How to Overcome Your Strengths
Hey, fast-tracker, you'd better beware: It's not your weaknesses that can
trip you up on your way to the top -- it's your strengths. Here's how to prevent
your talent from doing you in.
by Michael Kaplan
illustrations by Michael Witte
from FC issue 24, page 224
Four years ago, Sharon Mass landed her dream job: director of case management
for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles. Talented and highly driven,
Mass impressed her boss with her performance right from the start. Her
coworkers, however, were not so pleased. Mass, 54, expected everyone to be as
smart and as hard-working as she was, so she didn't realize that others found
her intimidating. But she soon found out -- when a couple of people complained
about her to the hospital's human-resources department.
Hoping to improve the situation, Mass decided to speak with Lois P. Frankel,
a business coach and senior partner at Corporate Coaching International, based
in Los Angeles. In her 12 years of counseling, Frankel has worked with lots of
people like Sharon Mass: talented fast-trackers who don't understand that the
skills that enabled them to succeed early on can backfire -- and knock them off
their career path.
You've probably met these people in your own workplace ( you may even be one
yourself ): the perfectionist team leader who won't delegate, the
detail-obsessed finance wiz who can't see the big picture, the supergeek who
alienates everyone. Last year, Frankel published a book about why such people
fail: "Jump-Start Your Career: How the 'Strengths' That Got You Where You Are
Today Can Hold You Back Tomorrow" ( Three Rivers Press, 1998 ).
"What happens," says Frankel, "is that people rely too heavily on the skills
that contributed to their early success. As a result, they fail to develop new
skills. When the going gets tough, they revert to the same old tactics -- and
then wonder why those tactics don't work. Well, they don't work because what
these people need is a complementary skill set."
Because change is a constant in business, chances are good that one day
you'll have to face down your own strengths. When that day arrives, think about
the three people profiled below: successful businesspeople who faltered but then
found ways to turn their missteps into new kinds of success.
Heavyweight: Charles Martin
Company: Fox Family Channel
Strengths: A supreme networker and relationship builder
No doubt about it: Charles Martin is a nice guy. He's thoughtful and charming
-- a mentor who excels at developing people. That skill had served the
51-year-old executive well, accelerating his rise at Fox Family Channel, where
he had become VP of human resources and administration.
But as he ascended the company's corporate ladder -- where senior positions
are few and competition for them is fierce -- Martin found that being nice was a
liability. Managers made salary and hiring decisions without consulting him
first, figuring that he would be easy to bully afterward. Whenever he disagreed
with someone, almost inevitably he was the one who backed down, fearful of
damaging a relationship that he had worked so hard to build.
Martin had concentrated too much on helping others and too little on helping
himself. And now his career had stalled: He had gone three years without a
promotion. "I realized that I had really missed out on something -- that I
deserved to be among the company's decision makers. Being passed over for senior
VP made me feel excluded."
He thought about how his strengths had caused him to stumble. Because of his
desire to maintain good relationships, he had avoided challenging people at all
costs. He hadn't pushed his staff to perform better; he hadn't stood up to
Martin's fears were confirmed when Lois Frankel conducted a feedback survey
of his staffers: They said that Martin was too passive, that he wasn't a
take-charge leader. Because he didn't seem to believe in himself, they didn't
believe in him either. "People were taking me for granted," he says.
Frankel set out to help Martin put some swagger in his step. "She taught me
that before I have a difficult conversation with someone -- to hash out a
disagreement, for instance -- I should rehearse what I want to say. That helps
me to create a game plan and to keep the conversation on track."
Frankel's technique -- consider it a self-administered pep talk -- also gave
Martin the confidence to tell people what he really thought, rather than what he
thought they wanted to hear. "I didn't win every argument. But people started to
respect my point of view: They listened to me." Fighting for something that you
believe in and losing, Martin now realizes, is better than never having fought
at all. In fact, his new approach helped him ask for and win a promotion to
"Being accommodating helps you build relationships early in your career, and
that's important," Martin concludes. "But it's rough-and-tumble at the top of
any organization. If you don't watch out, you can wind up being someone's
3 Signs That You're Getting Steamrolled
- You hesitate to take a stand on tough issues, fearing that you'll alienate
- You put off difficult decisions.
- You find that people abuse your time.
Coordinates: Charles Martin, email@example.com
Heavyweight: Ed Garnett
Strengths: A fast thinker and a real-time problem solver
After nearly 12 years at Amgen, the world's largest biotechnology company (
with annual revenues of $2.7 billion ), 51-year-old Ed Garnett won a promotion
to VP of human resources. Two years later, he joined Amgen's senior-management
team, which oversees the company's day-to-day operations. Just three days into
his new job, Garnett attended his first meeting with this select group of 12
Sitting in a Ritz-Carlton conference room, surrounded by Amgen's best and
brightest, Garnett saw his confidence turn to mush. He had always prided himself
on his ability think fast and to crack complex problems. But, surrounded by
these heavy hitters, Garnett froze up.
His silence dismayed his new colleagues -- so much so that one committee
veteran took Garnett aside after the meeting. "I kept waiting to hear your
opinions," this executive told him. "Why didn't you contribute?"
Garnett's reply was uncharacteristically wooden: "I didn't feel that I had
the necessary technical competency."
That response floored his colleague. "You're part of the leadership team now.
We expect to hear your opinions: Opinions matter at this table."
Garnett was relieved to hear that his views were welcome -- and terrified at
the thought of expressing them. But he knew that holding back at this
fast-forward company would mean a slow death. And he feared that his verbose,
"think out loud" mode of problem solving wouldn't fly in his new position.
Garnett's fears were, unfortunately, well founded: His shoot-from-the-hip
approach frustrated members of his team, who were sent scrambling every time he
changed his mind. His tendency to reverse himself, meanwhile, made him look
wishy-washy in the eyes of Amgen's senior executives.
To his credit, Garnett was self-aware enough to realize that he needed help:
He already knew how to think fast -- but now he had to learn how to make his
first thought his best thought.
Frankel coached him on how to make his points in crisp, bulleted sentences.
She also advised him to shape his remarks at meetings in the same way that an
editor shapes a story. "I began creating headlines and subheads for what I
needed to say," Garnett explains, adding that this technique also lets people
know where he's taking a conversation.
Another way that Garnett tempered his tendency to deliver quick, half-formed
opinions was by recognizing that most problems don't require instant resolution.
Even when a query comes from Amgen's president, Garnett has learned, there's no
harm in working out an answer overnight. "Getting it right the first time,
although it might take a few extra hours, saves time in the long run," he says.
3 Signs That You're Losing Credibility
- You learn that people can't follow you and that they tune you out.
- You're left out of brainstorming sessions.
- You ask people if they have a minute for a quick conversation, and they
say, "Yeah, but just a minute."
Coordinates: Ed Garnett, egarnett@am gen.com
Heavyweight: Joan McCoy
Company: ARCO Alaska
Strengths: A driven, self-sufficient worker and a consummate "go to" person
Joan McCoy was devastated. The 47-year-old director of community relations
had been passed over for a promotion that she thought she had bagged. She was
sitting in her office after receiving the bad news, "feeling like someone had
knocked the air out of me," she recalls. "I was angry and confused, and I guess
I sulked for a while. Then I marched into my manager's office and asked her what
I needed to do to get promoted. She told me to get leadership-development
That advice surprised McCoy, who had never imagined that her leadership
skills needed improving. After all, she handled a delicate ( and potentially
perilous ) job for one of the largest oil companies in the United States. She
performed her responsibilites in the field with equanimity and aplomb.
But when dealing with her colleagues at work, McCoy failed to use the social
skills that had made her so successful in public. To her peers, her zeal to
succeed made her seem cold, aloof, and standoffish. She was so afraid of doing
less-than-perfect work that she would delegate only the most minor assignments
to her staff -- which frustrated her team and gave her a crushing workload.
"I thought I would be rewarded if I kept my nose to the grindstone," she
says. "I never worried about my relationships with coworkers. And so I was
oblivious to problems that were all around me."
Several sessions with Frankel helped open her eyes. Frankel surveyed McCoy's
coworkers, bosses, and subordinates about her performance. Their consensus:
McCoy had failed to build a team. She didn't listen. She didn't offer
Ironically, her isolation had caused her to get little recognition for her
hard-won accomplishments. "I figured that people knew I was doing a good job.
But according to the feedback I got, they actually didn't know. So I began using
email to promote my team. I've also been trying to visit a few key executives in
the company each week. Overall, I'm becoming more visible."
When dealing with her staff, McCoy reminds herself to be inclusive. Before,
she simply bulldozed ahead without consulting anyone; now she asks for input
from staffers. "I still like to be in control, and sometimes it's hard to let
go. But I'm learning that when you share the workload, you also get to share the
McCoy has also worked to bring her well-honed diplomatic skills into her
workplace. Before, whenever someone stepped into her office, she would actually
bristle at the thought of wasting time on small talk.
"Lois told me to invite people into my office," says McCoy. "The first person
I asked in was incredulous: 'You want me to come in?' That really drove home how
isolated I had become. Now I talk to people in the elevator or in the cafeteria.
And, for the first time, I'm getting a lot of good information about what's
going on in our company."
3 Signs That You're Isolating Yourself
- You're unaware of the news that passes through your company's grapevine.
- You consistently put in more hours than your colleagues do -- which means
you aren't sharing your workload.
- You think it's a waste of time to spend even 10 minutes a day talking with
Coordinates: Joan McCoy, firstname.lastname@example.org
Action Item: Type Casting
To perform successfully at the highest levels of an organization, you need to
get along with people who are different from you. One smart path to smart
schmoozing is described in a new book, "The Enneagram Personality Portraits," by
the husband and wife team of Patrick J. Aspell and Dee Dee Aspell.
The book provides strategies for reading nine personality types and for
customizing your conversational style to each type. "If you can use behavioral
cues to recognize certain types of people, you can communicate with them in a
more effective way," says Dee Dee Aspell. How does she suggest communicating
with, say, high achievers? "Quickly," says Aspell. "These people want efficient
conversation. They respond best to action-oriented language that includes
specifics and that provides a clear payoff."
Coordinates: $24.95. The Enneagram Personality Portraits: Enhancing
Professional Relationships, Jossey-Bass, 800-274-4434
Sidebar: Three Reasons People Fail
What factor separates people who are on the fast track from those who get
left behind? To answer that question, the Center for Creative Leadership, in
Greensboro, North Carolina, surveyed 62 executives at blue-chip service and
manufacturing companies. The group then published its findings in a report
titled A Look at Derailment Today. The authors of the study, Ellen Van Velsor
and Jean Brittain Leslie, identify three primary reasons why talented people
fail to reach the top. Consider yourself warned!
They don't adapt during transitions. Some people are so resistant to change
that they can't or won't alter their behavior -- and ultimately they fail. A
typical comment about one failed manager: "He had a rigid and outdated
management style. He was inflexible and people got tired of it."
They are difficult to work with. People with this fatal flaw often seem
insensitive, manipulative, and overly critical. One manager who derailed was
described in this way: "He would have people hanging out to dry if they wouldn't
do what he wanted."
They fail to lead in a team-centered way. Being assertive and taking
initiative can put people on the fast track early on. But those same traits can
stymie people when they reach the executive level, where teamwork is vital. This
comment was made about one such manager: "He was very isolated, [and he] did not
create a team."
Coordinates: $20. A Look at Derailment Today: North America and Europe,
Center for Creative Leadership, http://www.ccl.org
Sidebar: Be a Social Worker
All work, says Lois P. Frankel, is social -- a fact of work life that people
ignore at their peril. "Establishing good working relationships can help us
secure the cooperation of the people we need to accomplish our tasks. If we
delay building good relationships until we really need them, it will be too
late." Here are six of Frankel's favorite techniques for socializing at work.
- Once a day, drop into someone's office for a 10-minute talk. "Casual
conversation helps build friendly relationships that can withstand stress."
- When people talk to you, listen. "Put everything else on hold for a
moment, so that people will realize that what they're saying matters to you."
- When you need help, ask for it. "This is mainly a relationship-building
exercise, but you'll get lots of useful feedback as well."
- Begin conversations with small talk. "If you always talk about work,
people will think that you only care about work -- and that you don't care about
- Don't let your desire to be liked keep you from being straightforward. "We
all want to be popular, but that desire should never overshadow the need to make
- Do favors for others -- even when you can't anticipate that a favor will
be returned. "Doing so builds good corporate karma, and somehow, some way,
you'll benefit from that karma."
Coordinates: Lois P. Frankel, email@example.com
Sidebar: Are You Knocking Out Your Own Career?
The reasons why a fast-tracker suddenly derails are often evident to everyone
except that person. To help you determine whether your career is in danger,
we've adapted a "Derailment Inventory" from Lois P. Frankel's Jump-Start Your
Career. Use the scale below to answer the questions that follow. Each set of
questions gauges your abilities in one of three areas: working with coworkers,
working with higher-ups, and networking.
1 = describes me exactly
2 = describes me
3 = somewhat describes me
4 = does not describe me
- Other people describe me as a real "people person."
- I spend a part of each day making small talk with coworkers.
- I see some of my coworkers outside of work, and I know most of them
socially and not just professionally.
- Because I have good work relationships, I often succeed where others fail.
- I do not have an inordinate need for everyone to like me.
Working with Authority
- When I have a good reason for doing so, I can express a view that differs
from that of my company's senior team.
- If I see a senior leader making a decision that seems harmful to my
company, I speak up.
- People see me as someone who can independently assess an executive decision
and, when appropriate, offer an alternative perspective.
- When senior people ask for my opinion, they know that I'll respond to them
- I believe that it's more important to be honest with senior leaders than to
- I spend at least a part of each week networking with colleagues.
- I belong to professional organizations and know other members of them.
- A few times each month, I am invited to join key members of my team or my
organization for lunch.
- I'm fairly well connected to my company's grapevine.
- I regularly interact with peers in other divisions and at other companies.
Now, to find out whether your career is on the fast track or whether it's
headed for derailment, tally your score for each set of questions.
5 to 8: You're right on track! Examine the points on which you rated yourself
1 or 2, and try to continue acting accordingly.
9 to 13: You need to fine-tune your skills to stay on track. Review the
questions on which you scored 3 or 4, and work to add the relevant skills to
14 to 17: You're dangerously close to derailing. Time to do an in-depth
self-assessment and to expand your skill set.
18 to 20: You're seriously derailed. To get your career back on track, seek
help from a mentor or a career coach.
Coordinates: $14. "Jump-Start Your Career," Three Rivers Press, http://www.randomhouse.com
Michael Kaplan ( firstname.lastname@example.org ), a frequent
contributor to Fast Company, also writes for Smart Money and GQ.