Stop looking for the Perfect 10

An alternative perspective on our skills shortage.

05 August 2009, by Tracey Swanepoel

Did you leave your last performance review/discussion walking on air, feeling like you could change the world? If so, you may be one of the lucky few...

Often these discussions hammer home our weaknesses, or "development areas" as they are politely called. Perhaps there is an elusive employee out there: that could score the "Perfect 10" in every area; that would meet the rigorous standards of the job profile; that would deliver perfect performance every time. Enough perfect 10 employees and we should eventually have the perfect organisation. Shouldn't we?

We couldn't be more misguided! Great companies are not a collection of "perfect 10s". Rather they are built on the unique strengths and talents of the people working there. Do you think Richard Branson, or Bill Gates would score a perfect 10? I doubt it. Have they and their companies made a dent in the universe? Absolutely!

The Gallup Organisation have put numbers and science to this thinking by developing a tool which identifies strengths and talents. After more than 2m interviews with the best of the best in a huge diversity of activities (from world class nurses, to world class concert pianists), they have developed a detailed strengths classification. (Go to if you are keen to do the test or want to know more). It is no surprise that their findings confirm that using our strengths is usually what we love doing most!

For those to whom this sounds like the corporate version of star signs...don't go just yet.

This thinking is taking root in other parts of the world. Jim Coleman, joint CEO of Californian based Gallo Wines (one of the largest winemakers worldwide) says: "We focus on people's strengths and make them better". Charles Margerison, leadership guru, talks about the 3Ps: "Practice what you Prefer until you Perfect it."

Implications for South Africa

What could this idea of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses mean for South Africa: faced as we are with skills shortages, brain drain, and the frustration of young, inexperienced candidates (expected to perform on par with their predecessors) who are thrown into the deep end? There's no doubt these are real issues, and while not being dismissive, it might be interesting to turn the problem on its head (after all we don't have much to lose here!) What if we removed the "what they can't" glasses and replaced them with "what they CAN ?" I'm talking here about how we see employees, managers, colleagues, teammates and even ourselves.

The benefits could be substantial:

Firstly in terms of motivation: try this "at home". Reflect on what you believe your strengths are. What would you do just for the love of it? What gives you a sense of satisfaction and achievement? Does this make you want to go out and do more - reach further - change the world? Generally it does! After a discussion that focuses on peoples' strengths, they simply can't wait to get out there and do more. It would be simplistic to say this is the secret to motivating employees, but it certainly is a great starting point.

Secondly in terms of teamwork: you know what it's like in teams...there's Bill, ....who totally tunes out when it's time for ideas; then there's Mary - looking for every practical angle why it couldn't work. What about John? Itching to stop all this talking and just get out there and DO something. No wonder working together is quite stressful! What relief the strengths angle can bring: instead of fighting for "us all to see it the same way", there's an acknowledgement that different responses add value. This puts the team into overdrive as opposed to them stalling at every obstacle.

Thirdly in term of problem solving, creativity and innovation: We tend to worship the solitary "genius" (Thomas Edison, Henry Ford). But it's well documented that many radical breakthroughs (television, the aeroplane, email and even Monopoly) are the result of the collaboration of many, not the brilliance of one. (Keith Sawyer's book, Group Genius, provides many more examples of this.) The challenge is to create the culture where this kind of collaboration could take place. This is where we have to start with strengths. Fear, insecurity, even competitiveness have no place in such an environment. People need to feel valued and respected for their uniqueness, comfortable in their diversity. Great ideas rarely come from one profound flash of insight. Rather it's a series of "sparks" that unfold across the group. If people don't feel comfortable to say what they think (no matter how silly it may sound) we risk losing the spark that may ignite the breakthrough solution.

Lastly in terms of leadership: Tom Peters talks about the leadership style he sees as essential for the uncertainty of the future: something he characteristically dubs "DNK - Do Not Know". He argues that it's essential for leaders to stop seeing themselves as superhumans who "know everything" and to start valuing the people around them. Eric Schmidt (chairman and CEO of Google) when asked about the best advice he ever received answered "hire a coach... because it's impossible for one person to have all the answers and all the perspectives on a problem".

Think about it: what could we achieve as individual/team/company/country if we stopped for one moment focusing on what we "can't" and decided to passionately build on what we "can"?

Read published article on MoneyWeb site