Weaknesses: Are They Just Overexpressed Strengths?

Weaknesses. Development priorities. Areas for improvement. Call them what you want—we all have them. Some are career-limiting (lack of drive) and some may be minor annoyances (overtalking). Some are intractable (ethical gaps) and some are quite addressable (lack of domain expertise).

Having led 360 feedback/coaching processes for over 250 CEOs, CXOs and senior investors in my career, I’ve learned some interesting truths about people’s weaknesses. Perhaps the most interesting involves the root causes. 

Take Jonathan, a CEO I worked with a couple of years ago. His greatest weakness, from the perspective of essentially his entire team and Board, was indecisiveness. To be clear, he would make a decision eventually, and it was invariably the right one. But his stakeholders felt he could get there much faster.

On the flip side, one of his top strengths was his brilliant, methodical, quantitative mind. This was the critical factor that landed him his first CEO job, after a successful career in enterprise software sales. In a profession full of trigger-happy deal-chasers, he was the patient strategist, landing the biggest and best prospects.

***Like so many leaders, his strengths bore the seeds of his liabilities. His inability to move quickly was directly linked to his affinity for deep analysis.***

What was the right path forward for Jonathan? It certainly wasn’t to abandon his ways and simply “make decisions faster.” It involved deeply understanding the origin of his analytic gifts so that he could deploy them more effectively. 

We talked through his love of mathematics, where the “right” answer was knowable—if you only invest enough time. We talked through a few early experiences that led him to equate mistakes with moral failure. We talked through his first sales role where leads were limited and success was all about brilliance in conversion.

After this self-exploration, Jonathan worked with his senior team to identify several types of decisions that he would delegate completely. For the rest, he actually harnessed (rather than fighting) his love of certainty by creating a new decision-making process—one that involved explicit timeframes and data completion thresholds. He experimented with making deliberate (but low-risk) mistakes to help him conquer the emotional components.

Consider your own greatest weaknesses. Which of them are actually side-effects of your strengths? Think creatively—how could you actually double-down on the benefits and safely “quarantine” the negative byproducts?

I’ll close with a simple list. If you struggle with any of the following, take heart: it just might be a side-effect of something great!

> conflict avoidance
> perfectionism
> burnout (self or teams)
> micromanagement
> overconfidence
> excessive wordiness (speaking or writing)
> excessive consensus-seeking
> emotionalism
> struggling to prioritize

Jordan Burton is a co-founder of Talgo and has 15 years of experience as an executive assessor and interviewing trainer, working with top VC/PE investors and high-growth startups to help them hire the best of the best. He has trained over 3,000 executives and investors on hiring and interviewing skills.

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