Some coaches will tell you to spend just enough time practicing your strengths to remain sharp. The majority of your time, they say, should be spent turning weaknesses into strengths. However, there is another coaching approach: always play to your strengths. For these coaches, the effort to convert weaknesses into strengths will always be a waste of time and effort because you will never make a weakness into a true strength. For these coaches, training is always focused on enhancing and maintaining strengths so you can always play to your strengths.
Ping Pong in China
The Chinese have won the Olympic gold medal in Ping Pong more than any other nation. At the 1984 Olympic Games, after winning another gold medal, the team’s coach was asked, “Tell me about your team’s daily training regimen.” He replied, “We practice eight hours a day perfecting our strengths. Here is our philosophy: If you develop your strengths to the maximum, the strength becomes so great it overwhelms the weakness. Our winning player, you see, plays only his forehand. Even though he cannot play backhand – and his competition knows he cannot play backhand – his forehand is so invincible that it cannot be beaten.” This coaching philosophy is expressed in leadership theory as the “strengths-based leadership theory.”
Strengths-based leadership is a philosophy of corporate leadership that seeks to improve the company’s success by developing the organization’s strengths. The key to this proven philosophy is that people have a significantly higher ability to further improve on their strengths versus fixing their weaknesses. This makes sense, right?
The philosophy makes sense to most business leaders and entrepreneurs, yet most of them do the opposite: they focus on improving their weaknesses, the company’s weaknesses, and the weaknesses of their employees. Ultimately, this causes frustration and low performance. Instead, the focus should be upon constantly improving your strengths. With this approach (as the Chinese ping pong coach noted), your strengths become “so invincible that you cannot be beaten.”
How do you do this in your organization? Here are four principles for implementation.
- List your organization’s strengths. A “strength” is defined as the ability to exhibit near-perfect performance consistently in a given activity. Make a list of all of the strengths of everyone in your organization and of the organization as a whole.
- Rank your organization’s most important strengths. Review your list of strengths to determine which of the strengths are core to the success of your organization. For example, identify the strengths that enable you to produce a better product or service for your customers. This is critical for your organization because it can give you sustainable competitive advantage. Once you identify your key strengths, rank them in order of importance.
- Invest in further developing your employees’ strengths. Invest time, energy, and money (via training, education, etc.) in further developing your employees’ top-ranked strengths to make them even better. These strengths will help your organization dominate the competition. Remember, just having a strength is not sufficient. Consider professional athletes. They all have great strengths. Yet the world’s best professional athletes are the ones that constantly practice and improve upon their strengths.
- Outsource your weaknesses. Every company must perform many tasks that are outside their key strengths in order to operate. For example, a company that makes outstanding wines also needs to do other things, such as answering incoming phone calls, shipping the wines (to distributors, retailers and customers), creating and maintaining a website, etc.). If the company’s wines are superior, then other functions are far less important and do not require competitive advantage of the company.
The wine-making company (and others like it) should outsource the non-core tasks and functions to others with the needed skills. For example, they might outsource their website to a web design and management firm and outsource distribution to a trucking company. The company might also consider hiring people with these strengths. Another alternative for this company might be to hire an operations manager to hire and supervise the work of outside contractors (or service providers). Engaging others with strengths in the areas needed allows the company’s employees to focus on creating the best wines.
Great leaders do not create companies that are great at everything. Instead, they identify their key organizational strengths and further develop the most important ones. Why? Because when you always play to your strengths, you develop lasting competitive advantage.