Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Post-Modern Idea of Strength

One of the wisest women I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing once told me that our weaknesses are often the flip side of our strengths (Jean Koh Peters, I think about you every day). This was a quietly radical thought for the young self-deprecating idealist I was at the time. When I first heard this advice, I was engaged in a ferocious (yet losing) battle to eradicate my many faults. I was also trying with equal fervor to catch a glimpse of the general vicinity of my strengths.

So I never fully understood this wisdom and only discovered its true force over a decade later when I was struggling with leading Julep beyond a one-parlor concept to the next step towards reaching its full potential (e.g. two parlors – then infinity and beyond!). There was a period of time in which I felt that everything that had brought me success up to that point (my ability to knock down any barrier and just GET THINGS DONE) was actually hurting me and my ability to lead our team. Suddenly, I went from being the Get-It-Done Gal to being the Get-In-The-Way-of-Getting-Things-Done Gal. But I was still doing the same things! I was still me! Trying to make decisions about water pitchers and the location of sandwiches and strategy and personnel and finance . . . It was maddening and demoralizing. For everyone concerned.

The thing is, I just couldn’t see that my world had changed. It had grown (again, RADICALLY from one parlor to two). It now included many phenomenally talented women. And we had much much more work than even the most get-it-done-est of gals can actually get done, despite the force of her will and determination. And yet I was still bringing out the same weapons, trying all the same tricks. And confused when I wasn’t getting the same result.

I wonder if any step will be as hard for me in my professional life as letting go of that first parlor – and letting go of the idea that I HAD to be the one capable of doing everything (okay almost everything – because I actually can’t do the one thing that we’re actually all about – the guest services).

But it was a tremendous relief to find out that I wasn't inherently bad for Julep. I could still be useful! I was just over-relying on my strengths because they had always worked for me before. My strengths brought out in the wrong context were making me, and those around me, pretty miserable.

I worked with a incredibly insightful and emotionally intelligent leadership coach named Kate Dale through this period (do you sense a repeating theme of amazing women making a tremendous difference to my life?). I’ve never met Kate face to face – and I would never have thought that someone could have that much of an impact via voice alone. But it was Kate who led me to the corollary to “your strengths are the flip sides of your weaknesses” rule – “your greatest strengths over-relied upon can quickly become your greatest liability.” If I knew anything about sports I might be able to make some muscular-skelatol analogy . . . but alas.

Now I think about both Jean and Kate (and many, many others) every day. It is freeing not to focus on whether I am a bad or good leader, or whether someone is a bad or good contributor – because getting a grade isn’t the point. Instead, I think about whether I am positioning others to allow their strengths to shine in a way that is helpful to the common goal. When I’m frustrated with myself or with a team member, I try to remember that the trait I’m frustrated with often has its twin in something that I treasure. The trick is timing. It’s all in there, we just have to learn what to take out when.