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power points

Most people think they know what they are good at but they are usually wrong, management guru Peter Drucker has warned. More often, they know what they are not good at – and even then, more people are wrong than right in that evaluation.

It matters because we can only operate effectively from our strengths. To find those, the revered management professor, who died in 2005, preferred an unusual form for feedback. Instead of turning to others, turn to yourself. Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Then, nine to 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations.

“Practised consistently, this simple method will show you within a short period of time, maybe two or three years, where your strengths lie,” he wrote in a 1999 essay for Harvard Business Review, which leads off the new compendium of top articles from its century of publication, HBR at 100.

“The method will show you what you are doing or failing to do that deprives you of the full benefits of your strengths. It will show you where you are not particularly competent. And finally, it will show you where you have no strengths and cannot perform.”

Besides concentrating on your strengths and working to improve them, you need to pay attention to where your intellectual arrogance is making you ignorant. People with great expertise in one area, he noted, can be contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge. For example, engineers tend to take pride in not knowing anything about people, and HR professionals can take pride in their ignorance about elementary accounting. “But taking pride in such ignorance is self-defeating. Go to work on acquiring the skills and knowledge you need to fully realize your strengths,” he advised.

Drucker also observed that few people know how they get things done. The first thing to know is whether you are a reader or a listener. How do you best assimilate information? U.S. president Lyndon Johnson was a listener and U.S. president John F. Kennedy was a reader. When Mr. Johnson became president he kept his predecessor’s aides and hurt his effectiveness because they continued to provide advice through written memos rather than the oral communication he preferred.

Similarly, how do you learn? Some people learn by writing. Some by talking things out. Some by taking copious notes. He said most people know the answer, but when he asked if they act on this knowledge few people replied yes.

Another area of inquiry is whether you work well with people or are a loner. And if you work well with people, in what relationship? Some people work well as subordinates. Some work best as team members. Some are good mentors and coaches. Others are loners. As well, do you work best under stress or do you need a highly structured and predictable environment? Do you work best in a small or large organization? “Few people work well in all kinds of environments,” he said.

Also a crucial question is whether you produce the best results as a decision-maker, or as an adviser. Some people function well as advisers, but can’t take on the pressure and responsibility for making the decision. That can be, he noted, why the No. 2 person in an organization can often fail when promoted. “The top spot requires a decision-maker. Strong decision-makers often put somebody they trust into the No. 2 spot as their adviser – and in that position the person is outstanding. But in the No. 1 spot, the same person fails. He or she knows what the decision should be, but cannot accept the responsibility of actually making it,” he wrote.

It’s worth knowing yourself on these various fronts and accepting yourself. It’s not easy to change your predilections. It’s best to work hard to improve the way you perform and try to avoid work where you are likely to be poor.

Quick hits

  • Re-evaluate your job every year or two to see if it’s still good for you, suggests executive coach Gregg Vanourek. That goes beyond salary and benefits to learning, growth, purpose, challenge, fun and the stage of life you are in.
  • Sending your resume atop a cake may get attention, but it can turn off hiring managers who see it as overly aggressive or silly. Career adviser Alison Green argues any gimmick you try should be related directly to the most important skills an employer is looking for rather than just shouting “look at me!”
  • Convenience store robbers are significantly more likely to injure employees who are present on the sales floor rather than behind the cash register when a robbery begins, even though industry standard safety training practices encourage employees to get out from behind the register for their safety. Katherine DeCelles, a professor of organizational behavioural and human resource management, says most robbers want quick access to the money and need the employee to open the register. She advises to think through the steps you will take in case a robbery happens, such as dropping what you are holding, putting your hands up to show you are not resisting and offering to open the register.
  • If you’re always right you’re not learning says Atomic Habits author James Clear.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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