Feature article

A Recipe For Success

How can individuals and organisations play to their strengths?
Team Capital talk to former Royal Mail Managing Director, Ken Wright about successful personal development and the importance of organisational design

Picture the scene: the manager’s office door opens and in walks the star player. The manager says to him,  “Sit down, Wayne and let’s talk about your development. You’re a fantastic striker but I’ve noticed you’re still not so great in goal. If you really want to become a fully rounded footballer, you’re going to have to improve your goal-keeping skills. That’s why I think you should go on a goalies’ course”.

Ridiculous? But isn’t this precisely the approach that most line managers accept without debate or enquiry? For some reason the assumption is that personal development is 90% about identifying and correcting weaknesses. Perversely, the belief is that to be successful – especially in larger organisations – up and coming managers need to arrange their personal development around diagnosis and correction of weaknesses.

In a sporting situation that would be nonsense. Of course sports coaches address weaknesses in performance. Raising both awareness and responsibility are the twin barrels of any coaching regime. But smart coaches ruthlessly shine the spotlight on strengths and invest 90% of their effort – not on weaknesses – but how those strengths can be turned to account to achieve the right results.

The business context isn’t fundamentally any different. Successful business leaders instinctively play to the strengths of the people around them. They relentlessly strive to unlock the real potential of their team members by focusing the organisational effort around strengths. Better to put someone in the position where his or her strengths can shine and contribute to the full. Certainly more rewarding than getting bogged down with an unproductive and negative cycle of trying to teach strikers to become mediocre goalkeepers!

Perhaps it’s because we have mistakenly assumed that success is fundamentally the opposite of failure. We somehow imagine that studying failure and reversing it will produce success! Experience shows it does not. Rather it is so much better – and much more productive – to study success and then emulate it!

Good managers know that people generally do three things at work: the things they're good at, the things they like doing, and the things their boss checks on! Given this, why do so many business leaders persist in designing organisations and roles by the thinking that goes something like this? First define the purpose and objectives of the organisation. Second, break down the tasks and functions required to deliver these objectives and group them into job descriptions. Third recruit people to match these theoretical job descriptions.

But what actually happens is that, once recruited, people unconsciously bring their own unique strengths, preferences and experience to bear. In reality, once in harness, appointees shape the job to their own preferences and abilities – either wittingly or unwittingly. At best, the job description is quietly re-written to suit the new reality; at worst it just gathers dust!

So here’s the radical alternative: why not overtly place the focus on strengths in both personal development and in job design? In other words, the organisational effort should be concentrated around strengths – both in the development of teams and individuals and in the alignment of job roles and responsibilities to business objectives.

In fact why not start with yourself? Discover what your fundamental strengths are. These will describe the way you are wired. Use your own insight but also seek honest views from peers, team members and line managers. Feedback is after all ‘the breakfast of champions’! Mapping your strengths against your current role will give clear pointers about whether the role is right for you and crucially what criteria you should use to evaluate your next move.

Designing organisations around people may sound like heresy in the face of the currently received Human Resources wisdom. But anyone who has managed volunteers will know that, in most circumstances, releasing people to unlock their full potential and fully achieve the goals of the organisation are best delivered by building jobs around people and their strengths – not the opposite.

Maybe business leaders could learn from some of that experience and wisdom!

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