Advice for CEOs: Work Your Strengths, Know Your Weakness

Working your strengths might be a good strategy for finding the right career, but ignoring your executive skill weakness can humble and tumble giants.  As many leaders have come to learn recently, a single weakness blown off as irrelevant can negate the strengths of even the mightiest of top performer CEOs.


Tony Hayward's fate as CEO of troubled BP was likely sealed weeks before the Deep Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico stopped gushing millions of gallons of oil. His story serves as a cautionary tale to CEOs everywhere of how a single mishandled crisis can eclipse an entire career. In three short months, Hayward learned what it meant to become the face of disaster. What he didn’t learn was how to keep his mouth shut.


Chief executives must placate a wider variety of constituencies than ever before, making the job's symbolism nearly as important as its substance. Mr. Hayward's various gaffes—saying he wanted his "life back"—and sour appearance before legislators showed a degree of tone deafness that is no longer acceptable for corporate leaders, management experts say.  Hayward also initially described the spill as "oil [only] on the surface. There aren’t any plumes," a gaffe he never lived down.


This incident should also serve as a warning to hiring managers and boards of directors who focus too much on executive strengths and pay too little attention to executive weaknesses.


Executive skills have little to do with the job position as much as they describe innate cognitive functions that all people, not just corporate executives, “execute” in a work environment.  Chuck Martin, author of “Work Your Strengths” and CEO of NFI Research, identified 12 executive skills.  Certain ones are prevalent in high performing individuals.  Specifically, Martin’s group found three executive skills shared by nearly all high performing CEOs:  Goal-Directed Persistence, Planning/Priortization, and Working Memory.  Goal-Directed Persistence was the most dominant skill in 43 percent of the CEOs surveyed.  As significant, only 6 percent of top performing CEOs had Goal-Directed Persistence as a weakness.


The executive skill that helps an individual think before you act (and talk) is called Response Inhibition. It is the ability to resist the urge to say or do something to allow time to evaluate the situation and how a behavior might affect it (Source: Work Your Strengths). If you tend to say the first thing that pops into your head and later regret it, you’re likely weak in Response Inhibition.


Hayward’s repeated gaffes over the past three months demonstrate clearly how a single weakness can turn a respected leader into everyone’s favorite punching bag. Even under normal conditions, the data deluge is beginning to stretch people beyond their information capacity. During a crisis, all bets are off. That’s when stress and fatigue degrades executive skills and the weakest skills fail first.  In the case of Hayward – not to mention Vice President Biden, Former President George W. Bush, and Britney Spears to name a few – a lack of Response Inhibition likely led to his demise. 


Maybe a better title for Martin’s book would be “Work Your Strengths, Know Your Weakness.”


Listen to my interview with Chuck Martin on Workforce Trends Blog Talk Radio.


What CEO or other famous people gaffes stick in your mind that eventually brought the speaker down?


Ira S Wolfe