Managing Employee Strengths

Ask any group of managers to describe the perfect employee and you won’t get the same answer twice. But when it comes to managing a perfect employee, most executives will likely agree that it is an impossible task. After all, you can’t manage something that doesn’t exist.

Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and one of the greatest challenges for any manager is leading employees with clear and definite strengths, because they often also have some key areas of significant deficiency that have been overlooked. As a result, you can’t just focus on the positive if you want to get the most out of these employees.

Simply put, to really capitalize on employees with significant strengths, you must first figure out how to address their shortcomings.

Based on my experience, there are five primary categories into which these types of individuals fall. Each one of these categories has its own challenges, and successfully managing them to bring out the best in employees is what real leadership is all about.

THE LEGEND

Workplace legends are reliable rocks with track records that have set them apart from peers for years. As a result of this strength, they have received numerous accolades, awards, and commendations for their work. In many cases, they have been pivotal to the organization’s success.

But business environments change, and that can impact anyone’s results, including top performers. When it happens to workplace legends, they often work harder than ever before without achieving the results that once made them stand out. For leaders, this is a real challenge, especially if the legend slipping is still being treated as a rock while their accountabilities are no longer being met.

Three suggestions for managing this situation:

  • Recognize that expecting legendary performance from this person is no longer practical. This is often difficult, but the sooner you accept things have changed as a leader, the sooner you can start addressing shortfalls.
  • After clearly informing workplace legends that their performance has declined, reduce their level of accountability along with the expectations placed on them. Giving them a smaller scope allows them to deliver against commitments.
  • Celebrate their contribution to the organization by giving them the opportunity to act as an advisor, coach, or mentor, which enables others to benefit from the numerous valuable lessons your workplace legend has learned over many years of success.

THE PROFESSOR

These individuals are intelligent and well-read employees who bring broad experience or a wide array of knowledge to a topic and often see things that others can’t. By being able to identify variables affecting decision making, they can provide great insights that contribute to desired outcomes.

However, this strength often causes them to feel as though they know more about something than they do, and this can lead them to step into a role with an overconfident mindset. As a result, the projects for which they assume accountability often fail to deliver the expected outcomes.

Some suggested ways to deal with this kind of individual:

  • Enable them to self-correct by regularly providing them with numerous metrics and measurements so they can track progress when working on a particular task or assignment. Because they naturally gravitate towards facts and figures, they will be able to clearly see from this data when they are not producing the intended result.
  • These individuals need to be closely managed. This is necessary to ensure that they do not go off on a tangent unwittingly and without recognizing that it is in fact a tangent and is not going to produce the desired result. Frequent meetings, frequent conversations, and regular discussion of progress are all necessary to help this individual stay on track and contribute their expertise towards achieving the desired outcome.
  • Because these individuals are often perceived to be extraordinarily knowledgeable and competent, the leader can tend to take what they say at face value, and only later realize that there were gaps in what was presented. Consequently, the leader must constantly validate their assumptions that the outcome committed to is going to happen and progress is in fact occurring as stated.

THE EXPERT

These individuals have specific knowledge that enables them to understand or do things others can’t. But while their expertise often adds great value, they are frequently unable to adequately understand other important areas of the business, including ones that can impact their own area of expertise. This can lead to a lack of engagement.

Some suggested ways to tackle this:

  • To keep experts challenged and motivated, place them in leadership positions where they take on greater responsibility, but do this in their area of knowledge. Encouraging them to move beyond the things they do well is not nearly as productive as optimizing their expertise by giving them a broader span of related control and accountabilities.
  • When experts must operate in areas where they are less comfortable, offset their lack of knowledge by ensuring others are positioned to support them.
  • Put experts in positions where they can teach and mentor others. The competence that they offer is usually quite rare, so provide others with an opportunity to learn from them as much as possible. This increases engagement while benefiting the organization.

THE STRATEGIST

These individuals are extraordinarily good at identifying challenges and then figuring out what needs to happen along with ways to move things forward effectively. Their input is valuable and can have a great impact on the organization.

However, attention to detail is not their strength. They are typically not good at the administration required to execute flawlessly, or the creation of plans others can follow. But while they often seem too theoretical to be practical, this is not the case. When it comes to execution, they are just not practical enough.

Some ways to manage this:

  • Complement the abilities of your strategists by teaming them up with someone good at tactics. This is more effective than trying to help the strategist become more skillful at dealing with tactics, which they often find frustrating and unsatisfying.
  • Never assume the strategist understands the difference between what must happen, and how it needs to happen. Clearly articulate it.
  • When issues arise, don’t rely on strategists to determine whether the fault lies with the strategy or with the tactics. The strategist will not be able to effectively make this assessment. Put in place numerous checkpoints along the execution path. The more frequently progress is evaluated, the more readily it can be seen whether the strategy is, in fact, being executed as planned.

THE TACTICIAN

These individuals are typically good at getting jobs done. They consistently show initiative and produce results on time. In addition to knowing how to tackle projects, they deliver on accountabilities.

At first glance this seems ideal, but with a focus on the tactics, tacticians often have an inability to see strategy. As a result, they often default to trying to address a problem before clearly identifying it. That leaves them in the dark about what can be gained by developing a solution, not to mention whether the potential benefits to be gained are worth the effort.

Simply put, leading a tactician is challenging because they often default to getting “it” done before really asking what “it” is, and that pretty much guarantees the best approach to solving a particular problem will not be found.

Some thoughts on managing this kind of individual:

  • When discussing an issue with them, clearly detail why it needs to be addressed. This allows tacticians to turn their attention to the “what” before getting to the “how.”
  • In addition to providing the rationale for addressing an issue, provide as much data and information as possible, which better enables them to process the problem that needs a solution.
  • When asking them to take on a major assignment that includes both strategy and tactics, put them on a team with others skilled at strategic thinking to counter their natural inclination to default to tactics.

Employing each of these types of individuals is clearly worthwhile given their strengths. As for the challenges they pose managers, the mark of a great leader is the ability to get the most out of employees by mitigating their weaknesses.

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