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Play to your strengths

Published on Saturday, 31 Jan 2015
Catherine Zhu

For too long, performance management and leadership development have focused on fixing managers’ weaknesses, rather than building their strengths.

That’s changing though, as companies realise that leaders with extraordinary “spikes” in one or two areas can generate huge value – even if their other skills are only average.

For example, a global technology company sought a leader for a new business unit. It promoted an executive who had a passion for product development, but had limited experience in people management. The company took a risk and appointed him, and he was tasked with launching innovative new products.

The bet paid off. Within 18 months he had taken several new products to market and the business had grown to top three worldwide.

The company calculated, correctly, that this executive’s obsession with developing incredible products – and his insight into what would delight customers, even if the customers didn’t yet know it – was the strength that truly mattered for the role.

Underpinning this strength was deep curiosity about the possibilities created by technological advancement and a fierce determination to succeed. The company recognised that these combined qualities – which go beyond IQ – were likely to mark out this individual as a unique leader in the future.

In other companies, I’ve observed leaders with different “spikes” be just as successful. For example, a new CEO of a multinational was both its first female chief and an extraordinary people leader. Through small gestures, such as meeting executives in their own areas rather than summoning them to her office, this CEO was able to build tremendous engagement across the company.

For the leaders of tomorrow, my message is: identify your core strengths and invest heavily in cultivating them. A good place to start is an online strength-finder such as

Finally, don’t let anyone convince you to overinvest in competencies you’ll never excel at – instead, be smart about finding the right people and systems to surround you in those areas.

Catherine Zhu is managing partner of Egon Zehnder, Hong Kong

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