Marcus Buckingham achieved fame with his best-sellers First, Break all the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths. In his latest book The One Thing You Need to Know he argues that personal success comes from not doing things you don't want to do. He says you should focus on the things you enjoy doing and are good at—and ruthlessly get rid of everything else.
This is at once straightforward advice - if you love numbers go into finance not sales - and a very radical idea, because ever since we were young we have been taught we ought to fix our weaknesses. A student who is poor at math will be told to try harder, not told to stop doing it so he or she can concentrate on their strengths
There is one aspect of that traditional advice that Buckingham does subscribe to, which is that you shouldn't give up because something is hard. He believes that success does require hard work, determined effort and the willingness to face and overcome failure. His point is that you should work very hard at something you are good at so that you create something great, rather than working very hard at something you are lousy at so that you create something mediocre.
It may be that in the past fixing weaknesses really was the right thing to do. In the age of mass production every product was the same and every worker was meant to be the same as well. The emphasis on making people fit the mould has been with us for three hundred years - something brilliantly documented by Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punishment. However, the days of mass production are giving way to mass customization, creative work, and change. In this new world the emphasis is on creating a wide range of really great things, not a consistent mediocrity. In this new world there is more opportunity to be great at some specific niche rather than simply struggling to fit into some pre-defined role.
The challenge people face is that our work is always changing and it often changes in ways that takes us away from doing things we love and are good at to things we don't like and are not so good at. This is where is becomes important to recognize and get rid of the work you don't like. You can only be successful if you are spending most of your day doing things you really like and excel at.
Buckingham feels that the secret of management is just the flip side of the secret of individual success. In studying great managers he observes that they look at what makes every individual different and then try to use that. If one sales clerk is great at setting up displays while another is great at chatting to customers then an excellent manager will re-design the work to take advantage of the skills of these individuals. In other words they don't expend their efforts making people fit the specifications so that the corporate machine runs efficiently, instead they look at the talent they have and find a way to orchestrate it to achieve results.
This research is important to individuals who want to succeed and it is important to managers who want get the most out of their team. It's also important to parents who want to help their children find the right path.
Buckingham's ideas are particularly important for people outside of America. Despite all the press given to the research on strengths in the U.S. only 41 percent believe it's better to improve strengths than fix weaknesses - but those numbers are even lower elsewhere. In Canada it's only 38 percent. In Japan and China it's 34 percent. It's a big shift from thinking we need to change people to fit the work to the idea we ought to change work to fit the person. We need to embrace the idea, practice it and share the concept with others.
David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research providing writing, research and commentary on human capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in the US, Japan, Canada and China. He occasionally gives speeches. Mr. Creelman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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