This post is part of a series on The Effective Executive (by Peter F. Drucker). You can find the first post here. In this post I’m going to tackle chapter 4: making strength productive?

Chapter 4: making strength productive

Most people have one or maybe two strengths if they are lucky and a great many weaknesses. It is the most important job of an organization to find the strengths of their employees and minimize or render irrelevant each person’s weaknesses.

Why improving weaknesses doesn’t work

Trying to improve weaknesses is a losing strategy. With great effort you might be able to achieve mediocre performance in an area of weakness. In most cases, it’s a waste of time and energy to work on your weaknesses.

For example, Michael Jordan was one of the greatest basketball players of all time but his performance as a baseball player was barely noteworthy. He did it because he wanted to do something different but his contribution to his team was undoubtedly higher when he was playing basketball. If you owned both a baseball team and a basketball team and Jordan worked for you, which sport would you insist he play?

Building on strength is the way to go

It’s much better to find out what a person does best and nurture that talent. Can you imagine where Michael Phelps would be today if someone had said you’re really good a swimming but I noticed your a crap gymnast. From now on you’re going to split your time evenly between swimming and gymnastics. How do you think that would work out?

Yet, as programmers, we encounter that kind of thing all the time. Bob’s a pretty good programmer but he’s not very good at public speaking. He’ll have to work on that. Or Jill’s a great programmer but she doesn’t have strong leadership qualities. She’s going to have to work on that. What do either of those things have to do with being a great programmer? Drucker would make sure Bob didn’t have to do any public speaking and Jill wasn’t put in leadership positions. It’s a simple solution. These people have spent years or decades honing their skills as programmers–and it’s a really difficult field–so why would we want these people to devote their time and energy struggling to become adequate in a skill that isn’t important to their success as programmers?

It’s kind of like Fight Club, if I can paraphrase Tyler here, “If he’s good at back-end programming tell him he’s no good at front-end programming. If he’s good at databases tell him he sucks at embedded. If rocks at embedded tell him he sucks at OS programming.” It’s some kind of messed up cultural thing where we torture good, hard working people by pointing out their weaknesses and make them feel bad about them.

Hiring

If you are ever asked to help with hiring, I strongly recommend you read this chapter. It’s full of advice on how to hire for strength and why that matters. I’m not going to dive into hiring here but just know that chapter 4 of The Effective Executive has been helpful to me when I’ve been involved in hiring.

How do I manage my boss?

Allow me to quote Drucker:

Above all, the effective executive tries to make fully productive the strengths of his own superior.

What does that mean? It means that you should actively try to help your boss succeed by playing to his strengths.

More from Drucker:

The effective executive therefore asks: “What can my boss do really well?” “What has he done really well?” “What does he need to know to use his strength?” “What does he need to get from me to perform?”

Of course this makes perfect sense when you think about it. There are many paths to success in business. A boss with an engineering background will likely have completely different strengths than an MBA or someone coming from sales. Your effectiveness, the effectiveness of your boss, and the effectiveness of your company depend in part on you figuring out what your boss needs to maximize his strengths and helping him get it. It’s not terribly difficult to figure all this stuff out; you just have to pay attention and experiment a little.

Finding your talents

Many people, and especially young people, have only the vaguest idea of their talents. If you try enough things in life you’re eventually figure out that you’re better at x than y. But that’s a really a slow and expensive way to find your talents.

Drucker doesn’t have much to say on the topic other than that it’s important. So I recommend you read StrengthFinder 2.0 (Tom Rath). Each copy of this book has a one-time use access code (note: some people are saying that the kindle versions don’t have the code so maybe stick with the physical book) to take a rapid-fire 177 question test and it splits out your top five talents. Then you can use the book to help you interpret and understand the results.

Millions of people have taken this test and the consensus is that it’s a valuable tool for discovering your talents. My wife and I both did the test and we thought the results were bang-on. Even though we couldn’t put our strengths into nice categories before we read the book, we totally agreed with our results.

Once your find your talents it takes practice and dedication to turn your talent into a strength.

So read the book and do the test. Discover your talents and work to improve your skills in those areas to bring out your strengths. And, as a side benefit, you may start to see other people’s strengths and adjust your interactions with them accordingly.

Conclusion

Drucker is absolutely correct to focus us on strength as opposed to weakness. We have a cultural fixation with weakness and it’s not helpful or healthy. Find the strengths in yourself, your boss, and your co-workers. Do what you can to play to those strengths and minimize the weaknesses. It’s a 10x programmer thing to do.