and what you disagree with. Over a couple of months keep revisiting the comments and look for evidence of what you are doing well, and where you are weak. Then work on your strengths and measure the difference. Figure out how to use your strengths to make a quantifiable difference in you business. Is the applause more rapturous, loader and longer?

We all need moonbeams sprinkled on our work from time to time. Find some opportunities to be your own Lilac Fairy and bring a Sleeping Beauty or two alive with your own particular expertise.

As for me – I’m now asking myself whether practicing my pas de chat and pirouettes is really the best use of my time ...


  1. Agree very important that concentrate on strengths rather than weaknesses. From a coaching perspective it is regarded as better to fix on goals or aspirations, then look at the barriers, rather than to start from a point of need or deficiency that re-enforces low self image.

    However, while the traditional view has always been that being positive about people's performance is crucial, I think it must not be mindlessly so. Important to pay attention and give feedback on what is actually happening. After all, going back to the classic Hawthorne experiment, it was not praise that made the production line work harder, but simply attention.

  2. Chris - I love your point about the positive aspects of coaching. There is a whole displine out there about the benefits of positivity.

    From a Performance Management point of view, however, it does have to be linked to measures. Without measures we cannot gauge how successful or otherwise any action is. It's one of the things I like about the Balanced Scorecard - financial measures are included as a way to see how successful the work in the other three quadrants is.

    Thanks for your feedback - it's appreciated.

  3. Caroline

    Read with interest how the conversations have moved and evolved and becoming more

    I am very much a fan of having a positive perspective, some may challenge that I know,however we are all fallible, but it is a personal goal (sorry I no true measures rather a feeling and qualitative 360 deg feedback).

    Totally endorse importance of developing strengths , it works, it also involves helping people direct their capabilities to meeting objectives and seeing how their efforts make a difference to the business.

    The Dalai Lama's book "The art of happiness" takes the idea that having a positive perspective not only helps others it helps us.


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