Building Strength from the Weakest Link
by S. K. Gupta

When hiring a new employee, we often tend to choose someone with whom we feel most comfortable. That usually translates into hiring someone similar to us. Similar in race? Possibly. Similar in gender? Probably. Similar in experiences? Potentially. Similar in all three? Positively. This is normal human behavior, but it may be less than optimum for a creating a strong organization.

Psychologists and organizational behavior specialists have developed many different models for building high-potential teams. These models are often complex, requiring experts - usually consultants! - to evaluate, analyze and implement. In the late 1990s, a colleague and I developed a simple model that we have since used effectively in our organizations.

Our model is based on a simple premise: every successful organization needs four different skill sets:

  • Visionary
  • Strategist
  • Tactician
  • Implementer

Everyone normally has a mix of these four skills, with one of the skills being dominant. If a team or an organization recognizes the need to have these different skills and consciously addresses them, it will be more successful. These skills are like the links of a chain: we need all of them to be strong.

How did we discover this model? During a company reorganization, we eliminated an entire layer of management at the divisional level to create a flatter organization. All our consultants and organizational behavior experts recommended the new, flatter structure. What none of us realized was that certain skill sets had been developed at each level of the old organization over the previous four decades:

  • Vision: company level
  • Strategy: division level
  • Tactical decisions: functional and business leaders
  • Implementation: the programs and the people.

Therefore, not only did we dispense with a level of management, we also eliminated the division-level skill set. For example, our former organization structure placed the chief accountant at the company level and the financial controllers at division levels. It took us months after we reorganized to realize that we had lost our controllers!

The following analogy may help explain the need for these four skill sets. Think of a ship leaving New York. The captain says, "Head for London." That is her vision. The navigation officer pulls out his charts and checks the weather forecasts and typical currents. Instead of drawing a straight line from New York to London, he plots a route (strategy) that takes into account the known hazards. He aims to ensure passenger safety and comfort without compromising the schedule or the captain's vision.

Once under way, the watch officer (tactician) makes sure that the ship stays on course. He periodically checks the ship's position and advises the helmsman when to correct the course-not by going straight back to his planned route but by making a tactical correction. The helmsman (implementer) steers the ship to the tactical course, which is a subset of the strategic course, which fulfills the vision.

So how does this apply to hiring employees in a corporate environment? First, we must be honest with ourselves. What are our strengths and weaknesses? What are we really good at and what do we avoid doing? We cannot excel at everything! Divorces and burnouts in the executive ranks provide exemplary evidence.

The best strategic thinker I have run across in more than 20 years of industry experience was one of my company's program managers. As his deputy, I became a good tactician. This allowed us to execute the customer's vision with the help of our organization's superb employees.

Our customer began to publicly admire what the tactical team delivered. Unfortunately, the program manager then decided to get involved in the tactical aspects of the program. As two tactical leaders with distinctly different skill sets, we created confusion. After three years of functioning smoothly, our organization became dysfunctional. This resulted in my moving to a new job and the program manager leaving the company.

A few years later my boss at another job retired. His replacement was a world-class visionary and a true "evangelist" for change. The best way to ensure that we could work well together was for me to identify her weaknesses and then complement them with my strengths. A year later, she was promoted. The following year, I was promoted.

Believing that vision starts at the top, bosses may find it hard, if not impossible, to hire visionary individuals. However, if bosses acknowledge their own weakest skills, they can target the skills they want to bring on the team. There is power in honest recognition of our strengths and weaknesses - and strengthening our weaknesses leverages that power.

When charting new paths, we need to evaluate our strengths, admit our weaknesses and hire someone whose biggest strength is our weakest skill. Let's take the chance to employ someone who is not just like us.

S. K. Gupta is a senior executive at a Fortune 50 company. A program manager by training, he uses his engineering and business education to help the corporation solve complex cultural and performance issues. For the past five years, he has been deeply involved in improving cost productivity, competitiveness and operating efficiencies. Mr. Gupta graduated from the University of Michigan and obtained his MBA from Seattle University. He has published several papers and articles on best practices in the aerospace and defense industry. His e-mail address is .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2006 by S. K. Gupta. All rights reserved.

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