SPEND YOUR ENERGY LEVERAGING STRENGTHS, NOT FIXING WEAKNESSES
Do you perform an annual assessment of your firm’s strengths and weaknesses? Most of the firms in this habit have a similar way of interpreting the results: breeze right past the strengths and instead focus laser-like on the weaknesses. In extreme cases, managers ignore the findings about strengths altogether and quite literally obsess about the weaknesses.
This is precisely the wrong reaction. The late great Peter Drucker got it right when he observed that most professionals are so busy working on yesterday’s problems that they have no time to work on today’s opportunities. He famously taught the idea that we should “Starve the problems and feed the opportunities.”
Having the perspective and the will to focus not on problems but opportunities is perhaps the biggest differentiator between the good and the great in this business.
So many opportunities, so little time
After decades of convincing social science on the subject, it’s now widely accepted that changing the basic habits of working professionals is infernally difficult if not impossible. As adult humans, we are pretty much who we are, and even the most fervent coaching is likely to produce only a modest change in daily behaviors. Experience has shown that the same is largely true for companies and their cultures.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t address serious violations of expected performance (personal or company). It’s just that we expend so much of our energy on “problem people” and “problem clients” that we leave no time for business model innovation, development of new services, or creation of new competencies.
Not imitation, but innovation
Capitalizing on strengths to develop new competencies does not mean importing capabilities that already exist elsewhere. Copying is easy. In professional services, it mostly just involves hiring the necessary talent from another firm.
Copying only keeps you at parity, which is likely not your long-term ambition. It also does very little to add real value to your firm. It’s currently estimated that up to a third of all the art in the world is painted in China, much of it copied from the work of well-known artists. As Seth Godin points out, “Nobody is ever willing to pay more for a copy.”
On a recent trip to that part of the world, I noted a sign in front of a store that seemed to be brutally honest about what customers might expect to find inside. It reads: “Xinrong Parity Supermarket.”
Innovation — true innovation — requires initiative and hustle. It also requires the kind of dedicated time that most professional managers seem not to have. The place to find it is in Drucker’s admonition to “starve the problems.” Firefighting isn’t leadership.
The misguided pursuit of across-the-board excellence
The balanced company that’s good at everything is no more realistic than the balanced employee who’s good at everything. As strategy practitioners Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi observe, management teams in most firms are almost always fixated on addressing too many objectives. “It is all too easy to continually shift your focus—to deal with exigencies and never quite build the capabilities you need,” they note. “You gain a right to play in many markets, but a right to win in none.”
Exceptional businesses earn their reputations not because they deliver exceptional service (even though most of them do), but because they are devoted to leveraging their core competencies to create exceptional customer solutions. Wieden+Kennedy’s Martin Weigel points out there is no better example of this than Apple going from strength to strength to develop today’s iPhone.
We need to embrace and celebrate the areas where our company excels, and use these strengths as the proving ground where we can develop, test, and deploy services designed to fill the unmet needs of clients.
For example, the agency Meers in Kansas City has leveraged its considerable knowledge in the area of health insurance marketing to develop a “Text-to-Quote” messaging app. (Even better, the agency owns the IP; the app is licensed to clients). Austin-based SandersWingo has built on its expertise in the application of behavioral economics to marketing by creating a Behavioral Science Lab. In Louisville, Kentucky, the agency Power, which focuses on products installed in the home,is continually building digital products designed to support the B2B dealer networks that sell their clients’ products (such as VR experiences at tradeshows).
These agencies, and many more, understand that the future of their business will be determined by offerings that transcend the quotidian creation and implementation of “campaigns.”
A reputation for innovation is exceptionally valuable. And as the legendary investor Warren Buffet reminds us, “You can have enough money, but you can never have enough reputation.”
Strengths are everything
There’s a reason we’ve never heard the phrase, “ Leverage your weaknesses.” Instead, the advice of people who have studied organizational behavior encourage us to “Make the most of your company’s strengths, and neutralize its weaknesses.” Weaknesses contribute nothing to your organization; only strengths do, so ask your strengths to contribute even more.
Remember that the success you’re enjoying today is largely the result of yesterday’s investments. The most powerful predictor of tomorrow’s success is a mindset that is focused on your strengths and opportunities, not your weaknesses and problems.