Job Hunting

Shore Up Those Shortcomings

One sure way to stall your career: focus on your strengths and ignore your weaknesses.
Lisa YoonFebruary 26, 2003

Unfortunately, positive thinking only goes so far.

Take careers, for instance. Blindly playing up strengths while downplaying weaknesses may look great on a resume, but it can prove troublesome down the road. For executives, ignoring weak spots can actually be a career-buster.

That’s the contention of researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership, a Greensboro, N.C.-based non-profit research group, which has been studying career derailment in executives for the past 20 years. According to the Center’s research, ignoring weaknesses in company leaders negatively affects the company’s bottom line. So it’s no surprise that glossing over weak spots also leads to career derailment.

“Many high-performing executives have one or more blind spots that they ignore as long as they meet their business goals,” explains CCL researcher Jean Brittain Leslie. “Often managers rely on their strengths — the skills and behaviors that got them this far — only to be blindsided” by unaddressed weaknesses.

Thus a once promising executive gets fired, demoted, or hits a plateau, never to get promoted again. Ouch.

So how to prevent your career from going off-track? In CCL’s research, the reasons for career derailment could be boiled down to five recurring factors. Often, two or more work together to trip up an executives professional development.

Three of the factors are directly related to the manager’s personality: inability to change or adapt; difficulty with interpersonal relationships; and failure to build and lead a team. No surprises there, since each promotion brings more leadership responsibility. And, as Leslie points out, by the time you reach management level, it’s likely you have technical chops needed to do the job. “As you advance in position, technical skills matter less.”

That is, unless the next factor in career derailment applies to you: “failure to meet business objectives.” That’s a polite way of saying “poor performing self-promoters who don’t follow through in their work.” Leslie acknowledges this may seem counterintuitive; after all, how do poor performers (other than the boss in “Dilbert”) make it to management?

Well, according to an online poll at CCL’s Web site, it seems to happen a lot. The survey asks participants questions about the career-derailment phenomenon at their companies “A lot of [poll respondents] said promoting poor performers seems to be the strategy,” says Leslie, adding with a laugh, “I’m not sure if they’re being cynical or not.”

Finally, inability to see the big picture is the fifth weakness that can put a career permanently on hold. “These are people who are not ready for promotion,” explains Leslie, “because they lack broad functional orientation.” Such manager have the lion’s share of their expertise in one function — accounting, say — without a view to the whole company and where it’s going.

The good news is that these weaknesses can be remedied, sometimes with the help of executive coaches or leadership-development programs.

Leslie, who also manages CCL’s instrument-development research, observes that today, more senior-level executives than lower-level managers are using their leadership-training products — a reversal that began only two or three years ago. While Leslie hasn’t looked into this formally, the drop-off in use by lower-level managers is hard to ignore. “It makes you ask, are these people being trained?” she wonders.

The key, of course, is to determine what an executive’s weaknesses are. There are many ways to get feedback. But whichever method you choose, ask for it often. There are always shifts in the kinds of leadership qualities that are valued most, Leslie notes, depending on factors such as the business environment and the company’s condition. “This isn’t something you accomplish,” she adds. “It’s not like there’s this bar, and all of a sudden you get there.”

Self-improvement, it seems, is never complete.