Imagine, just for a moment, working in an environment where you are channelled into a role that solely concentrates on and celebrates your strengths. Your weaknesses don’t hold you back. Just think what you could achieve.
Now think about your own role. Does it match up?
If the answer is yes, you’re either extremely lucky or you’re lying to yourself. Because generally speaking we are conditioned to be defensive about our weaknesses and to put time and effort working on them if we want the promotion, the salary and the successful career.
The interview question everyone dreads and few know how to answer properly is ‘What is your greatest weakness?’ It’s asked because the interviewer wants to try and get a sense of what you’re really like to work with by the way you answer.
But should it matter if you’re not very good on the phone if you’re a web developer or if you’re a poor writer if you’re a media buyer? It shouldn’t, but it invariably does.
The things that give you energy
I was listening to an extremely interesting chat between Nathalie Nahai and ‘the wizard of Moz’, Rand Fishkin, on Nathalie’s podcast a couple of weeks back. Rand made some excellent observations about investing time in gaining a full and accurate understanding of what you’re good at and, more importantly, why you’re good at it.
He asserted that in doing so you can identify the things that give you energy, and you can start to invest continuously in enhancing the strengths you’re passionate about rather than spending all of your time on the things that drain you. It’s well worth a listen.
This is smart, right?
I know myself well enough to know that I’m good at and passionate about solving digital media problems. I love the challenge of digging into data, devising and testing communications strategies, and refining tactics that work. I also love passing on my knowledge and training people.
But once a problem is solved, the day-to-day work bores me. I find admin and process tedious. I’m not a great people manager and I have no patience for office politics and dealing with people I have little respect for.
It’s no coincidence that the business I have chosen to pursue concentrates pretty much entirely on the things I’m good at and that I love.
Hierarchies are not effective
So why, in the workplace, is so much emphasis placed on shoring up weaknesses rather than on developing strengths? Why are people not channelled in ways that do the opposite?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the hierarchical structures employed in communications agencies, prompted by Robert Phillips’ book and by an online debate I had with Gini Dietrich about the traditional agency model.
Hierarchical team structures make little to no sense whatsoever.
The Wisdom of Teams from the Harvard Business School defines a team as: “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable”.
The key word in there is skills. What it is not is ‘job roles’. Effective teams work collaboratively with a keen awareness of interdependency. They pool people with the best skills to achieve the goal, regardless of how senior they are.
Hierarchical teams don’t. They pool people according to length of time in the job based on available capacity, often regardless of their individual talents.
That’s just dumb.
Why not get people to focus on what they’re good at and, rather than forcing them to address their weaknesses in order to fulfil a role, hire other people who are good at those things instead?
Using myself as an example again, if I ever decide to expand my business into an agency I will implement a very flat, skill-based structure and a culture where job title is irrelevant.
I’d want an analytics geek to provide insight and to help steer campaigns; I’d want an SEO guru; I’d want a media expert; I’d want someone who is great with people to handle clients; I’d want a top notch content marketer; and I’d want a specialist media buyer.
What I wouldn’t want is a generalist account director, two generalist account managers and four generalist account executives, no matter how bright they are.
It is, admittedly, not easy to switch from the traditional role-based agency structure to a more progressive skill-based structure. But that doesn’t mean you can bury your head in the sand and ignore the way the world is developing.
More to the point, there will come a time when a square peg can no longer be forced into a round hole.