Becoming an Effective Executive - Follow Up to Part 1

LT Susan Faulkner asked me some questions about how to speed up the process of determining your strengths based on Drucker's feedback analysis (writing down what you expect to happen and comparing that to what really happened about 9 months later). I gave her few suggestions for things that work more quickly. I gave her a few suggestions for things that work more quickly that I decided to place in a separate blog post because most people would not see this update if I put it in a comment or follow up to the original post.

Q: Are there faster ways to discover your strengths than feedback analysis?

A: Direct comments from your boss or immediate supervisor and peers are probably the fastest. You do not have to be obsessive about getting it, but after major projects or assignments you tackle, ask for feedback. You could start the conversation something like this: “My assessment of what worked well and what did not (it may come across as less pretentious to say it that way as opposed to “What I think I did well and did not do well) on project X is (or “key things I learned from Project X were …) …  Do you have any feedback for what went well and what I should do better next time?

Getting feedback from a mentor with whom you speak frequently (no less than monthly) is another quick way. Give them the elevator speech version of your assignment followed by your assessment (and how you came to that conclusion) and get their comments.

Telling someone like a mentor (or a peer or your spouse/significant other, their read of your energy level when answering is important) three things you did well, enjoyed doing, and are most proud of:

  • Under the age of 18
  • Between the ages of 18 and 21
  • As an adult for which you were paid
  • As an adult for which you were not paid

I did this exercise with an executive coach and found it very revealing in ways I had not considered very explicitly before. He encouraged me to do it with my protégés as well as a way of getting to know them better.

Indirectly, people really value your performance on things they repeatedly ask you to do. In my case, at PSNS, I became the “go to” guy for preparing people for EDQP boards. It happened slowly over time, but I noticed all the JOs regularly came to me for advice and run time. It took me a while to figure this out because no one said anything explicitly about it and I never sought post-board feedback at the time from those I helped (I would now).

Ask for periodic feedback from protégés in written form. I also get it from people who “shadow” me. I find this a great source of information on what others think I do well and it helps me decide where to focus my energy.

Another thing I do that does not take six to nine months to germinate is do periodic self-assessments about things that did or did not go well for me and what I can do to draw on my strengths to do better. I write these down because I find that helps me think more clearly about them.

One more thing to keep in mind about identifying your strengths. Remember that nearly any strength carried to excess or not "adjusted" as you get more senior can become a BIG flaw. In my particular case, two of the keys to my success are being high energy and proactive (getting out in front of problems). As I get more senior, however, I have learned that I tend to overwhelm people with my energy and have a tendency to get too far in front of my support staff if I don't tone down (or find coping strategies to moderate) my proactiveness a bit.

Q: You make a general comment that “improving your strengths vice trying to fix weaknesses” is not very productive, but surely some weaknesses are so significant that they will kill someone’s career unless they are addressed. Correct?

I have some competence about being successful as a naval officer, but I think there are strong overlaps with other career fields.  Weaknesses that MUST be fixed because they are traits that will make you spectacularly unsuccessful (I am thinking about officers I had to either fire or suggest they seek employment in a different career field as I write this):

  • Not reliably meeting commitments (repeatedly failing to do what you say you will do or are assigned to do).
  • Failing to follow up to ensure you and others meet commitments (similar to the above).
  • Being inconsiderate of others needs and interests. Of course, this is no problem if you are a brilliant artist or are independently wealthy, but most of us depend on support of others and you will not get it if people perceive you as someone who is just a “taker.” This may not kill your career, but you will be very limited in what you can achieve without the help of others.
  • Poor attention to detail or questioning attitude. These usually result from sloppy thinking and can typically be remedied, but are essential in our career field.
  • Inability to express yourself in writing and, to a lesser extent, as a public speaker.
  • Poor critical thinking, such as recommending we decomm Nimitz class carriers at 33 years of service (without being explicit about how we get there without negative impact on fleet operations) and building 68 class ships to replace them instead of 78 class. Our career field is filled with people who are excellent critical thinkers that will shoot holes in your credibility if you cannot critically examine complex arguments.
  • Inability to influence others (in a non-manipulative way of course) since most of the important things you can do as a senior officer cannot be achieved through direct orders.
  • Inability to grasp and explain complex, technical arguments, which will be exposed at boards and other venues.
  • Inability to do good risk assessments and teach others to do them since we do really risky stuff.
  • Inability to read quickly and be organized enough to manage the demands on your time as you get more senior. These will not “kill” your career quickly and you might even make it to O6, but you won’t be very effective when you are there and you run the risk of not comparing well with other officers who are.

Those are the ones that come quickly to mind. Noticed I skipped character flaws like being dishonest because they are obviously bad.

It is natural for junior officers to be impatient to identify your strengths and that is probably good (and normal), but there are few shortcuts that I know. They come to you slowly and sometimes the signals are very weak and you may not be listening well at the time you hear them. This certainly has been the case for me.