energizing breakthrough performance

Mentoring and the Perils of the “Strengths-Only” HR Theology

Author: ; Published: Dec 12, 2012; Category: Mentoring, Uncategorized, Workforce Planning, Workforce Succession Planning; Tags: None; No Comments»

There is no question that effective mentoring entails helping the mentee to “find his or her strengths.” Once key strengths have been identified, the talent development task focuses on helping the mentee to maximize these strengths, thereby increasing the employee’s near-term value to the organization.  A suitable strategy, as far as it goes. However, can we stipulate that strengths are just part of the equation? Can we also acknowledge gaps or “opportunities for improvement” which need to be addressed if the employee’s career vision and/or company succession plans are to be pursued successfully, as supported by mentoring and/or coaching? Heaven forefend, can we admit that there is or should be long-term value as well as near-term value?

Lately, I have demurred on assignments where HR required a strict, unwavering emphasis on the “finding your strengths” theology.  Why?  Because while strength-finding is a critical part of the story, it’s not the whole story.  To ignore areas of need in the mentoring process while focused slavishly on strength-building is a disservice – both to the individual and to the organization.

A few examples illustrate this point.  For instance, a Chief Scientific Officer is a genius in his specialty, but his people skills are severely off-putting to staff, peers, and clients, damaging relationships, productivity, and adding to turnover. Is it prudent to focus solely on maximizing his scientific prowess? Shall we allow our malignant hero to proceed apace, without regard for long-term collateral damage?

An introverted forensic investigator delivers impeccable analysis, but is a nervous public speaker who fails to present her findings to the jury at trial so as to convince rather than confuse: All steak, no sizzle. Shall we simply maximize her analytic skills and hope for the best at trial?

A senior executive who possesses critical management skills and world-class engineering mastery takes the podium before several hundred employees and fails to connect with them, delivering one uninspiring speech after another; members of the audience never fail to marvel and giggle at the speaker’s now-legendary monotone.  Shall we just let this ride, accepting that the executive’s impact will be circumscribed by this deficiency? Maybe letting the employees catch up on their sleep isn’t such a bad thing after all!

Reversing weaknesses is difficult work, requiring dogged determination and creative thinking from both mentor and mentee. While it is blasphemy in some HR circles to say so, I believe that the “strengths-only” HR theology which enjoys a certain popularity today belies a neglectful disregard of pressing developmental needs for both the individual and the organization. It’s akin to enjoying a high success rate because you only take on the easy cases and decline the hard ones. This short-term viewpoint does not plump the talent pipeline for the strategic future. Quality mentoring focuses on the needs of the total individual, and while maximizing the individual’s strengths remains critical, let’s not forget that the bundle of strengths that got you here today doesn’t always take you to where you want to go tomorrow.

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