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Uncovering Hidden Strengths For Continual Leadership Development

by Thuy Sindell, PhD. and Milo Sindell, MS.

We often get stuck in our approach to new opportunities by relying upon what comes easily to us and what has worked in the past, whether it is playing a new game, entering a new relationship, or accepting a new promotion. On the other end of the spectrum are the things that despite our painstaking attempts to improve, just don’t budge and we avoid doing. In between this spectrum are your middle skills – the skills that fall between what you already are great at and the things that you are inherently just not good at doing. Your middle skills are the majority of the skills that you have and, with focus and practice, can become your powerful solution for ongoing personal and professional development. Your middle skills can be thought of as hidden strengths waiting to be developed.

In response to a dynamic world people should not rely only on what they do great today but also evolve their abilities throughout their lifetime. There are 28 skills that we identify as being important factors to effective leadership. In our experience working directly with thousands of leaders and using these 28 skills to assess their abilities, we have found the skills to fall into 3 buckets: top 20%, bottom 10%, and middle 70%.

The common approach to improving leadership skills is that once the assessment results are in, either the lowest scoring items are targeted for improvement or the highest scoring items are identified and amplified in their use. The problem with triaging low scoring skills is that it takes a tremendous amount of effort to noticeably improve the things that you are really no good at; and the issue with using more of the same high scoring skills is that you create a very large liability called stagnation. Only developing strengths would be like someone who only develops one side of their body – they would be lopsided. Uncovering hidden strengths and transforming them into learned strengths follows a different path.

Between your top 20% and bottom 10% of your skills lay the greatest opportunity for becoming a better leader. Yes, you may be thinking, “Duh. That’s obvious.” Here’s the kicker…do you know what your middle skills and hidden strengths are? You might have a sense of what you naturally do really well and you probably have an idea of those things that you don’t do well at all, but do you have a sense of the range of things that you do ok? Imagine for moment how many things you could be really good at with some focus and practice? The obvious is overlooked because people have a tendency to either focus on what is glaringly not working or fall back on what comes easily. You’ve probably overlooked the potential of your middle skills.

Everybody has natural strengths –the skills that come to use without thinking. Understanding what you are naturally good at is very valuable to assessing the right job or career path. You should be in a role and doing a job that is aligned with your innate skills. This will make your life easier because there will be a fit between what you do and a chunk of what you are inherently good at doing – round peg / round hole. For example, if you are naturally detail- oriented and have an inherent analytical strength for numbers, then accounting might be a great place to focus your talents.

Conversely, finding yourself in work situations where you are forced to use your deficient skills – that is your bottom 10% of skills. These are things we are not good at and take pains to perform moderately well, can be painful and potentially detrimental to you and your work environment. From a job security and purely a personal well being standpoint, you should not be in a role that heavily requires you to use your deficient skills. For example, let’s say you are extremely introverted and non-competitive. You more than likely should not pursue a career as a trial lawyer as this job requires a great deal of presenting and an extreme desire to win. No matter how much you practice and work at it, it will never be your strength and something that you like to do. It is important to emphasize “like” because if you don’t like doing something or have a compelling need to change it is doubtful you will not have the motivation to improve.

Understanding your strengths and weaknesses are most relevant for charting a job fit: “ I am great at this and stink at this.” Understanding these two extremes is important to help create parameters and find your place in the world of work. This framing is especially beneficial for those entering the workplace as well as those who are focused on a specific role as an individual contributor: Do what you were hired to do and do it well. For those who continue on the path of the individual contributor, the road remains singular in its focus to gain deeper knowledge and expertise in your field. Conversely, leading others requires moving beyond the polarities of strength and weakness and the singular focus of a trade, profession, or role.

Our rationale for approaching your life is that the world around you is dynamic, and what worked well today may not work well tomorrow. New challenges will emerge and adaptation requires drawing from and developing new skills and perspectives. Uncovering hidden strengths by transforming the right middle skills into new learned strengths at the right time is what leads to ongoing leadership growth. The very foundation of leadership development and coaching is centered on identifying and developing middle skills on a continual basis.

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