In our experience, one of the consistent qualities that differentiate great leaders from average ones is that they discover the strengths of their team and then capitalize on them. As David recently put it with one of our clients, great leadership is more like chess than checkers. Because some of us don’t play chess or checkers, let us explain. In checkers, all the pieces are the same; they move in the same way; they are interchangeable. In checkers, you need to plan and coordinate movements, absolutely, but all pieces move at the same pace, on parallel paths. That, however, is not the case in chess. In chess, each piece is distinct and moves differently. You can’t play chess well if you don’t know how each piece moves and the advantages it has on the board. Here’s the parallel: great leaders know their team members—their distinct advantages and limitations—and they strategically integrate them into a coordinated plan of attack.
To do this, there are two tangible elements that leaders should know and leverage within their team: the strengths of their team members and any drivers that may impact high performance for that individual.
Know and leverage their strengths.
Most leaders have a general idea of their team members’ capabilities, but not an in-depth one. Going back to our chess analogy, general knowledge will allow us to play the game but fall woefully short of mastering it.
So how do we get this knowledge? We could run assessments and inventories to identify their strengths and we often encourage these practices with clients, but we believe the best way is for leaders to spend time outside their offices walking around, interacting with employees, observing teammates’ reactions to events, listening, and taking mental notes about what each person is drawn to and what each person struggles with. Not only will this build awareness of skills, but when done with emotional intelligence, it also builds the relational rapport necessary for success, because, unlike wooden chess pieces, people need positive relational experiences with their leader (we recognize that some of you may be disappointed with that reality).
Another more direct approach to gain clarity on this topic could be through questions. Ask teammates, “What was the best day at work you’ve had in the past six months?” Find out what the team member was doing and why they enjoyed it so much. This question will most likely surface their interests and abilities, which is the sweet spot for consistently high performance.
NOTE: Although we’re keeping an eye out for our teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, our focus should be on their strengths. Great leaders focus on building people’s strengths and neutralizing weaknesses.
Identify the drivers that launch outstanding performance.
As many of us have discovered, a person’s strengths aren’t always on display. Sometimes people thrive in a particular context or scenario that launches them into high performance. Provide the optimal environment, and a person will rise to the occasion. In a different situation, that person may well shut down.
One employee’s driver for consistently high performance might be tied to a time of the day (e.g., Becky, one of our business partners, acknowledges that her mind works better after 10 am). Another teammate’s driver might be tied to you as a leader (e.g., you’ve worked with someone for five years, he still needs you to check in with him frequently or he feels like he’s being ignored). Another teammate’s driver might be just the opposite—independence (e.g., she’s only worked for you for three months, but if you check in with her even once a week, she feels micromanaged).
The key here is understanding that multiple things can impact performance—the environment, circumstances, patterns, rhythms, and practices of individuals can either propel or undercut their ability to perform. As leaders who want to get the highest performance out of our team members, it behooves us to know these things and help position people for success. So, what are the elements that launch your teammates into high performance? How can you help position them for success?
Closing Thought: Like in chess, nobody advances in leadership by perpetually resigning. What is your next move to advance your team?