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Gloval Leadership Strengths
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When Is a Strength Not a Strength?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016
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What is your signature strength as a leader? And did you know that this strength could be holding you back professionally?

The concept of strengths-focused development makes sense as companies seek to maximize the performance of their top talent by engaging their greatest abilities and passions. However, it can be just as harmful to overdo a leadership strength as it is to underdo it. The challenge for many leaders is that it can be a tough problem to spot.

Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser captured this challenge perfectly in their 2009 Harvard Business Review article “Stop Overdoing Your Strengths”: “Most managers can point to an off-kilter leader—the supportive boss who cuts people a little too much slack, for instance, or the gifted operational director whose relentless focus on results leads to hypercontrol. But it’s extremely difficult to see such overkill in yourself.”

Leadership development programs don’t always help to address the problem either. I often find that strengths-based programs are too inwardly focused, zeroing in on the strengths of the individual at the expense of the organization’s culture. It’s not uncommon to see how a respected strength in one culture could be viewed quite differently in another.

The key to effective strengths-focused leadership is for leaders to bring their professional assets to the table in ways that can be understood and appreciated by colleagues from different cultures—who may have different expectations from leadership behavior. Is it a tough challenge? Yes! But not an impossible one. Global leaders need to be culturally aware, and they must be able to adapt their behavior to their audience.

If You Overuse Your Strengths, They Can Become a Liability

A Chinese executive, Howard, recently shared with me his career dilemma. Based in Guangzhou, Howard has been working in the procurement function at a global high-tech company for 15 years. He has been very successful in the procurement role and was promoted several times before reaching his current senior executive position.

Over the years, there were good opportunities in various international assignments that were available to him. However, he always concluded, “Procurement is my expertise. I have built good relationships with the vendors. I have excellent negotiation skills. I know what I am doing and I am comfortable here. An international assignment? My English is not that good. This isn’t for me.” Over time, he has become viewed as the “procurement guy” with a narrow skillset.

Recently, Howard got a new boss. Mark was young, ambitious, and outgoing. After working at a number of lower-level positions, Mark applied for a position with product marketing. Two years later, he moved to the supply chain division and along the way took a couple of international assignments in the United States and Germany. He soon became known as a well-rounded leader with a wide range of experiences. As a result, he got a big promotion to lead the global procurement function. Howard was shocked at this development. Why? Because one of Mark’s first positions was working in procurement under Howard’s supervision. Howard now reports to him!

When the company went through a reorganization, Howard’s options were few because of his limited experience outside of procurement. There was no position within procurement to progress to, and it was too risky to move him to other functions as a senior executive. He was stuck!

What can we learn from Howard’s experience? To be a successful global leader, you can never stop learning. Always challenge yourself and be willing to step outside your comfort zone.

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This also happened to another client. Ben is the China president of a global semiconductor company. Born and raised in China and educated in the United States, he has a strong engineering background. His 360-degree feedback showed that he is highly analytical, detail-oriented, and very hands-on. These traits served Ben well in his previous position. However, after he was promoted to president, his core strengths became a serious liability.

For example, when important decisions needed to be made, he tended to dive into technical details, and spent days, even weeks collecting and analyzing data and weighing all the alternatives. His meetings often turned into long, analytical discussions with no decisions at the end. He was hands-on about the day-to-day technical problem solving, and had a hard time letting go. His staff was left frustrated and confused. He became a true bottleneck.

When working with senior leaders at the U.S. corporate office—which valued big-picture thinking in its leaders—he gave detailed reports on the execution plan, not a long-term, strategic vision. He was surprised by the feedback: “Ben is too analytical and hands-on at this position. This may have made him successful in the past, but it’s now his biggest blind spot.”

Use Your Strengths Wisely

I often talk about the importance of being culturally agile when working in a global environment, and this rule is even more applicable to personal development. A strength is only a strength if it is acknowledged and appreciated by those around you! Global leaders need to strike a delicate balance between showcasing their own abilities and carefully reading the culture of the room.

Although the effect is often most acutely felt when working with people from different countries, being aware of the impact of cultural differences isn’t always about the challenges of working across continents. Sometimes you can find a culture gap much closer to home. Here’s a very different—and very personal—story that changed how I saw my own strengths and actually helped shape my entire career.

When I started out as a leadership coach, I spoke with my mentor, Marshall Goldsmith, about my sense that I simply didn’t fit into the world of leadership development. All the other consultants were white, male, and quite a bit older. I was a fish out of water and I found myself on the verge of trying out alternative career paths.

I asked Marshall if this really was the job for me and he replied, “Your age, gender, and background are not your disadvantage; they are your advantage. You stand out. You are different. You can relate to different groups of people; you are multilingual and you have a global perspective. This can be your unique contribution to developing the next generation of leaders around the world.”

That was decades ago. My inability to fit in with the leadership development culture of the time turned out to be a strength! Today, as a leadership coach working between Eastern and Western cultures, my unique experience and background have helped me support emerging global leaders with a different perspective on their development challenges.

Applying a “Strengths Focus” to Global Leadership

In the latest of my 100 top tips, here is my guide to bringing a strengths-focused approach to global leadership:

  • Build your leadership brand. What do you want to be known for? What perception do your colleagues and managers have of you? Self-awareness is the key. Seek feedback from colleagues and examine your 360-degree feedback for what people think you’re great at, as well as your development areas. The great management thinker Peter Drucker said, “We spend a lot of time helping leaders learn what to do; we don’t spend enough time helping leaders learn what to stop.” As you move to different leadership positions, look in the mirror and ask yourself, “What do I need to change to be effective in my new role?”
  • Know the cultural context. Understand as much as you can about the culture and norms of the people and teams you work with and how your brand of leadership is likely to be received by them. This is true of any organization, but particularly so when working with other cultures that may view certain behavioral traits differently from how your own country or corporate culture does.
  • Shift your style. Be willing to take risks and drive change. How can you adapt your behavior to accommodate cultural differences without losing your authenticity and values? Equally as important as simply being aware of your strengths is the ability to flex and adapt how you use them to the environment and people you are working with.
  • Engage your key stakeholders. Make sure those close to you are aware of what you're trying to do. Communicate your personal goals to your key stakeholders and ask them for regular feedback. You may find that the perceptions of these stakeholders may start to shift as they watch you change and grow.
  • Actively develop yourself. Work with mentors and coaches and seek leadership development and training opportunities. Make sure you are well rounded and know how your strengths are viewed by key stakeholders and how you can utilize them to the greatest effect.
About the Author
Maya Hu-Chan was rated one of the world’s top eight global solutions thinkers by Thinkers50, and one of the World’s Top 30 Leadership Gurus in 2013. Maya is an international management consultant, executive coach, and author. Harvard Business School has chosen her book , Global Leadership: The Next Generation, to be one of their working knowledge recommended books. She is also a contributing author to 10 leadership and management books. Maya was born and raised in Taiwan and lives in San Diego. She has worked with thousands of leaders in Global Fortune 500 companies around the world. To contact her, email  maya@globalleadershipassociates.com, or visit her website at www.mayahuchan.com.
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