One of Steve Jobs’ quirks was that he rejected using focus groups because he believed “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It’s a quotation that sums up the trust-your-instincts approach of one of the greatest CEOs of our time. But is it a brilliant leadership innovation that we should teach to everyone, or foolhardy arrogance Jobs was lucky didn’t come back to bite him?
On the surface, given iPad, iPod and iPhone success, it looks like genius insight from which all leaders can learn. But probe a little deeper and you realize the true answer is both more banal and more revolutionary and has massive import for all in the learning and development world.
The true answer is it depends on who you are. Some people are wired to have the picture of what they want to build in their heads. They mull it over, tweak it, adjust it and refine it without ever consulting anybody. Others, however, have a different creative process. They need input from the regular world as grist for their creative mill. Sam Walton of Walmart, for example, used to make a point of being in his stores every Friday to see what customers were doing and what they wanted. He called it quick market intelligence.
A technique that works for one person does not necessarily work for another. Not all sales people, service professionals and managers work the same way as their peers. In every position we see diversity of method and technique.
The most cutting-edge companies are embracing this diversity in the way they interact with their customers. Facebook targets ads based on the information users provide in their profiles, and even lets them rate ads or indicate why they don’t like them. The first thing Netflix asks users to do when they sign up is rate movies so it can recommend what they might like. Famously, it created a contest with a $1 million prize to anyone who could improve its recommendation engine by 10 percent.
What if we took the same ingenuity and effort that we use to tailor services for our customers and put it into customizing learning and development for our internal team members? Is there a way to filter all our training content to the unique strengths and style of the individual?
My answer is called StandOut. I think of it as a delivery system, a way to help organizations get the techniques and practices of their top performers into the hands of the people best prepared to use them.
StandOut starts by identifying what I’ve called an employee’s strengths roles. There are nine possible strengths roles, and each is a description of a common pattern in which strengths and talents combine in an individual. Of those nine possibilities, StandOut identifies an employee’s top two and uses them to recommend specific practices and techniques to help him or her excel.
For example, say you’re a salesperson, and your top strength role is equalizer. One piece of advice would be: “Look for opportunities to turn business down as soon as possible.” For equalizers — people who, by nature, are fiercely committed to delivering on what they promise, this advice is specific to their need. Turning down business means refusing to cut corners just to meet a price point. It demonstrates a commitment to quality. And if someone else is willing to cut those corners, the results will bring that client back to you.
So, you can try to make everybody in the same job conform to the same techniques and practices. You can try to coach one leader to do exactly what previous leaders have done. But you won’t get results that way. You might as well tell Walton to ignore his customers or Jobs to put together a focus group.
Marcus Buckingham is the author of StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment from the Leader of the Strengths Revolution and founder of TMBC. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com