Darden: Building on strength — hard times need a soft touch

July 28, 2013

Tiger Woods had been on track to become the most successful golfer in history. He has a powerful swing that allows him to drive the ball long distances with precision. Most golf pros acknowledge that his swing is his key strength. So why then does he spend the off-season rebuilding a swing that not only works, but works really well?

In the corporate world, companies invest heavily in developing talent. Many firms have their own in-house corporate universities, and those that do not, outsource leadership development to executive education programs at top business schools or pay for employees to have one-on-one coaching. The typical focus of these programs is to improve shaky skills. But there is one glaring problem with the approach. Knowledge, skills and behaviors that are categorized as weaknesses are less likely, regardless of the improvement plan, to yield stellar performance.

At best, improvement plans may raise an employee’s performance to average, but it is unlikely that a weakness will truly become an asset in the same way that Woods’ golf swing has been an asset. And what individual or company can remain competitive by being average? Like Woods, I believe that investing resources on employee strengths rather than only on their weaknesses can make firms exceptional.

This is not to say that one should ignore opportunities to improve weak areas altogether. Rather, in a time of limited resources and growing demands, I believe that resources are better served by enhancing strengths so that excellence can be achieved, rather than improving on weaknesses that may only lead to mediocrity.

Although operating from one’s strengths is important for everyone, it is particularly important for women, especially those working in organizations that have historically used a command and control model of leadership — an approach generally inconsistent with women’s strengths. The command and control model has served us well over the years, but as business becomes increasingly diverse and interconnected, the need for collaboration, trust and relationship building has become equally important to success. Once frowned upon as “soft” or even inappropriate in business, these skills, for which women have generally been more socialized to attain than men, are now seen as vital to organizations that are operating in volatile environments.

A survey conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership indicates that the more pressure and change an organization is facing, the more important a leader’s soft skills become. Among the most important skills survey respondents identified were honest communication, listening and demonstrating sensitivity when dealing with stakeholders. A 2009 Financial Times article reports that a comparison of French companies shows that firms with more women managers fared better during the global recession than firms with mostly male management. Likewise, among small- and medium-size firms in Finland, those firms managed by women were 10 percent more efficient than those run by men.

There was a time when women in business were encouraged to act like a man. Any hint of being soft was death to her career, as she was perceived to not be tough enough to make hard decisions. Fast forward a couple of decades and it turns out that the very behaviors believed to be central to the female constitution are now the precise behaviors that are helping businesses not only survive, but thrive in challenging times. Has the time finally come for women to showcase and be acknowledged for their leadership strengths? It seems so.

Erika Hayes James is senior associate dean for executive education at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. She co-teaches “The Women’s Leadership Program” Executive Education course in October.

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