I often quote the cliché…
“One’s biggest strength is often the source of one’s greatest weakness.”
I find this saying is true for individuals as well as organizations. It happens so frequently that it is essential to understand because as people become overly strong in one area, that creates a blind spot or weakness.
If you read Mort Feinberg’s book, Why Smart People Do Dumb Things, this concept is prevalent there as well. People who are really smart and successful sometimes overuse their strength to the point that it becomes a weakness. The most common example for individuals is that they think they are successful because of the decisions they made and tend to discount the luck involved. In reality, luck has a lot to do with success.
One of my Princeton Professors, Burton Malkiel, wrote the book A Random Walk Down Wall Street. In it, he shares an experiment that he conducted. He gathered a bunch chimpanzees and had them throw darts at a stock listing on a board. Malkiel took those stocks and compared them to what the experts did. For the most part, the chimps held up pretty well.
To illustrate it further, he had our entire class of about 200 people stand up, and each flip a coin. He told the people with “tails” to sit down. As expected, about 100 people sat down. Then, he asked those standing to flip their coin again and about 50% sat down. He repeated the process until only 10 people remained standing.
“Ladies and gentlemen, through this systematic testing with empirical data, I now have the 10 best coin flippers in the world. In fact, they’ve just flipped heads five times in a row. They know how to get heads. I recommend giving 90% of your wealth to these people because you know what’s going to happen. They are going to get heads the next time and double your money.”
The point he was trying to make was that with thousands and thousands of stockbrokers, one is bound to find some who have been right five times in a row. They think they are brilliant, but the reality is that they happened to be the lucky ones.
So, do you really want to invest based on historical data like that? The same thing happens with entrepreneurs. They have great success and attribute it solely to the decisions they made. At this point, they think themselves infallible with making decisions going forward. I run into this mentality frequently, and it is an example of a false skill that people have where they identify their past success as being due to their expertise. This is a common issue that consultants and board of directors have when working with executives who have experienced success.
Let’s look at two examples of successful people.
Former President Bill Clinton
I teasingly say that President Clinton is excellent at seducing people. Now, some people view that as a sexual innuendo, but l want to look at it as a general term. Simply put, he has a personality that attracts people who meet him.
I have two colleagues, one male and another female, who absolutely hated everything about the man – his entourage, family, and policies. They frequently talked about it and almost could not stand to be in the presence of him. In both cases, however, after they met and spoke with him, they changed their minds.
The man is phenomenal in that he can sense what it takes to convince someone. He is incredibly personable with a certain aura. The woman who switched admitted that she did so in a matter of minutes. This was frustrating to her because she did not know what it was, but somehow a connection was made very quickly.
The man was in the process of raising money to defeat President Clinton in the next election. He was a wealthy individual with several people lined up to help, but after speaking with President Clinton, he changed his mind.
President Clinton is very good at seducing people, and he could use it for good – followership for his political agenda and managing the country. He actually made more compromises and progress when there was a divided system. For his first term, the House of Representatives and Senate were both controlled by his Democratic Party. By the end, however, both Houses were Republican-controlled. Yet during that time, he used his power of persuasion to create good compromises. Some people, including me, believe that the economy improved and many good things occurred during that time.
Unfortunately, he also used his power for evil. We know that he had inappropriate relationships with women and used his skills in improper situations. His strength became a weakness.
Daniel Goldin was the longest-tenured Administrator of NASA. I used to work at NASA, but we did not overlap, so I observed the behavior I describe as an outsider. Numerous friends of mine, however, experienced it from the inside.
What was interesting about Goldin was that he was very good at strategic vision. He came up with clever ways of taking the strengths of NASA and creating a vision for explaining how things can be to the White House, Legislature, and inside NASA.
The problem is that he was so good at it that he did it all the time. It seemed like he was coming up with a new vision daily, and it is difficult for a government organization to change so quickly. He was frustrated that people could not keep up, so he was not the best manager. He disrupted people, fired others, and changed things, constantly reorganizing the organization. Some of his visions were incredibly good, but he caused so much disruption. The changes happened so frequently that he could not make the strategic vision a reality.
He ultimately left NASA as was hired as Boston University’s President, but apparently they did little due diligence. When the faculty learned that he was going to be the new President, they contacted their colleagues at NASA and learned about the churn, disruption, and inability to execute the visions. They complained so much that the Board of Trustees asked him not to come. They paid him a multimillion-dollar settlement not to be the university president. That situation is pretty uncommon, but it is an example of where Goldin had an incredible strength but lacked a way to harness it.
Companies suffer from a similar problem.
GE is a multinational conglomerate headquartered in Boston that has had an incredible run of success. They reached that by acquiring businesses and combining them and then creating management systems to lead them.
During Jack Welch’s time, he came up with the idea that GE should lean the organization such that if they could not be in the top two in a particular sector, then they should exit that business. They should focus on doing a better job in an area where they were already in the top two. He wanted to use skills to help people, deploy capital, and support the organization to ensure the businesses remained in the top two. That was an enormous strength.
Jeffrey Immelt took over as CEO in 2000 and had a very good idea for the future, which was to take the leadership role in the Industrial Internet and develop a new sector. What is interesting is that GE’s greatest strength was acquiring and managing businesses to the top two but not doing a greenfield startup in a new area.
After the startup was up and going, they acquired businesses to support it to get back to their successful ways. Unfortunately, their systems and processes did not do a good job of supporting this new approach. GE was previously a master at making it through the ups and downs of cycles, but now they tried to apply their skills for managing the top two to a startup. It simply did not work.
As a result, they churned through millions of dollars and lost focus on the other areas. GE thinned down to where the business was smaller, and now in 2019, there has been an enormous setback. The CEO has changed a couple of times since Immelt left, and GE is at risk regarding their future. It will be fascinating to see if they continue with their previous strengths or come up with new ones and manage themselves back to the top where they used to be.
I had the opportunity to work directly with Boeing when they purchased my drone company, Insitu. Before buying us, they contracted with us, which was instrumental in our future. We had several of the Boeing Presidents on our Board of Directors, which provided an excellent opportunity to interact with them and have visibility into how Boeing operated. After the purchase, I had the chance to work with people at every level of the organization, from the first line and middle management to lower and upper executives.
One of Boeing’s greatest strengths is that they have a proud history in the aerospace industry, from airplanes and military aircraft to commercial products and space. That is the foundation upon which they built their business. They have a strong history and knowledge that they can leverage as they enter new areas.
But it turns out that their strength also ends up creating a significant problem for them in middle management. Boeing executives will be the first to tell you that they are incredibly frustrated because middle management is exceedingly arrogant. They are condescending with each other, customers, and suppliers. It is a real issue and challenge for them.
It is interesting how one of their strengths plays into this weakness, which can interfere with business. While the executive team does not have this arrogant behavior, it is hard for them to be everywhere to keep things in check. They are continuously fixing problems as a result.
It is critical to understand the strengths and weaknesses. It is a cliché but also a law of general behavior. Leaders need an action plan for themselves, the organization, and the people around them. One hopes that everyone understands their biggest strength is also fueling their weakness and finds strategies and tactics to manage that.
At GE, they are getting back to basics, raising money by reducing their investments in certain areas. If they can raise enough money, they will probably buy businesses like they used to do. They clearly are not as good at organic growth and innovating in-house as they are at acquisitions and running businesses. Once they have a business, their systems run it well.
Boeing is currently implementing several HR initiatives to manage the middle management arrogance. They have training programs in place and are also conducting interventions. Moreover, employees need personal plans as well because they have strengths that can be viewed as weaknesses. They, too, must learn how to manage it.
On a personal note, one of my strengths is that I am quick on my feet and like to debate or enter into reparté. I use that as a tool to manage. Since I am comfortable with it, I do not give it much thought. As an engineer, I am not debating the person but rather the idea. Therefore, I do not notice how intimidating it can be. While at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Insitu, I worked on this with my executive coach, Mort Feinberg. The managers around me at those organizations figured out how I operated and did not find me intimidating, but they reported that their direct reports did. One of the solutions we devised was for the people close to me to explain to others “how Sliwa works” and help them understand.
My process is that I use this debate and Q&A process to gain information about the decisions that are underway. One critical takeaway is that one does not need to win the argument. It is more about the process of finding the questions and answers. In fact, people who do not know me would not understand that I could take the other side of the argument and come up with a winning debate. I actually enjoy doing it – the reparté and debate – because I am quick on my feet, but people are not always in that mode.
What I am really trying to understand are the thoughts that went into the process and demonstrate that the person representing the position is thoughtful. If new data appears, I want to know that they are willing to change their perspective and view to take that additional information into account.
People are sometimes shocked because they come forward, debate a little on the process, feel like they lost the debate, and then have the project approved. My team goes back and explains that the goal was not to win the debate but to show that the person brought a lot to the table and is willing to shift when contradictory data appears. Once an employee convinces Sliwa of that, then he will have confidence and will invest in the project, if appropriate.
I have had several executive managers describe their “aha” moment when they finally figured me out and reached the point where they do not have to agree or win. They know that they can go back and forth because it is merely part of the process – getting better information out and helping the decision and approval process.
Perhaps another solution would be to tell Sliwa to stop using that method of asking questions and debating, but that is who I am! It is hard for me not to be me. I try to hold back, but the reality is that the people around me need to adjust to me just as I am doing my best to adjust to them. I can only change so much, but I can watch for my strength being a detriment to the organization and groups I run. I work hard to make people realize they do not have to win, but it helps if my team explains to new people what the process is.
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