The reason why you will be hired, promoted, and eventually successful, is because in a specific skill, subject, or area, you will be better than other people. Build on your strengths to be successful in your career and life.

In my Central Eastern European culture (and probably in many others), it is customary to focus on one’s weaknesses. When a child brings home a school report with all A’s and one B, parents will tell him/her to fix the B to have straight A’s. When a young trainee in his first job gets feedback, it often mentions ‘areas of development to focus on.’ I believe it is wrong. The reason why you will be hired, promoted, and eventually successful, is because in a specific skill, subject, or area, you will be better than other people. At McKinsey, they call these areas ‘spikes’ (which could be problem-solving; communication skills, etc) and you need to have (at least) two to be ranked in the first highest performance category.

There is a very book which I read when I was younger and which I highly recommend. It is an autobiography of Peter Peterson, a self-made billionaire, and a co-founder of Blackstone, one of the most successful alternative asset managers in the world. Born in a family of Greek immigrants, he made his way up through different roles in market research (Market Facts), advertising (Director at McCann Ericsson), business (Chairman/CEO of Bell & Howell, Fortune 500 company), politics (Secretary of Commerce in Nixon’s administration), Wall street (Chairman/CEO at Lehman Brothers), private equity/entrepreneurship (co-founder of Blackstone), and philanthropy (establishment of his own political think-tank). I will not spoil you the full story, but he succeeded in such diverse fields by realizing early on (after being essentially fired from MIT…) what he is good at (sales/people skills), developing those strengths further, shaping his roles around those skills, and surrounding himself by people who complemented him in other areas (day-to-day operations; analytics, etc).

There are two caveats I would like to highlight. First, the area of strength do not need to be ultra-narrow area of expertise. It can be broad/high-level, such as strategy-setting, creativity / out-of-the-box thinking, people management, problem solving, which are applicable across different settings. It may also be a sector expertise, functional expertise, or a regional/language knowledge (see also my blog on the Career strategy/’Cube Concept’).

Secondly, and importantly, focusing on your strengths does not mean totally neglecting your weaker areas. If you are a world-class programmer, but you cannot even explain what you are doing, people may not find out about your excellence. In business setting, there are countless examples of people who get promoted to managerial roles because of their function expertise, but because of their lack of basic people skills, they fail in their new roles. I do think there is a ‘threshold’ level below which your weak areas will start hurting your strengths. You thus want to work on your weak areas so you bring them up above the threshold level, but then fully focus on the strengths to bring them (closer) to excellence. In our earlier example with the school report, Bs – and even Cs – are probably well above the thresholds; any Ds and Fs may need some work.

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