THE BLOG

Find Your Hidden Strength in the Overlooked Middle

03/25/2015 05:43 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

Why is the middle so often overlooked? We see this phenomenon with the middle child in a family. We pay attention to the first child with caution and our youngest child with gentle coddling, yet we often have to remind ourselves not to forget about that middle child. Much like in a family, middle performers in a company are often overlooked, and it could be holding your organization back.

In the context of the workplace, companies pay attention to the top performers and give them a multitude of perks to attract them to stay and perform even better. I often ask the leaders who say they need to spend 80 percent of their time with their top 20 percent performers--why do this? They are already doing great. Coach them, keep your one-on-ones with them, and reward and recognize them. That does not take too much time. They want to be left alone to do great work with their teams and colleagues.

Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum, where after lavishing attention on the top performers, companies focus on the bottom performers and spend countless hours going through the formal process of detection, documenting, and managing them. While culling underperformers and toxic employees is vital, the time and resources committed to this endeavor is resource intensive.

This brings us to the employees in the middle. The Sales Executive Council (SEC) reports that when you spend time focusing on your middle performers, you see a higher return due to the sheer volume of people benefitting from it. Specifically, in 2003, the SEC demonstrated this point by running the numbers on 625 sales reps across 11 different organizations. The median sale was $4.5M. When they took the high performers (who made up 20 percent of the population) and calculated their sales, the final figure came out to $158M across these 11 companies. Five percent more would have yielded $7.9M. The SEC looked at the middle performers (who made up 60 percent of the population) and found them only to be producing $271M (not quite double the revenue). If this group had achieved five percent more, it would have yielded $13.5M. While high performers achieve much higher sales individually, if you try to squeeze another five percent out of them, you are not going to see much. Whereas, if you go after another five percent from middle performers, you get 70 percent more revenue. Wow! That's a no-brainer.

Let's face it; aside from when we are eating candy and ice cream bars, we don't naturally gravitate toward the middle. Take another example of the neglected middle: your skills. Most people will naturally default to leveraging their strengths or putting a significant amount of time into correcting their weaknesses. This happens daily to millions of company leaders when they get their 360s or performance reviews. They immediately focus on their weaknesses and what they need to do to fix them. Also, in the last decade, organizations and leaders have been pushing more for leveraging strengths and ignoring weaknesses. While this strength-based approach is appropriate when we are looking at whether we are in the right jobs or roles, when it comes to growing and developing ourselves as a professionals and leaders, we often overlook the huge pool of development opportunity found in the middle--the skills that aren't the tried, true, and overused strengths and aren't the things at which we will never get much better.

Research by Michael Lombardo, Robert Eichinger, and many others has shown that effective leaders evolve and grow throughout their careers, whereas failed leaders get stuck in a pattern of overusing their strengths to the point of staleness. The greatest source of individual development comes from the majority of skills that you have in between your strengths and weaknesses--skills that fall in that middle range in which, with some investment, can quickly become learned strengths.

We still need to leverage strengths and quickly triage weaknesses; however, spending too much time on both of these factors is not going to help you grow as a leader. Overly depending on strengths is not going to make you stronger and is especially risky as the business landscape changes, whereas focusing on your weaknesses will only cause incremental improvements over time.

What can you do? Pull out your latest 360. Don't have a 360? Use your last performance review. What are the skills are you are exceptionally good at, bad at, and the ones that you seem to be okay at? Think about them in the context of these four categories:

1. Leading Self - Do you have the ability to be resilient and in emotional control? Do people trust your integrity and that you are acting in your organization's best interests?
2. Leading Others - Do you make clear and direct requests? How well do you partner with others?
3. Leading the Organization - How well do you navigate the political landscape of your organization? Are you strategic and creative?
4. Leading Implementation - How well do you manage plans and details, and how well do you delegate and coach your team to execute?

Create that list. Based on what you want to achieve as a leader this year, which of those middle skills are the right ones to develop to achieve you to your goals? Look for resources, including websites, articles, and books to focus on the skills needed for those areas. Then do it!

It won't take as much time to develop your mid-level strengths when compared to your weaknesses, which means you'll get results faster. So look for the non-obvious skills the next time you get your performance review or 360!