One of my favourite questions when I interview a candidate is the following:

“If I met your boss at a social event, and I asked him or her about the 3 things you are best at and your 3 most notable weaknesses, what would he or she tell me about you?”

The reason is simple: abundant research, and the example of peak performers in business and sports, point towards the same direction. The basic ingredient for successful leadership and management is self-awareness.

“Successful careers are not planned. They develop as opportunities come to people that know their strengths, their method of work, and their values” — Peter Drucker

Beyond popular personality tests like Myers-Briggs, there are more comprehensive ways to help us develop a better understanding of ourselves, our strengths, weaknesses, the way we manage ourselves and how we manage others.

Based on my research (including Peter Drucker’s book, “Managing Oneself”, which I highly recommend), and my own experience, I would propose an approach based on 3 basic pillars:

  1. Knowing yourself: understanding your strengths, your weaknesses, the way you learn, the way you work or the way you really interact with others;
  2. Developing yourself: maximising your strengths. Once you are clear about the things you do well, focusing your energy in going from good to outstanding; and
  3. Complementing yourself: hedging your weaknesses. You are expected to work regularly on your weaknesses to become a well rounded person and professional. But for best effectiveness, seek the support of others or ways of using technology to hedge your blind spots.

1. Do you know yourself?

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses

“Whenever you make a decision or take a key decision, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the results with what you expected.” — Peter Drucker

A well-tested way to know your strengths and weaknesses is through your own feedback analysis, as proposed by Drucker. Great achievers like Warren Buffett or Ray Dalio have made of this a habit. It will help you understand your key strengths, through direct observation and over time, by highlighting the basic principles of your decision making.

The “What” component of the decision in the past should not be of interest. It is the intellectual framework and rationale in relation to the information available at the time that will teach us the valuable lesson. An analysis of this kind will allow you to have a better understanding of your strengths and your blind spots.

Knowing how you work

Your method is important.

How do you learn? Are you a writer or a talker? Do you need to write down things to learn? Or do you need to present your new findings to someone else out loud for that content to cement in your mind? It makes a difference to work with one or the other type.

How do you communicate? Are you a reader or a listener? For instance, some people would rather communicate through email, while others prefer to come over for a live chat. Readers tend to prefer reports and listeners prefer meetings, for obvious reasons.

Are you obsessed with detail or are you an 80/20 person? Some jobs will prefer one over the other. Managing a boss of either type will entail very different challenges. For instance, detail oriented people tend to have a larger tendency to become micromanagers.

What is your work cadence? Do you perform better on a Maker’s Schedule or a Manager’s Schedule?

This is an interesting one, and a path of self-discovery for me since we founded ThirdWay Africa. Previously, as an investment banking salesperson on a trading floor, my job was centered around client calls, meetings and multitasking. And I enjoyed it very much.

But since taking the COO position at our firm I realised that, in part based on the demands of my role, in part also based on my working style, I am most valuable to the firm under a Maker’s Schedule, while my business partner and CEO is at his best operating on a Manager’s Schedule.

The concept of Manager’s vs. Maker’s Schedule is best described in an article by Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator. To some extent, it also links very well with the concepts outlined by Cal Newport in his best-selling book“Deep Work”.

In essence, a Manager’s Schedule is for bosses. Your day is pieced in slots of 1 to 2 hours, in which you mostly meet and manage people and teams. The most powerful people operate this way. They spend most of their day managing internal or external relationships. They will get chunks of work done but they tend to delegate most of the execution or the operational work. They are ok with a speculative meeting here and there. If the calendar is open, they will normally be available.

If you are on a Maker’s Schedule (fellow writers, I salute you), there is nothing more pleasing than having a full, uninterrupted day to work on one’s key deliverables and go deep into things that need long chunks of time. Topics like financial analysis, writing essays (go figure a book), defining processes or strategy planning demand such focused approach.

For someone operating on this schedule meetings tend to break their day. A constant change of activity forbids them to get in the flow of things. Throw in 2 or 3 meetings in a day and a feeling of “not having time to get anything done”will invade someone on this schedule. Of course, people on a Maker’s Schedule is ok with meetings, but tend to prefer booking them as chunks and normally at the end of the working day, or to use one day of the week just for meetings. This makes meetings become a block themselves, disrupting production as little as possible.

A lack of self-awareness in a team may make reconciling both types difficult, as one type may challenge the validity of the other’s approach to work. Yet, successful firms have key members operating in sync on both schedules with no issue. In our specific case it works very well, providing our firm with great leverage.

It is all about understanding others and putting people to play to their strengths. More on this below.

Knowing how you interact with others

“People perversely insist on behaving like human beings” — Peter Drucker

Fact of life: it is easier to expect people to adapt to our working method than to take the time and energy to learn how others work too. Not understanding how others around you work will impact performance and culture, leading to frustration for everyone involved.

Do you know your colleague strengths and method as well as yours? Why not? Have you asked? Take knowing this as your responsibility, do not expect for them to come and tell you.

Remember: you don’t need to like your colleague to work well together. Understanding him will be enough.

2. Do you develop yourself?

By now you are aware of your strengths and weaknesses, the way you work and the way you interact with others. But what got you here won’t take you further along, so 2 things need to happen at this stage:

  1. Make sure that your job and management structure provide you with a platform in which your strengths are used every day. A place where the setup allows you to shine, where there is a fit. The key here is to be in an environment in which you have an opportunity to develop and exploit your strengths regularly, as opposed to a construct in which you are valued upon activities in which your weakness are frequently exposed.
  2. Focus all your energy to go from good to outstanding. Do not become anxious over your weaknesses. Yes, you will need to invest in those areas too to become a well rounded person and professional. But generally, you should direct the majority of your energy towards your strengths.

Lets pick athletics as an example. If you are a natural sprinter, deciding to become the best 10-mile runner will make you frustrated, playing catch up all day long vis a vis the more natural long distance runners.

Focusing solely on weaknesses is aiming to improve from mediocre to normal. And it will be at the expense of investing a disproportionate amount of energy. Apply greater focus to maximising strengths.

3. Do you complement yourself?

Ok, so what do we do about our weaknesses then? Because I may be in a well-suited role, but I will still have blind spots or a narrow skillset. That is obvious.

Think of content producers and their sales people. They complement each other well. The combination of both skillsets make for a very powerful team in most cases, and in most cases you would not want to swap their roles.

Ask yourself the following question: How can I design my workflow in synergy with other colleagues so that I can rely on their strengths to at least partially keep my weaknesses on check?

Unfortunately, sometimes people evolve into roles in which they are good at some things, but very bad at others. The new job is completely different, and the skills required are different as a result. Examples of stellar sales people that are promoted to (terrible) managers come to mind. Although not always easy to implement in practice, that firm would benefit from promoting a sales person with real manager skills, instead of giving the manager’s job to an employee purely on production metrics. Doing the right thing, in this case, is also doing what is necessary.

Another way of looking at hedging weaknesses is thinking of how technology may help us be better at what we are not very good at. In my case, I forget things easily so I run the risk of letting things fall through the cracks. But I know this, so I have designed a system of tools and tech apps that help me avoid being my own victim.

The key here is, to the extent possible, to find ways to hedge (through people around you or technology) those areas. Weaknesses can sometimes be «hired», allowing you to apply greater focus on your strengths.

As always, you need to take action

Self-awareness is a key ingredient for change. I speak from experience, it was for me.

But there is no changing of the things that you don’t know and you cannot measure. Without data, you react. So ask people close to you, family, friends and trusted co-workers for feedback. Compare “notes” with what you know of you. Then invest in being a better version of yourself. Maximise your strengths (develop yourself) and hedge your weaknesses (complement yourself).

Knowing is not enough. Information serves little purpose if you don’t act on it. So take action, the rewards at the end of the path will surprise you