skills_love_money_rzJohnny was a tweener.

As a coach that’s what we called a player who was too small to play forward (or center) and not good enough to play guard. They were stuck in between positions, and you couldn’t find time on the floor without being at a disadvantage.

More than once I found myself telling a player “go home and grow six inches” during the summer. The truth is that you can’t coach height, or quickness, and you have to play the hand you are dealt.

So why don’t managers do the same for their employees? The fact is that when we get together for our annual performance review we spend too much time focusing on weaknesses. We tend to gloss over the areas of strength and instead focus on one or two areas of improvement.

Perhaps this is ingrained into our minds at an early age when we come home from school with four A’s and one B and our parents spend the next three weeks riding our ass on the one subject we need to work on. (No, I’m not bitter, why do you ask?)

Why focus on that one subject? Unless you are clearly underperforming in that subject (and a B grade is NOT underperforming) it makes little sense to tell your child they need to focus on that area. Now, if your child says they want to be a doctor and they are struggling with Biology then yeah, you might ask them to focus a bit more. The only time it makes sense to focus on a weakness is if you need to remove an obstacle of sorts. But often that is not the case and we end up forcing people to focus on areas where they are weak simply because people believe that is the right way to manage or coach others.

A better approach would be to focus on the strengths of the individual. Have them spend their time and energy on becoming more awesome at the things they already excel at doing. You can find a lot of articles written recently regarding this idea. You can also buy the book StrengthsFinder 2.0 and visit http://www.strengthsfinder.com/home.aspx for more information on this methodology. I highly recommend the book and associated quiz that helps you find your strengths as an individual. I took the quiz and found my top five strengths to be:

  1. Competition
  2. Relator
  3. Significance
  4. Analytical
  5. Harmony

If you know me you’d know that those five items come as no surprise. My guess is that if my coworkers read those descriptions they would also agree. In fact, it’s probably not a bad idea if I were to include these strengths on my resume page, just as Buck Woody (blog | @buckwoody) has done already.

I have no idea why this concept of focusing on your strengths seems to be gaining traction recently. To me this concept is something fundamental that was common knowledge years ago to anyone that had to assemble a successful team.

The best coaches or managers understand how to take the strengths of the individual team members and get them to achieve great things working together. The worst coaches or managers blame their team members for not being able to perform, usually in areas for which they were not strong. For example, I can’t send one of the slowest, shortest players on my basketball team and tell him or her to grab more rebounds than anyone else. I’d be an awful coach and lose a lot of games if I kept putting that player in a spot where they can’t be successful, no matter how many times I sent them emails saying “GROW SIX INCHES” after every loss.

If you are tasked with leading a team here are my tips to help you keep that team performing well:

1. Focus on individual strengths – This allows for people to excel in areas that are naturally easy and often leads to happier team members.

2. Do not focus on individual weaknesses – It makes no sense for you to expect each and every team members to be identical to all others, unless you are building a clone army of course.

3. Put team members in the right spots to be successful – If your data modeler doesn’t know Powershell then don’t have them working on automating scripting tasks simply because you are short one headcount. Chances are you’ll be short two headcount before too long. Get people into the right spots for everyone to be successful and enjoy their work.

4. Do not blame a team member for your failure – As the leader/manager/coach YOU are responsible for the team’s success, not anyone else. If you can’t manage someone who doesn’t fit a particular mold then you shouldn’t be managing anyone, period.

5. Know communication is key – Tell the team members what they are doing well, and why, and also be clear about what their role will be. That way, if they stumble, it is easy to go back to remind them what the team is expecting from them. No one wants to be surprised after the fact that the team was looking for something different than what they were trying to deliver.

6. Ask – Ask for input from your team members. A simple question of “Hey, we are thinking of this, what are your thoughts?” will make them feel engaged. Beware, though, if you don’t plan on listening then don’t bother asking. And if you don’t bother asking, then don’t bother trying to have an engaged team.

7. Do self-evaluations – Team members often get their performance reviewed by others. Let them review their own performance as well. Their self-assessment will give you valuable insight into what motivates them the most.

If you think a weakness can be turned into a strength, I hate to tell you this, but that’s another weakness.” –Jack Handy