Before a recent boxing match, a trainer had his fighter repeat “I’m the man! I’m a tiger! I’m a beast! I’m invincible!” That motivation was effective until shortly after the bell. About two minutes after the match began, the fighter was KO’d by his opponent who actually knew how to box!
This inept tiger was really a cub who had no business in a professional ring. His trainer would have served him better in advising him to train a lot more rather than feeding him motivational theory. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of motivational theory, but only when it is partnered with capability.
I’ve worked with managers who were reluctant to tell people they managed the tough but much needed advice that they were not doing well and that they needed to address their weaknesses. This reluctance to deliver “bad news” can be so pervasive that it has essentially become part of the culture. The result is an abundance of careers that are unsustainable—just waiting for the knockout punch of reality. That punch, maybe not foreseeable in the short-term, always comes!
The issue is two-fold—avoid correcting mistakes for fear of being seen as critical and may even avoid entire areas of development because the apprehension that it may lead to “negative” conversations. Maybe the best career advice I ever received as a novice quality engineer began with a very direct comment: “You have a problem you have to fix immediately…”
Advice such as “Forget your weaknesses, play to your strengths” is easy to deliver, but of little use beyond its half minute of inspiration. Actually, this advice can be harmful if it comes when people are developing their skills and still refining their talents.
First, some weaknesses may be fatal. As an example, I knew a young person who wanted to play water polo. However, he couldn’t swim! A major hindrance to his aspirations. I’ve also met managers who believed that “managing” was not their talent as well as a few quality professionals who considered themselves “weak” in quality theory and even in some of the basic problem-solving tools. My acquaintance, the water polo enthusiast who couldn’t swim, got laughed at and ridiculed. The manager who couldn’t manage got an understanding nod, even though his problem was equally ridiculous.
There are some skills and abilities that are so fundamental to a career that they must be addressed with a sense of urgency. In professional services, this means people must understand the body of theory they are using, possess interpersonal skills, be able to communicate with clients and colleagues, understand team dynamics and be able to participate in and contribute meaningfully to a team.
Any weakness in these areas will certainly create boundaries around professional careers or only allow success in specific situations. When such fundamental weaknesses exist, it is the responsibility of a mentor to deliver the “bad news” and help mentees address the issues.
It is undeniable that everyone possesses natural talents. However, we still must find and develop those talents, which means we are going to have to hear negative feedback and continue learning.
How would you know you are talented at learning languages if you never tried to learn one? How would you know your weakness in the application of quality tools if you never used them? How would you know you are not a good mentor if you never mentored anyone? You won’t learn your strengths until you really try!
A friend related the story of her long teaching career and how she discovered that her best math students were not always the most talented kids. In fact, the talented students who showed early success often failed to develop above the average level! The best students were consistently the kids who came to class prepared day after day, worked hard and sought help when they needed it.
The ability to persevere and dedicate effort and passion to a task often outperforms pure talent. I would also propose that it is perseverance than unveils talent. What may look like a weakness may just be talent that is underdeveloped.
Effective mentors-advisors-consultants who don’t shy away from “bad news” are helping their mentees and organizations become more successful. I intend to discuss this topic further so stay tuned.