I was intrigued to read this article, as I'm always on the lookout for ways to build on strengths but also to understand and mitigate weaknesses. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing - strengths can become overwhelming if applied incorrectly or overdone. By developing complementary skills, you can work towards balancing strengths in ways that enable you and your teams to be highly effective and keep people engaged and performing.
It's that time of year - looking back at close of this year and looking ahead to the next one. And the attendant work of making goals and resolutions. I do this every year, but I take some time to get it right for me - I start thinking about it now, but usually end up with a final list for myself near the end of the month. This gives me time to consider what worked previously, what didn't work, what my current priorities are, and where and what I'd like to be in the future (not necessarily in this year, but eventually).
Imagine you have to lift something heavy – a box of books or small kitchen appliances. You crouch down, get a good grip, maybe make a small partial lift to get a sense of the weight (wow, heavier than you thought). Then you stand up with the box (lifting with your legs and not your back, of course). Ta-da! You adjust your feet a bit, and get used to the balance (the box is a bit heavier on one side, and the contents move around a bit), and try to get comfortable. After a few minutes you put the box down.
If that box was your project, you might say, "All done. Next!". But if that box was your team or your organization, success is more than just picking it up once. You have to be able to stand with it for a long time - for as long as it's your responsibility. You have to keep holding it when someone comes along and rummages around it in, looking for their copy of War and Peace or that attachment to the blender that they need for crushed ice. You have to keep it level and stable when another person (or project or team) balances a glass of water or vase of flowers on top (they should come back and get it eventually, but until then...). And at some point, you have to pass that box to someone else, ideally without putting down.
You have to hold it up for a good long while, adapt to change, take on new things, and pass it on when your time is through. Success means sustaining.
Sustainability is defined as, “the ability to maintain or support an activity or process over the long term.” It’s more local than environmental sustainability (although definitely related), and less about the bottom line than business sustainability. Team sustainability is about building a environment of successful people working interdependently in a valid, empowered and proactive way to keep the team working well regardless of who’s holding the box.
I came to this topic through work with my coach, and exploring a new-to-me approach called The Bigger Game®. A very quick review of it and I was asked to pick the element that seemed the most immediately relevant to me. Bingo – sustainability: having a lasting impact.
As I look ahead in my own career, sustainability is part of my big game. For me, this means working to make myself unnecessary – creating a team and organizational environment that is empowered and challenged, and can sustain and validate itself through the interdependent work of the teams and leaders of the present and future. In other business lingo, this is part of succession planning and that’s a bit true for me (still a few years left yet, but never too early to start planning). More immediately I’m working to ensure that we challenge and grow in our teams for the near to medium term, so the great things we're already doing can continue as part of our processes and culture, and keep enabling great things to happen.
In an innovative research department, a leading-edge technology environment, sustainability is sometimes seen as incompatible with success; to succeed, pushing the envelope is essential. Sustainability is also essential in an environment where risks are a part of the game. If you can control and manage some things like organizational structure, administrative processes, and clarity of vision, you give the team or organization a stable basis from which to push out towards that next discovery or idea. We can reduce the risk and enable greater opportunities by keeping in place the things that are already working well. This has to be more than just one person or one leader. It has to be about a sustainable environment of committed, empowered, talented and experienced people, working so well together may not even notice how well they're doing. Making the difficult look easy.
This is hard when what you’re making and sustaining is systems and processes. The legacy is ineffable. (As I said to my coach, “it’s not like I’m building pyramids.”) But the legacy can still be critical and memorable. And unlike a pyramid or other monument, organizational legacy is about the people and not the person. After all, monuments are not always sustainable.
A sustainable team and organization gives us a safe place to land, when reaching for the stars doesn’t work out. It holds the ladder steady when someone needs to stand on the top step. And it is ready to help or take over holding the box, with ease, grace and minimal fuss.
As I’ve written about previously, there is no shortage of self-assessment tools on wide internet sea. Most work the same way – a series of multiple choice questions that you are to select from quickly, with the results then tabulated and calculated in some secret way to reveal to you…your spirit animal, the colour of your soul, your drag queen name. Most of these quizzes are brief and intended for fun, and very few I’m sure are peer-reviewed or have any basis in science or psychology.
I’m an inveterate quiz-taker, I confess. I’ve also participated in more serious and significant assessments – tests rather than quizzes, with some actual science behind them. Myers-Briggs (ISFJ), Herrmann Whole Brain (1-1-1-1), Birds of a Feather (Dove), Insights Discovery (Supporter-Helper with hints of Creativity and Coordination), Focus Project Management (earth green), and Birkman (hard to explain, but consistent with the others). In 25 years of working and test taking, my basic self is pretty much the same – I like planning, taking care of colleagues, and getting stuff done.
So, it’s no surprise that, when my coach gave me a book that was one big test, I was keen. I waited till I had time to read and do it well (on vacation). Part of our work together last year included building on strengths, and so the book was about that: StandOut by Marcus Buckingham, author of previous works on identifying and building on strengths (appropriately called “StrengthsFinder”). The book itself is not riveting – the writing style would best be described as “motivational” – but the learning experience for me was also just that: motivational.
After reading through the background and overview, with the standard, “there are no wrong answers” and "just be yourself", I went online, entered my code, took the test (yes, more multiple choice questions), and then waited for my report to arrive by email.
The results are in: my primary strength is Equalizer. Level-headed, honest, decisive, consistent. Driven by, “what is the right thing to do?”. Helping others, seeking fair solutions, bringing structure and security to the team and work and home. Sounds about right.
My secondary strength is Connector. Wait, what? I read through the nine Strength Roles, and didn’t connect with Connector. What I read initially sounded much like a salesperson, an advanced networker, a mover-and-shaker - more taker than giver. I knew people like that, and it was not a skill I admired or a strength I wanted to build. So I flipped through the other ones, and decided on one I liked better. I decided my secondary strength was Advisor.
And this is part of the danger of testing in general – what I’ll call Strengths Envy. It happens when we take an online test, when we get told that our spirit animal is a goat instead of a tiger, or that our soul is beige instead of bright green. The online tests protect us a bit from that by hiding the alternatives – you only get to see what you are, not what you aren’t. Want to be a different animal? Take the test again (complete with all its advertising and cookies and spam). With StandOut, you get to read about all nine strengths roles, and can covet what you are not, or at least a strength you feel more comfortable or confident in.
However, one should put their faith in the science and psychology. Mr. Buckingham and his colleagues put a great deal of science into their test and their results, so it’s somewhat hubristic of me to say that they got me wrong. And there’s little point in doing the testing and the learning if you’re not going to, well, learn.
The idea behind focusing on strengths is not just to avoid focusing on weaknesses (or “growing edges” as they’re more positively called). Weaknesses are areas for improvement that involve more significant work and change and learning, or sometimes just more control. Strengths are not areas you need or want to change, but because they are things you’re already good at, you can make them a bit better with just a little effort and attention. And it makes sense – people who are already really good at something (singing, writing, cooking, teaching) stay good at it through practice and continuous development.
So I revisited Connector, and after some considering (and some considerate coaching) recognized that it is a strength, just not a obvious one which is likely why it is not my primary strength. As a Connector, I recognize opportunities in relationships: opportunities to learn, to enhance, and to connect – to bring people together to make stuff better and get stuff done. Once I started paying attention to my relationships, I saw that I did bring people together in ways they may not have recognized as possible themselves. And by recognizing it, I could then consciously maintain and build that strength, without slipping into the slick salesman shtick I found so unappealing in my first impression of Connector.
I also thought about the people I knew who I felt exemplified the best elements of Equalizer and Connector, and connected with them. For as much as I recognized in others the things I didn’t want to be (which is the first step in development), I also saw strengths in others that I wanted to emulate. I’m working through that list now, talking with others about ways in which they can and do make those strengths their own and picking up new ways to strengthen my strengths.
The book itself? As I said, it’s not going to win literature prizes any time soon. But, for the insights and development opportunities that came from it, I would recommend it, recognizing that, like any development tool, it delivers as many questions as it does answers. And it doesn’t do the work – you do.
In my role, I have the opportunity to work with some amazing individuals on so many different fronts and levels. Over the last few years, I’ve been a mentor to some great people looking to learn and grow as professionals. Some are making a career transition, others are “new to the game”, and a few are just looking to learn a few new tips and tricks.
I confess I never really thought about mentoring – as a mentor or a mentee – until a few years ago when I was asked to be a mentor to someone. It was a rather formal professional invitation, part of a professional development program. I agreed to be matched with someone, and duly awaited my mentee’s introduction.
At this point in my career, I hadn’t formed a good impression of the process of mentorship. A few years earlier, someone who I didn’t know very well (and didn’t especially admire) offered, without invitation, to mentor me. We were assigned to work together on a strategic planning exercise, and in one of our first meetings they outlined to me the great benefits of this opportunity for me to learn from them. Mm-hmm.
It didn’t work especially well. Not because I don’t think I need to learn from others - far from it, I learn from others every single day. I didn’t work because it wasn’t invited. The proffered mentorship created a strange and largely unworkable relationship, mostly due uninvited nature of it (why would I want to learn how to be more like someone I didn’t want to emulate?) but also because of their misinterpretation of mentorship (a.k.a. mentee as acolyte or servant). Needless to say, we’re not connected on LinkedIn.
So when it was my chance to be a mentor to someone, I definitely did not want to be “that” person. Being a mentor is a privilege - to be acknowledged as someone with the experience and skill that someone might want to learn from and emulate, makes one both proud and humble at once. It’s also a responsibility – how you do it can influence a person and their career, so you better do it well.
My three main priorities when mentoring:
To me, the most effective mentorship occurs when both mentor and mentee choose to work together. Much like most effective relationships in any setting, both parties have to be in it together, and to see some individual and mutual benefit.
An interesting wrinkle in the relationship occurs when the mentor is also the supervisor. It’s important for the mentor to maintain clearly when they are putting on their supervisor hat, such as when the conversations become about performance, discipline or company policy. But as a supervisor, providing mentorship opportunities should be part of the required activities. Those who work for you are also your responsibility – being accessible and providing staff with an engaging should be standard procedure. A bit like common sense, though – actually, pretty uncommon.
Although the supervisor-as-mentor relationship lacks one of the key elements – choice – it is still an effective environment for mentorship, as long as it’s something that both supervisor and employee want. Not all employees want your mentorship, but supervisors should be open to providing it when they do.
Mentorship provides the opportunity to guide and support developing professionals through the various angles and avenues of career profession, and can cover a wide range of objective and subjective parts of a mentee’s growth and learning. Unlike an apprenticeship, where there are specific skills and knowledge to impart and tests to pass, mentorship is a safe and nurturing environment because the subjects can be expansive, and there are no tests.
There is mutual benefit. The mentee should gain from the expertise and experience (dare I say wisdom?) of the mentor. What does the mentor get out of it? In additional to the tips and tricks and new ideas that I take away from mentoring, the most obvious thing to me is the opportunity to give back – to contribute to future leaders and developing (dare I say younger?) managers. A key lesson from one of my leadership favourite, Ernest Shackleton, is “leave a legacy”. Part of that is passing on lessons learned and experienced had to those who can use them to shape their own styles and careers, setting an example for the mentors of tomorrow.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.