Building on Your Strengths or Working on Your Weaknesses: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

If you are like many other managers who have received 360-degree feedback results, this is most likely the sequence you followed in analyzing your data. First, you looked at the overall averages for each dimension or category. Second, you read – and re-read – the comments made. For many managers, these comments are often the most insightful aspects of the process. Third, you went back to the averages and focused on the ones where you scored the lowest, examining each of the specific statements in these categories. If you wanted to improve and get better, you told yourself, you needed to focus on those behaviors where you were perceived to be relatively weaker.

Youngme Moon, a Marketing professor at Harvard Business School, makes a similar point about the way companies look at their brands in her book Different. For example, if a brand manager looks at market research data showing one brand attribute among many falling significantly below the industry average, his typical reaction might be to address the vulnerabilities in that brand and focus on improving on that weak brand attribute. Very rarely, if ever, would that brand manager double down on the brand’s strengths “further extending the distance between you and your competitors.” Yet, Professor Moon argues, “true differentiation – sustainable differentiation – is rarely a function of well-roundedness; it is typically a function of lopsidedness.”

Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, would agree. They maintain that we learn best when we focus on building on what we are already doing well, and that, if we get out of our comfort zone, “our brains stop paying attention to anything other than surviving the experience.” Therefore, build on your strengths and ignore your weaknesses. He does argue elsewhere (Buckingham and Clifton, 2001) not to ignore your weaknesses but to find ways to manage around them. The examples he gives, however, are of individuals who got others to help them complement their weak points as opposed to working on these weaknesses on their own. For managers, this might mean hiring people on their team who complement skills and attributes they lack that are important to the success of the group. For analytical individuals, this might mean working with someone who is intuitive and creative.

For example, Buckingham and Clifton cite Cole Porter, a very talented songwriter who, according to them, unfortunately wrote very weak plots for his musicals. Still, for these researchers, his words and melodies were so outstanding that it almost did not matter who was singing them or why. It is true that Porter wrote some flops, but he also wrote quite a number of hit musicals such as Kiss Me Kate and Can-Can.

Back to Professor Moon and her marketing analogy. She further argues that brands trying to be “well-rounded” by being above average in all of their brand attributes lead to less rather than greater differentiation – which diminishes the uniqueness of a brand. Buckingham would probably agree; he would argue that individuals who seek to be well-rounded will end up not having any distinguishing qualities that make them stand out.

What seems to be missing in both Professor Moon’s and Buckingham’s arguments is that there is a minimum threshold, a floor if you will, below which having a weakness on a particular brand attribute or individual characteristic could be a deal-breaker. In other words, what if the weakness cannot be compensated for by one’s strengths, and the characteristics in which that individual is weak are critical to achieving success, e.g., moving to a more visible role or an executive position?

In his recent podcast (When Strength Becomes Weakness episode of April 17, 2019), the author and professor Adam Grant interviewed Buckingham about his theory of developing your strengths and ignoring your weaknesses. Grant was arguing two points with Buckingham. First, he asked, why not improve something you are not good at? For example, Shaquille O’Neal was a terrible free-throw shooter (as are some other professional basketball players), and he worked hard to improve his free-throw shooting, but with arguably modest results. Buckingham countered that this was a poor investment since the results would be marginally incremental. Second, Grant argued that having too much of a strength could be a flaw. Buckingham countered that what you need to do is temper it a bit, but not stop using it. So if a self-confident leader starts to become arrogant, he or she should recognize that and dial it back a bit.

I once coached a manager who I will call Steve. Steve had an MBA from an Ivy League school and had a background in Finance. He was very talented in his field and was considered a high potential in the company where he was working. He had one major flaw: he was afraid of speaking in public and was not at all a polished speaker. I advised Steve not to ignore this weakness if he wanted to eventually become CFO of a major corporation. Regardless of how good his other strengths were, being a C-suite player today requires very good communication skills. You don’t have to be a master orator, but you have to be good enough to communicate with your team, people within your company, with investors, and with the public. And you cannot rely on others on your staff to complement this weakness; you have to overcome it yourself. Winston Churchill, Tiger Woods and Jack Welchi were stutterers, and yet somehow, they overcame this deficiency to become more than decent public speakers.

Steve realized that he could not just compensate for his lack of public speaking skills by become a world-class finance person. He had to work on this weakness so he could become at least adequate as a public speaker. The lesson here is to build on your strengths but at the same time, not ignore those weaknesses that may prevent you from reaching your career or professional goals. You don’t have to be world-class in overcoming those weaknesses but be “good enough” so these do not undermine you.

In his ground-breaking research on disruptive innovation, Clay Christensen argues that companies stick too long to improving product attributes that are no longer important differentiators for most customers. He calls this “overshooting the market”; these companies ignore the upstart firms that might be offering cheaper products, although not as sophisticated. Similarly, individuals who focus on simply building on their strengths may overshoot and neglect those qualities that others have that may become increasingly important in their organizations.

There are two assumptions in the Buckingham arguments that I would question. First, the assumption that working on weaknesses is a waste of time would not be good advice for executives like Steve who will need to reach this minimal threshold to even be considered for potential senior management roles. I would argue that incremental improvements so you can become “good enough” would be worth making. This is NOT about spending time trying to turn yourself into somebody else (which Buckingham argued in the podcast would be a “dubious waste of time”).

Second, the assumption that working on weaknesses is uncomfortable and a royal pain and therefore should be avoided also is questionable when coaching executives who want to address a critical flaw. Why work on it if it does not invigorate you, Buckingham might argue? Well, one of my clients described working on something he was not good at as follows: “Embrace the pain; make it your friend. It’s necessary to feel pain in order to get better.” He said that friends of his who run marathons know that at some point the pain will start but when they simply embrace the pain, they will find the joy that happens when they cross the finish line. Anyone who has ever tried to master a skill or a sport will know that practicing is not always fun but ultimately is extremely helpful in building the desired skills. Remember that a fundamental principle of adult learning is that adults learn best when they are stretched outside their comfort zones.

My suggestions to those of you want to improve on your 360-degree feedback results is to focus on the following:

  1. Of the various dimensions or leadership qualities assessed in your 360-degree feedback, which are the most important for success in your job today (or alternatively, for success in your career goals)?
  2. Of these important qualities: which play to your strengths, and how can you build on these strengths so you get “invigorated”? Here, I am in complete agreement with Buckingham.
  3. And of these important qualities: which do not play to your strengths, and how can you bring those up to a “good enough” level? In Steve’s case, he realized he needed to improve his public speaking, so he hired a coach who helped him with his communication skills. Remember what my executive client said about making pain your friend. Embrace the discomfort, and you will appreciate the end results more when you achieve them.


Buckingham, M. and Goodall, (March-April, 2019). Why Feedback Fails. Harvard Business Review.

Christensen, C. (2011). The Innovator’s Dilemma. New York: Harper Business.

Moon, Y. (2010). Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd. New York: Crown Business.