By Thuy Sindell and Milo Sindell
When people think about their abilities, it is natural to place them into two categories: the things they are good at and that come easily to them, or their strengths, and the things that despite painstaking attempts at, they can't seem to master, or their weaknesses. However, there is an often overlooked third category of abilities—or “middle skills”—the skills that fall between what you are already great at and those that you are inherently just not good at doing. Your middle skills are the majority of the skills that you have and, with focus and practice, can become your powerful solution for ongoing personal and professional development. Your middle skills can be thought of as hidden strengths waiting to be developed.
In response to a dynamic world, people should not rely only on what they do great today but also hone their abilities throughout their lifetime. There are 28 skills that we identify as being important factors to effective leadership. In our experience working directly with thousands of leaders and using these 28 skills to assess their abilities, we have found the skills to fall into the buckets: top 20 percent, bottom 10 percent, and middle 70 percent.
The common approach to improving leadership skills begins with some form of evaluation; often a 360 assessment. Once the assessment results are in, either the lowest scoring items are targeted for improvement or the highest scoring items are identified and amplified in their use. The problem with triaging low scoring skills is that it takes a tremendous amount of effort to noticeably improve the things that you are really no good at; and the issue with using more of the same high scoring skills is that you create a very large liability called stagnation. Only developing strengths would be like someone who only develops one side of their body—they would be lopsided. Uncovering hidden strengths and transforming them into learned strengths follows a different path.
Between the top 20 percent and bottom 10 percent of your skills lay the greatest opportunity for becoming a better leader, which seems obvious, but here’s the kicker—do you know what your middle skills and hidden strengths are? You might have a sense of what you naturally do really well and you probably have an idea of those things that you don’t do well at all, but do you have a sense of the range of things that you do just ok? Imagine for moment how many things you could be really good at with some focus and practice. The obvious is overlooked because people have a tendency to either focus on what is glaringly not working or fall back on what comes easily. You’ve probably overlooked the potential of your middle skills.
Everybody has natural strengths—the skills that come to use without thinking. Understanding what you are naturally good at is very valuable to assessing the right job or career path. You should be in a role and doing a job that is aligned with your innate skills. This will make your life easier because there will be a fit between what you do and a chunk of what you are inherently good at doing—round peg/round hole. For example, if you are naturally detail-oriented and have an inherent analytical strength for numbers, then accounting might be a great place to focus your talents.
Conversely, finding yourself in work situations where you are forced to use your deficient skills—that is the bottom 10 percent, the things we are not good at and take pains to perform moderately well, can be painful and potentially detrimental to you and your work environment. From a job security and purely a personal well-being standpoint, you should not be in a role that heavily requires you to use your deficient skills. For instance, let’s say you are extremely introverted and noncompetitive. You more than likely should not pursue a career as a trial lawyer as this job requires a great deal of presenting and an extreme desire to win. No matter how much you practice and work at it, it will never be your strength and something that you like to do. It is important to emphasize “like” because if you don’t like doing something or have a compelling need to change it is doubtful you will not have the motivation to improve.
Understanding your strengths and weaknesses are most relevant for charting a job fit: “I am great at this and awful at this.” Understanding these two extremes is important to help create parameters and find your place in the world of work. This framing is especially beneficial for those entering the workplace as well as those who are focused on a specific role as an individual contributor: Do what you were hired to do and do it well. For those who continue on the path of the individual contributor, the road remains singular in its focus to gain deeper knowledge and expertise in your field. Conversely, leading others requires moving beyond the polarities of strength and weakness and the singular focus of a trade, profession, or role.
The world around you is dynamic, and what works well today may not work well tomorrow. New challenges will emerge and adaptation requires drawing on and developing new skills and perspectives. Uncovering hidden strengths by transforming the right middle skills into new learned strengths at the right time is what leads to ongoing leadership growth. This practice is the very foundation of leadership development and coaching: identifying and developing middle skills on a continual basis.
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Thuy Sindell and Milo Sindell are principals at Skyline Group, a leadership solutions company based in California. They are also authors of Hidden Strengths: Unleashing the Crucial Leadership Skills You Already Have. Learn more at www.SkylineG.com and www.HiddenStrengths.com.