It’s key to be aware of your strengths & weaknesses: Robert S Kaplan

02 Aug,2013


By Dibeyendu Ganguly


Robert Steven Kaplan

As a vice-chairman of the Goldman Sachs group-turned-Harvard Business School professor, Robert Steven Kaplan often has graduating students dropping into his office for career advice.


A typical case might go like this: the student applied for a high paying job in the financial services sector, but now that the offer has actually come though, he’s not sure it’s what he wants. He feels guilty about his ambivalence since it’s a job everyone else covets and rejecting it seems selfish and self-indulgent. Maybe he should put his misgivings aside and do what his family and friends expect?


“Many of us motor through our young adult years trying to rack up one achievement after another – being ‘successful’,” says Prof Kaplan, who has recently authored a book titled What You’re Really Meant to Do: A Road Map for Reaching Your Unique Potential.


“I advise students to beware of conventional wisdom and focus on the difficult task of understanding who they are and where their interests lie. You can’t be a bystander in your own life. Managing your career is 100% your responsibility.” The problem is not limited to b-school campuses. Prof Kaplan narrates numerous cases of accomplished individuals who find they no longer enjoy what they are doing. “They don’t feel successful, though everyone around them thinks they are,” says Prof Kaplan.


“In mid-career executives it manifests itself in a feeling of confusion about where to turn and a concern that they have painted themselves into a corner. In older executives and professionals, it’s sometimes reflected in feelings of bitterness and regret.”


Whatever stage in their careers they may be at, Prof Kaplan advises his readers to go through a process of heightening their self-awareness. The first step here is to assess one’s strengths and weakness, not in terms of vague character traits, but in terms of skills.


These might include skills in written communication, presentation, quantitative analysis, negotiation, interpersonal skills and ability to confront others constructively. The importance of these skills varies according to the job and the level of responsibility, so this analysis is an ongoing process. A skills mismatch is one of the common reasons people find themselves unhappy in a job to which they have been promoted.


In some cases, it is the reason they are not promoted. Prof Kaplan advises everyone to make a habit out of introspecting on their skills so they may pro-actively manage their capabilities. This doesn’t mean trying to develop a skill you are inherently weak at.


On the contrary, it might be best managed by delegating that part of the job to someone who is truly good at it. Prof Kaplan presents an example from the financial sector, where a junior executive had excellent market knowledge and client skills, but lacked the quantitative skills required for financial modeling, an important part of stock picking.


She was set to quit her job when her seniors suggested she might be able to offset her weakness by teaming up with others on her client teams. She stayed on and moved up to more senior positions where her job required less modeling and ultimately emerged as one of the top professionals in her firm. “This is a lesson I learned in my own career: the capabilities of my assembled team needed to fit with my own skills and deficiencies,” says Prof Kaplan.


Another step to self-awareness is to identify your passions. What You’re Really Meant To Do suggests exercises like thinking back to a time when you were at your best or asking yourself questions like ‘If I had enough money to do whatever I wanted, what career would I pursue?’.


Some people may not want to get into this territory, fearing it might lead them to do something drastic, but Prof Kaplan says getting in touch with your passions is critical to reaching your potential: “You don’t need to immediately decide what action to take or assess whether your dream is realistic. But when you’re aware of what you’re looking for, it becomes easier to recognise opportunities.”


Before you start looking for opportunities to reach your potential, Prof Kaplan recommends you pause and go through one more step: understanding why you behave as you do. The best way to begin is to write down your life story, starting chronologically with where you were born, describing your family, your growing years, key events.


Most people carry two different narratives of their lives with them – a success narrative they tell others, where they are the heroes overcoming the odds and a failure narrative which they never share, which is full of angst and self-doubt.


The exercise of writing down both narratives will take time but it will help you recognize patterns in your behaviour. “The effort is hard work but it can pay big dividends,” says Prof Kaplan. “Sometimes we know what we should do but can’t bring ourselves to do it. We need to understand the internal impediments that are keeping us from taking certain actions.”


A degree of abandon

Here, Prof Kaplan narrates the case of a restaurant operator who he met at the ‘owner-president’ course at Harvard. The man had started with a mid-priced Italian restaurant and had later expanded these to multiple locations.


Now he was sick of the business and was considering selling. A longish conversation revealed that he came from a family of successful corporate executives and his dominant father had never approved of him becoming a chef. His passion was creating new dishes and serving customers but he had built a chain with a large number of employees because this measured up to his father’s idea of success.


Now he was spending most of his time scouting locations and tying up finance for new projects, which he hated. “As a result of this discussion, he realised he needed to drop the baggage he had been carrying to please others. He got back to what he enjoyed,” says Prof Kaplan. Understanding what you really want is important, but in order to get it, you need to engage with the world outside.


For one thing, it is essential to communicate your dreams to those who might help get you there, which, in an organizational set-up, is your boss. Some people hesitate to communicate upward thinking it to be too political, but this mind-set can be self-defeating, says Prof Kaplan: “You may believe your boss or other senior people know you well enough to understand how your skills fit with your passions, but the truth is, they usually don’t. They expect you to take responsibility for communicating to them what you want.”


For those whose dream job happens to be a leadership position, Prof Kaplan’s advice is: be willing to act like a leader. This means speaking up for your convictions, judging your actions through the prism of whether it is good for the organization, helping others without regard to what’s in it for you, giving credit to others and doing the job with the next-job-up in mind.


All of these are risky and many would find it hard to sustain this type of attitude over a career, but Prof Kaplan believes those who demonstrate courage by questioning authority and speaking up stand a greater chance of advancing to greater roles in their organizations: “You have to play the game with some degree of abandon. When the stakes get high, people become unduly hesitant or fearful. As a leader, you have to be relaxed and authentic and able to assert yourself.”


Lastly, and most importantly, you need to cultivate relationships – try as you may, you can’t do it alone. In the Facebook era, relationships may seem easy to develop, but being connected is not the same as having people you can draw on in times of need.


“In my experience, one of the biggest impediments to reaching your full potential is isolation. It’s not lack of skills or bad luck that sets you back – it is that you become isolated and lose perspective. You stop seeing yourself objectively and make poor decisions,” says Prof Kaplan.


Prof Kaplan is the person a lot of people go to for help in a time of crisis and he, ironically, ends up advising them to communicate with individuals who are closer to their situation – people they should have spoken to much before. Why didn’t they reach out sooner? “There are lots of reasons they give,” says Prof Kaplan. “They don’t want to bother anyone. They didn’t have a person they trusted or respected enough to confide in. They feared the person would no longer respect them. But the truth is, when you approach someone for help, most of them would try their best to be helpful.”


Source:The Economic Times

Copyright © 2013, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved

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