Focus On Strengths, Manage Around Weaknesses

It is more effective to invest in building strengths and working around weaknesses.

People are able to improve their strengths faster than they can their weaknesses. Why?

  • People generally have an affinity for their strengths
  • An affinity means a stronger motivation for using that strength
  • Increased usage leads to an improved strength (practice makes perfect)

For a manager, this means that the ROI of the time & effort spent on building a strength is greater than the ROI spent on building a weakness.

A weakness, in this definition, is not a trainable skill or piece of knowledge. Those can be learned and corrected. A weakness here means an innate inability to perform some part of the job well and cannot be corrected through training.

Since weaknesses hurt the employee and even their team, managers should find ways to work around those weaknesses. How?

  • Provide tools and processes to counteract the weakness
  • Partner the employee with another who has complimentary skills
  • Put the employee into a different role where the weakness is no longer a detriment

Let’s look at this concept pictorially. The chart below is a representation of Mr. Employee’s skills:

Skill Levels

If Mr. Employee was asked to build Skill C, one of his strengths, here is how it would increase over three periods of time:

Skill Levels: Increasing Strengths

However, if Mr. Employee was asked to build Skill D, one of his weaknesses, here is how it would increase over three periods of time:

Skill Levels: Increasing Weaknesses

This doesn’t mean that weaknesses shouldn’t be addressed, especially if they are a detriment to the employee’s ability to do the job. Weaknesses can be managed around, with this kind of a result:

Skill Levels: Managed Weaknesses

Now let’s take a look at an example:

Andrew is a manager of an IT consultancy. He notices that one of his consultants, Brian, has memorized the statistics for every Major League Baseball team. Andrew realizes that Brian has a strength in memorizing facts. So he builds that strength by training Brian to memorize all the facts about IT software.

Brian, however, is prone to impatience and some clients have complained about his pushy behavior. Interpersonal skills training hasn’t helped. Andrew realizes that Brian has a weakness in working with sensitive customers.

So he manages around that weakness by partnering Brian with Chris, another consultant who is great at talking to his clients, but doesn’t comes across as an expert because he has trouble memorizing all the facts about IT software. Chris’ strength is in making small talk and putting his clients at ease. He’s also grown a lot from interpersonal skills training because he finds such training fascinating.

After pairing Brian and Chris together, Andrew notices with glee that their combined efforts increase client satisfaction significantly. Andrew has successfully improved the strengths of his consultants and managed around their weaknesses.

Mindset: The Effort Effect

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Last month, Guy Kawasaki wrote about Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford. In the Stanford Magazine article by Marina Krakovsky, “The Effort Effect“, Dweck explores why “a really capable child [gives] up in the face of failure, [while] other children [are] motivated by the failure.”

Her field studies in learned helplessness and attribution theory led her to launch a new field of educational psychology: achievement goal theory.

In short, there are people who believe they have a fixed mental capacity (known as a “fixed mindset”) and there are people who believe they can always learn new things (known as a “growth mindset”). A person with a fixed mindset, even highly capable ones who are already highly intelligent, don’t try as hard as those with a growth mindset and therefore don’t excel as well. Dweck’s new book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, goes into more detail about these conclusions and offers parenting tips as well, since her field studies were conducted mostly on elementary school children.

Guy, useful as ever, cites some of Dweck’s tips and adds the word “employee” to show how they are relevant to business and management:

Listen to what you say to your kids [employees], with an ear toward the messages you’re sending about mind-set.

Instead of praising children’s [employee’s] intelligence or talent, focus on the processes they used.

Example: “That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”
Example: “That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”
Example: “You put so much thought into that essay. It really makes me think about Shakespeare in a new way.”

When your child [employee] messes up, give constructive criticism—feedback that helps the child [employee] understand how to fix the problem, rather than labeling or excusing the child.

Pay attention to the goals you set for your children [employees]; having innate talent is not a goal, but expanding skills and knowledge is.

Don’t worry about praising your children [employees] for their inherent goodness, though. It’s important for children [employees] to learn they’re basically good and that their parents love them unconditionally, Dweck says. “The problem arises when parents praise children [employees] in a way that makes them feel that they’re good and love-worthy only when they behave in particular ways that please the parents.

The Do’s and Dont’s of Cover Letters

I’ve seen some truly horrendous cover letters. Awful ones. Ones that make me want to lather it with ketchup and feed it to a stray dog.

Here are some tips from my experiences as a hiring manager on writing an effective cover letter.

  • DO: Be polite and respectful
  • DON’T: Be arrogant and demanding

    Some hiring managers see hundreds of cover letters a week. If you start off with, “Give me a job, I’m the best in the industry,” you’re going to be the best crumpled-up cover letter in the trash can.

  • DO: Highlight notable achievements in previous roles
  • DON’T: Repeat what’s on your resume

    The cover letter is a place to go into a little more detail about a previous job. If there was an especially relevant accomplishment, write about it and provide some extra details.

  • DO: Personalize the letter to the company
  • DON’T: Use a generic template

    Some hiring managers are impressed with candidates who’ve done their research about their company. Generic cover letter templates usually sound dry and, well, generic too.

  • DO: Explain why you’re qualified for the role
  • DON’T: Explain why you want to work for the company

    This might be contrary to what you might think, but it’s already obvious that you want to work for the company. So don’t waste the hiring manager’s time explaining that. Instead, explain why you’re a good match for the role without being overly arrogant.

  • DO: Be accurate
  • DON’T: Lie

    Hiring managers often ask questions about the information you put in your cover letter (or resume). If you lie, you’re going to get caught. Some background checks are more thorough than you think.

  • DO: Keep it concise
  • DON’T: Write a novel

    Since hiring managers see so many cover letters, a long one is a sure way of getting tossed aside. Don’t write a one-liner, but don’t write a ten-pager either.

In short, a cover letter is a way to explain why you’re qualified by providing some details about specific accomplishments you’ve made, without repeating what is already in your resume.

The Missing “I”

You know what really grinds my gears? People who drop the “I” in sentences.

It’s especially common among executives and high-level managers, as if they expect you to know that everything they say is – of course – about them.

For example, here’s a request for a meeting: “Want to get together for a meeting.”

It sounds like a question, but it’s really a declaration. In proper English, it would read: “I want to get together for a meeting.”

Here are more examples taken from actual situations:

  • “Interested in that CPM vs CPC comparison.”
  • “Like idea of adding extra modules to page.”
  • “Agree with John – nice job on sales call.”
  • “Only concern is the light gray text is too subtle.”
  • “Have to take a poop.”

Well, that last one isn’t an actual example, but I can very well imagine an executive saying that. Or, rather:

Can very well imagine an executive saying that.

ScienceDaily Week by Guy Kawasaki

ScienceDaily Last week, Guy Kawasaki ran a series of posts that highlighted choice bits from ScienceDaily. This online magazine (ezine?) aims to be The Source for the latest research news in science, technology, and medicine, by including stories “submitted by leading universities and other research organizations around the world.” Guy notes that their studies have implications on business practices as well.

So with that, Guy highlights:

Which is more effective: bonuses or raises?

For example, have you ever wondered whether giving employees a pay-for-performance bonus or a merit raise fosters greater productivity? According to this “Bonuses Boost Performance 10 Times More Than Merit Raises” in Science Daily which pointed to a Cornell study called “Using Your Pay System to Improve Employees’ Performance: How You Pay Makes a Difference” by Dr. Michael C. Sturman, a bonus yields far better results.

Interesting! Same probably goes for commission-based compensation too.

Hype Kills

…assistant professor Vanessa Patrick (University of Georgia) [and] co-authors Debbie MacInnis and C. Whan Park (University of Southern California) [published the study] “Marketing: Too Much Hype Backfires.” The study shows that “people take notice when they feel worse than they thought they would, but—oddly—not when they feel better than expected.”

This supports the old adage that people tell five others about a bad experience but only one about a good experience (“negative evangelism”?). Thus, it sure looks like “under promising and over delivering” is the way to go.

It’s well-known that losing something creates a stronger emotion than winning something, so I guess human beings are wired to feel negative emotions moreso than positive emotions?

Advertising and Sexy Content

…advertising during television programs with sexy content is less effective than during programs with no sexy content. This is the research finding of Ellie Parker and Adrian Furnham of the Department of Psychology of the University College London.

To quote Robin Williams: “God gave you a penis and a brain, and only enough blood to run one at a time.” So when you’re watching that sexy content, your brain isn’t going to be remembering a damn thing.

Here’s a three-fer

  1. Researchers at the University of Oregon found that when people watch someone perform a task that they know they’ll have to repeat later, similar parts of the brain are activated that are used doing the the task itself. The source is “Watching With Intent To Repeat Ignites Key Learning Area of Brain.”
  2. An article called “Subliminal Advertising Leaves Its Mark On the Brain” cites how researchers at University College London found that subliminal images attract the brain’s attention on a subconscious level. An implication is that subliminal advertising could work. That is, of course, assuming you don’t Tivo past the ads.
  3. Seeing the color red can hinder people from performing their best on tests. This is the conclusion of a study called Research On the Color Red Shows Definite Impact On Achievement” at the University of Rochester.

So our brain is like a sponge, absorbing not just the spilled milk, but all the dust and gunk on the floor too, for better or worse. Great.

What’s a Night Owl to Do?

Sunrise Yawn. I’m sleepy. It’s early and there’s still crust in my eyes.

And at this very moment, countless entrepreneurs, executives, and enterprising go-getters are getting up and starting their days. They say it boosts their productivity, raises their energy, and accomplish all the little things that could otherwise nag them throughout the day. This means eating a good breakfast, exercising, checking emails, solving critical problems, and even spending time with family.

Jim Critin’s article, “Tapping the Power of Your Morning Routine” offers this memorable piece of advice (emphasis mine):

Steve Murphy, CEO of publishing company Rodale, says, “A line in a William Blake poem inspired me to think differently about my day: ‘Think in the morning, act in the noon, read in the evening, and sleep at night.’

Good stuff.

So, being the night owl that I am, what the hell am I going to do? I’m quite the opposite: I experience my peak energy levels later in the day, often get into The Zone late at night, and can’t think straight in the mornings.

Or, at least, that’s how I am right now. I hear that once you have kids, you’ll have to wake up early anyways. And I’ll admit – I did wake up early once and got a lot of work done.

Kyle Pott of offers these tips on waking up early:

Relocate your alarm clock
I used to do this in college when I absolutely had to get up early, and it worked. Made for some wacky hijinks too, especially when I’d crawl over furniture and tumble onto the floor, all in an effort to shut the cursed alarm.
Scrap the snooze
Rats. I love snoozing. That feeling of gently falling back asleep again is awesome. I think my record is a two-hour snoozing session.
Change up your buzzer
Did this in college too. I switched to an old-fashioned alarm clock with a loud bell. My roommates hated me, but it sure got me up.
Make a puzzle
This tip means hiding your alarm in a tricky place that requires some effort to get to, like in a combination-locked box. Sounds really evil, so it probably works really well.
Get into a routine
Sounds like a great idea, though it hasn’t been easy to get my hectic schedule into a routine. I’m an over-achiever with lots of little projects going on at any given time; fitting those into a routine is tough. Not impossible though, just tough.
Have a reason
True, I’ll definitely wake up earlier if I’m on vacation or something. But I once overslept during a huge street carnival that I planned in college; I was so tired that every alarm technique in the book wasn’t able to get me up. So I can’t say that simply having a reason will work consistently for me.

Here’s an extra tip: Sometimes, if I really need to wake up early, I’ll drink some water before going to sleep. The next morning, the urge to pee will get me right up. (If you have a weak bladder, this tip might not work for you – though arguably, getting up to change your sheets would definitely wake you up.)

I also like this tip from GoimBee in the comments section:

I trained a monkey to taze me with 500,000 Volts when the alarm clock rings. That’s pretty much the most efficient technique I found so far. Now I can’t sleep knowing that the monkey is hiding under my bed…

The night owl in me says, “Mike, you’re crazy, why are you even pondering waking up early?” I’ve always been a night owl, why change now?

Let’s break down the pros and cons of being a night owl vs. being an early riser:

Being a Night Owl

Pros Cons
  • There’s peace and quiet late at night
  • You can go to sleep knowing you’ve finished your day’s work
  • You may be able to finish your high-priority items before tomorrow
  • For many people, it’s easy to sleep late
  • For some people, they are more creative at night
  • It’s impossible to ever finish a day’s work in one day
  • If you need a colleague, you’ll have to wait until the next day to talk to him/her
  • Your body’s metabolism slows down at night

Being an Early Riser

Pros Cons
  • There’s peace and quiet early in the morning
  • You can send email replies to all the urgent issues first
  • Exercising early gets your metabolism in gear, aiding in health & weight loss
  • You can get high-priority items done first
  • If you need a colleague, you only have to wait a few hours for him/her
  • For some people, they are more creative in the morning
  • For many people, it’s not easy to wake up early

Hmmm. I can only think of one con for being an Early Riser. If you can think of more pros and cons for these lists, please let me know.

And now, another part of me is saying, “Maybe waking up early IS a good idea.” At the very least, gaining health benefits is a really good reason.

So I guess I ought to scrap the snooze, hide my alarm, and drink before I sleep! And if those don’t work, anyone have a monkey and a tazer?

Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris in Business

Larry Wall Larry Wall, the author of the programming language Perl, once made the following insightful remark:

…the three great virtues of a programmer [are] laziness, impatience, and hubris.

He penned this line in his book Programming Perl, which also included the following glossary definitions:

The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful, and document what you wrote so you don’t have to answer so many questions about it. Hence, the first great virtue of a programmer. Also hence, this book.
The anger you feel when the computer is being lazy. This makes you write programs that don’t just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them. Or at least pretend to. Hence, the second great virtue of a programmer.
Excessive pride, the sort of thing Zeus zaps you for. Also the quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won’t want to say bad things about. Hence, the third great virtue of a programmer.

These virtues aren’t just for programmers. They apply to businesses as well. With that thought, I submit the following definitions:

“The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure.” It makes you create labor-saving processes and efficient practices. If it takes your employees 10 hours to create 1 product, imagine how much you’ll save if you can reduce that to 5 hours for 1 product. The best path to working less isn’t sitting on your ass, it’s working smarter.
Get to the market quickly. If you have a great idea, don’t waste any time – build it. The market isn’t going to wait for you, neither are your competitors or your customers. This applies even if it’s just a prototype; the sooner you can get customer feedback, the better. While being the first-to-market isn’t a guarantee of success, being the first means getting customer feedback before anyone else.
Take pride in your business. Don’t give anyone a chance to say bad things about it. If you treat your customers and employees with the utmost respect, build only high-quality products and services, and conduct your business with honesty and integrity, you’ll be able to hold your head high every day.

Can Managers Create Satisfied Employees?

In the book Organizational Behavior, the column “Managers Can Create Satisfied Employees” caught my eye. It’s a Point vs Counterpoint column that follows a chapter on job satisfaction and how it effects productivity, turnover, and even customers.

The Point read:

A review of the evidence has identified four factors conducive to high levels of employee job satisfaction: mentally challenging work, equitable rewards, supportive working conditions, and supportive colleagues. Importantly, each of these factors is controllable by management.

The Counterpoint read:

Unfortunately there is a growing body of evidence that challenges the notion that managers control the factors that influence employee job satisfaction. The most recent findings indicate that employee job satisfaction is largely genetically determined. … Given these findings, there is probably little that most managers can do to influence employee satisfaction. … The only place where managers will have any significant influence will be through their control of the selection process.

In my experience, I’ve found that both are necessary for an effective team; it’s not an either-or argument. By effective, I mean satisfied and productive.

There are people who naturally seek challenges, are always learning new things, and have a hopeful, positive outlook on their future. A rare few are even able to self-motivate. If you hire only such people (assuming they fulfill your other requirements), you’ll no doubt have a satisfied team initially.

But if you don’t actively keep them engaged with challenging work, appropriate rewards, and a supportive environment, a competitor will easily lure them away. As a manager, you have the ability to reshape the environment. If you don’t create a healthy one, a competitor will.

Effective organizations are the ones that can hire the right kinds of people -and- keep them satisfied & productive.