Play To Your Team Strengths

This past weekend I went to a training course for an event that I’m participating in next year. One of the quotes that came up during the course was about picking the team that will help you during the event. The quote sounded something like this:

Get the right people on the right bus in the right seats and figure out where you want to go.

Sounds simple, right? Right people, right bus, right seats. Not everyone is going to be a good fit for your team and even if they are they may not be in the right position to do their best work. But how do you know what they’re good at?

Not-So-Well Rounded

Last night, I listened to this excellent Art of Network Engineering episode. The guest was a friend of mine in the industry, Mike Bushong (@MBushong). He’s a very talented person and he knows how to lead people. He’s one of the people that would love to work for given the opportunity. He’s also very astute and he has learned a lot of lessons about enabling people on a team.

One of the things he discussed in the episode was about people’s strengths. Not just things you’re good at but qualities you would say are your strongest assets. Aspects of you that you say are core to what you do. Maybe you’re good at writing emails but is that a strength? Or is concise communication your real strength? Are you good at seeing patterns? Or are you analytical? Every task you excel at isn’t a strength until you can see the underlying pieces that you really are good at doing.

One of the things that Mike brought up in the episode that really resonated with me was the idea that our performance evaluation system is really built around pointing out weaknesses and encouraging (or forcing) people to work on them. I can understand having people work on some core skills that are necessary in a business environment, such as time management or communications. You have to be good at those in order to succeed in your career.

However, having people pick up new skills or focus on aspects of what they do almost in a vacuum doesn’t really help as much as managers might think it does. Could you imagine telling someone like Steph Curry he needs to work on his dunking skills? Or perhaps telling someone like Steven Tyler that, while his singing is great, he really should spend more time playing the drums to be a more well-rounded band member?

The idea of telling professionals to concentrate on something other than their strength is ludicrous. Albert Pujols isn’t going to be the base stealing king for a baseball team. His strength is hitting home runs. Why try to make him into someone that runs instead of someone that hits? Yet when you ask a manager about reviewing someone’s performance they’ll tell you they need that team member to be well-rounded or they need to pick up this other skill that isn’t necessarily their strength but is needed.

I’m a decent writer. I’ve found over the past fifteen years that one of my strengths is in written communications. I can distill information and convey it to others through written words. I’ve managed to adapt that skill into being good at public speaking and giving presentations. What I would not be good at doing is being a full-time project manager with responsibilities for managing timelines for multiple teams. It’s because I realize that I need to be good enough at time management to get my work done but it is by no means a strength for me. For my manager to tell me to spend more time focusing on my weakness and less on my strength is doing me and the team a disservice.

Strong Bus

When you’re putting together your team, you need the right people on the bus. That part is pretty easy, right? But if you don’t know what they’re good at you don’t know if they’re the right people for your bus. If you have a team of people that are very detail oriented do you need to add another detail oriented person to do design work? Or would it be better to have someone with a strength in creativity? If you already have a group introverts that work best in isolation do you want to add another? Or do you need an outgoing personality in a role that interfaces with other teams or customers?

When you’re putting the right people in the right seats on the bus, make sure you’re looking at playing to their strengths instead of forcing them into a role to help them grow. Most people love a good challenge or like to step outside of their comfort zone now and then. However not everyone is able to take on a role that is something they consider a weakness. Instead of pushing people to the point of being uncomfortable and making them the wrong person in the wrong seat we need to help them succeed. An example might be having someone with limited experience creating marketing material perhaps working to come up with written pieces of the deliverables instead of the entire design. Or maybe having them do a single flyer or handout instead of the entire job. Giving them the opportunity to stretch a little and succeed is a much better way to help them in their career instead of throwing them in the deep end of the pool and hoping they can swim.

Tom’s Take

You should listen to the entire podcast episode with Mike Bushong. It encapsulates why he’s such a well-liked and effective leader. He knows his limitations and he works to overcome them. He identifies the right people for his team and he puts them in the places they can make the most impact to get things accomplished. He knows that a good leader makes the people around them better by enabling them to succeed. Some of these lessons are things that I’ve learned over the past few years through Wood Badge and the way he’s phrased them helped me internalize them a bit better. Play to people’s strengths and you’ll be happily surprised at how far they can go with you.