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Seeing Your Professional Weaknesses as Strength

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
April 14, 2022

Years ago I did maintenance at a factory in suburban Chicago. On occasion I would work nights completing tasks that were impossible when the factory floor was full of people. One such task was stripping and waxing floors. I took to it. I liked doing it, and after a fresh coat of wax, it was easy to see I did the job well. One night my boss asked me to paint a section of the floor. He showed me how to do it, and left me to work. Several hours later I knew something was wrong. I thought I was done, but the floor did not look right. My attempts to improve it made things worse.

In the morning, my boss arrived, took a look at the floor and told me I was done painting floors. He said stripping and waxing is my thing, painting is not. I was relieved because the job itself already gave me the feedback I needed. I was bad at painting floors. But it did not mean I was bad at maintenance in general. Thankfully my boss knew enough to remove me from a task where I was failing and place me in a position to succeed. It did nobody any good to pull me off strip and wax duty to paint floors poorly.

I was reflecting on this part of my past recently as I worked with a few students on their job search. It is natural to think that a leadership position requires you to be good at everything related to that position. But, and this is my message to students, it is more important to know your strengths and weaknesses. Being honest with yourself allows you to build a leadership structure that compensates for your weaknesses. If you are not great at budgeting, you hire a department head who is great at it. If human resources is not your thing, make sure someone on your team has human resource experience.

To put it another way, go into a leadership position understanding that your success is dependent on your team, not just yourself. New leaders that try to go it alone get burned out at best, and at worst, make mistakes borne of their own arrogance surrounding their abilities.

So, how do you go about identifying your weaknesses? Personally, I just ask my children, I find 10- and 12-year-olds are always willing to let you know where you are falling short. Ok, in seriousness, I encourage students to participate in a self SWOT analysis with a group of peers. Getting four or five students together, asking them to write down their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, spurs an honest discussion in a safe space. The results of that discussion are an inventory of strengths and weaknesses, but also the start of a plan for professional development. The best leaders, I find, are always learning.

It is easy to say new municipal executives need to build a team that maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses, but reality often makes that difficult to accomplish. First, new managers often inherit employees. In those situations, I find it best to be straightforward; tell your employees where you are looking to fill gaps, and talk to them one-on-one to see who is best positioned to help. A little bit of humility goes along way, especially when you walk into a situation where others have a monopoly on institutional knowledge.

Things are harder for managers in smaller municipalities. My first semester teaching budgeting I gave, what I thought, was a great lecture about designing a finance department. A student raised his hand, said that is all well and good, but in my community, I am the finance department. The reality for first time managers in particular is that they are responsible for a lot and lack the luxury of building a team to offset their weaknesses. Here is where I think the profession needs to focus on mentorship and university-sponsored professional support. New managers need a safe place to go when they have questions they cannot answer, or a task they are not fully trained to do. MPA programs need to train students, but we also need to serve our alumni. This type of support is particularly important in ensuring we have a new generation of municipal managers ready to serve larger, more complex municipalities in the future.

Everyone brings strengths and weaknesses to a position. In a job as complex as a municipal manager, time spent struggling on areas outside your wheelhouse pull you away from areas where you can actually make a difference. The difference between a good manager and a failed one is usually not will or work ethic. It is about knowing yourself, filling in your gaps, staying humble and learning from your weaknesses.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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