“Tell me about your strengths and development needs” is the second most frequently asked question in interviews. “Tell me about yourself” is easily the number one question interviewers ask when they have not read the candidate’s resume in advance.
Truth be told – I have also asked both the questions to candidates. Idea: Wouldn’t it be nice if candidates would also ask the same question to the interviewer?
I have noticed that people are usually a lot more articulate when they reel off a list of strengths. When they pause to catch their breath, I grab the opportunity to remind candidates that they also have to think of what they would consider to be their developmental gap.
That can really change the mood of the conversation. The candidate looks like the prodigy’s mother who is being asked during the school’s parent-teacher meeting what the genius could do better. Many job sites advise candidates to answer that question by saying, “I work too hard.” That brings the interview to a grand closure because it makes the employer whip out the offer letter, make a swift correction to double the salary they had originally put earmarked and coax the candidate to join the firm.
Wait. There may be a piece of helpful insight tucked away in that exchange. According to Robert Kaplan and Robert Kaiser, the authors of Fear Your Strengths your greatest strengths could indeed be the biggest barrier you need to overcome. This is so counter-intuitive, isn’t it? We have always been told that we need to leverage our strengths to achieve our goals.
Strengths are like salt. Food tastes bland without it. Put too much of salt and the food becomes inedible. The book goes on to build a compelling case for people to look at their strengths and see if they overuse them. Take for example an overused strength for most leaders – the ability to speak spontaneously and convincingly at short notice. This gets noticed early in their career and they are frequently given the chance to present their ideas before others. At a point of time, this becomes a derailer. The leader only speaks and forgets to listen. Like a muscle that has atrophied because of low usage, the leaders often lose the ability to ask people for their point of view. They act as if there is nothing to be gained from hearing others.
Leaders struggle to dial down their strengths. The risk is two-fold: The strength is too strong and the opposite tendency is too weak. Leaders have conflicting demands built into their role. Being strategic has to be balanced by being operational as well. The French describe this as the ability to be a “poet and a peasant” at the same time. To execute the task, leaders need to be balance their forcefulness with their ability to enable and nurture. Put these two dimensions together and you have a neat framework to think of your leadership style.
Want to find out what strengths you overuse? Try this http://fearyourstrengthstest.com/
The leaders need to balance opposing forces. The ability to set direction has to be balanced by deep execution skills. Organizational cultures tend to favor one of the abilities to the exclusion of the other. I met the HR Head of a Fortune 500 company who had said that in her organization, being labeled as “strategic” was not a positive label to describe a leader. In another company, when an executive was to be denied the opportunity to take on a larger role, he or she would be labeled as being “too operationally focused and not enough of a blue-sky thinker.” A leader needs to think of game changing ideas to win in the marketplace. They also need to be detailed enough to execute the idea. It is rare to see leaders balance both.
The authors believe that we first need to change our mindset about the opposing dimension. As long as strategic thinking is looked at as “fluff”, it is hard to develop that skill. When a leader tells people, “I am an ideas guy. I cannot do the boring stuff of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s”, they are really talking about how they disrespect the work of the majority of the organization.
Change begins in the inner world. So start by examining your mindset about what you wish to develop.
I recommend the book. In 94 pages they describe a very powerful idea. It is easy reading and it is impactful. As I was reading the book it was clear to me I had to work on making sure my strength did not become my derailer. And that maybe, in the interview I should pay more attention to what a candidate describes as strengths. Those will be the ones to watch out for.