Education systems and upbringing tend to encourage us to identify what we excel at and then to work on that. We become more specialized, more focused. Along the way, it is easy to forget about, or totally overlook, our weaknesses. It is, perhaps, human nature to accentuate the positive, after all.
What you are perceived to be bad at is quickly identified and ingrained. A joke is made of your ineptitude at basic math. You are deemed a geek rather than being arty. You are a practical person rather than a thinker. All of these conclusions may be correct, but they instantly mean that you are unlikely ever to tackle your weaknesses.
And so we concentrate on fine tuning our strengths, becoming geekier, ever more practical, creative or whatever our flair is for. But there are times when this blind focus on honing what we are already good at can actually get in the way of our development.
In business, in particular, this is true. The people who become CEOs often have a particular expertise. That might be in finance, marketing, accounting or another area. But, in addition to this specific expertise, almost all successful business leaders have much broader experience. They may have worked throughout the world, run different function areas in the company. Broad general knowledge is what gets you to the top in business.
One of the most inspiring leaders we have encountered is Vineet Nayar who was CEO of the Indian technology company HCL. He told us how the global slowdown from 2008 had played straight into HCL’s responsive hands:
So you are the team which rows in still waters better than anybody else. That’s fine. Now suddenly there’s turbulence, and you need to do river rafting. Most companies keep crying that the environment is not good for rowing – our rowing skills are not being used and we’re waiting for the environment to settle down so we can row again. No. Managers cannot be married to what they are good at. They have to be good at what the environment seeks from them. Otherwise they should step out of the way and let somebody else do what is required. The time is to river raft, to start intuitively driving the boat, and there is an opportunity. At HCL we need to become the best river rafter in town.
The trouble is that managers tend to carry on doing what they have always done. It got them there in the first place.
To carry on the water metaphor, one person we came across who started winning when he acknowledged and began working on his weaknesses is the Olympic gold medal winner and four times world champion rower Alex Gregory.
Rowing is a demanding sport. It requires large amounts of technique, strength and endurance, as well as team work. Gregory rows in a team of four or eight. His early career was bedeviled by injury and ill health. He under-performed at the big events. Just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 he fractured a rib and so was out of the British team. He was chosen as the squad’s reserve and so attended the Games. Watching the action unfold changed his career.
‘It was a magical time, a revelation and without doubt the most influential time period in my rowing career,’ he told us. ‘I was a spectator watching the people I had trained with seven days a week, 344 days a year for seven years, perform spectacularly. I was full of contrasting emotions: pride to have been part of this team, jealousy that they were doing what I so badly wanted to do, and surprisingly motivated to give it all one last try.
The moment of realization was sudden and powerful. All these years, after each disappointment the answer had always been to get back on the river, refine my skills and glide ever closer to the holy grail of perfect technique. But sitting there in the stands with the national anthem playing in the background I realized I had only ever been working on my strengths and overlooking my weaknesses. I was confident that I could have been in any of those gold-medal-winning boats from any nation and not upset the balance. But, watching these athletes closely I realized the problem lay elsewhere: I simply wasn’t strong enough.
Alex Gregory’s realization was career changing. He is not alone. Concentrating on honing your strengths and not identifying or tackling your weaknesses is commonplace. This applies to the tennis player who habitually avoids using a weak backhand; the CEO who is great with numbers, but doesn’t begin to understand how marketing works; the teacher who knows a subject inside out but is not so good at classroom discipline.
‘The problem is that it is so easy to work on what you are already good at. There is instant satisfaction and positive feedback with an often false belief that large steps have been made in the right direction. In fact the likelihood is that the rate of improvement is small and relatively insignificant. You do something well and strive every sinew to do it ever so slightly better. The belief is that accentuating your strengths offsets your weaknesses,’ says Gregory. ‘We are encouraged as parents and teachers that positive feedback is good and the right thing to do. This is great and something I completely agree with but it means that from a very early age we are all looking for this positive stimulus from others around us. We achieve this by doing and repeating actions we are good at, doing them well, making them better. The trouble is that this simply moves us even further away from what we really need to be doing to make significant changes.’
Returning home, Gregory spent the next three months locked in the gym. His target was to put on eight kilograms of muscle. He doubled his calorie and protein intake, set himself an intense weights program and within one month was seeing significant strength improvements. It took three months for him to reach his target.
For Alex Gregory the pay off was immediate. He started to beat those who had always beaten him before and soon he was chosen for the coxless four – GB Rowing’s flagship boat. In 2009 he became World Champion, his first ever international medal, and in 2012 won an Olympic gold.
‘At a personal level, working on my weaknesses radically changed my performance,’ concludes Alex Gregory. ‘Years of disappointment also toughened me. There are so many tasks in every walk of life that could be achieved faster, simpler and with less expense if some basic principles were met.’
An interview with Alex Gregory can be seen on the Harvard Business Review website. His own website is www.alexgregory.co.uk