Lead with your weaknesses, not with your strengths. I learned that lesson many years ago in my first executive position but to this day must still remind myself of skills and disciplines to sharpen as well as new ones to acquire.
My first awareness came from my use of a daily to do list. Whether there were five items or twelve, my temptation (and tendency) was to work on the tasks that I could do well or enjoy most, often at the expense of the ones that were of higher priority. Eventually, I figured out why. Because I had some awareness of the skills I lacked, I also knew that taking on tasks that required those skills would lead to false starts, wasted time and of course…frustration. Even worse, I hadn’t yet gained the maturity to ask for help.
Personal examples: I thought of myself as a whiz with a profit and loss statement but was a rank amateur with a balance sheet, an equally important performance indicator to our lenders; I had pretty good instincts for marketing and promotion but lacked confidence when calling on customers; I was responsible to hold others accountable but avoided conflict and, I was very comfortable speaking with small groups but intimidated when asked to address large ones. Through coaches, role models, my own study and practice, many of these weaknesses can now be scored as strengths though replaced by new ones; speaking to large groups remains a challenge.
And from my experience with the enterprises I have served:
To build market share a manufacturing CEO offered his customers the option to shift from make-to-order to 45-day stocking quantities with extended payments. He hoped to catch his competition off guard—and he did. It worked! Existing customers locked in and new customers readily signed up. Strength: Marketing:He nailed it! Weakness: The company ate through its line of credit in a little over 90 days and was cash strapped for six months after that. The CEO never had developed a fundamental understanding of cash flow and even worse, discounted the caution signs others had raised.
Strength: A four-office specialty medical practice had established itself as the premier provider in a five-county metro area. Weakness: The backroom functions…billing, insurance claims, personnel functions and even bookkeeping had not kept up with growth. The founding MD had performed some of those functions when the practice first started but changes in regulations and administrative technology left him unable to help. Aware of his weakness, unlike the CEO above, the MD invested the time to understand the administrative upgrades required and then pioneered the concept of a practice manager to help him implement them.
Strength: A company built a national reputation for manufacturing specialized machinery to customer specifications. Determined to diversify, its CEO invested in new technologies seemingly related to the core business. One such investment was in software to improve in-line precision measuring of component parts made on numerically controlled machines. Millions spent, software launched at a national show and a flop! Turns out it wasn’t compatible with the operating system used in most of these machines and no one had bothered to ask. Weakness: Not knowing your market; it’s seldom the same as knowing your customers one at a time!
Having others in our organizations whose specialized skills complement ours is not enough. As executives we have an obligation to continuously enhance our skills and acquire new ones. If we fail to recognize our weaknesses, or even worse, ignore them, we inevitably will pay a price. Expression amended, lesson learned; Lead with your weaknesses as well as your strengths!