The Dave Semenko principle: Focusing on your area of genius*

March 25, 2015 | Kara Lilly Print

There are two main world views relating to how we see our weaknesses. The first—and far more conventional one—is that people should seek to excel at everything in life. In other words, we should be good at everything and leaders should possess all desirable traits and skills.

This is the philosophy that public education seems to teach.

In the second philosophy, it is accepted that we all have weaknesses—but they are viewed as something to be managed rather than mastered.  Since it is irrational to assume we can conquer all of our weaknesses, it makes more sense to put systems in place to manage those tasks or traits where we come up short while putting the bulk of our energy into playing to our strengths.

This is the philosophy we embrace in our firm. It is also the philosophy behind one of the most famous hockey relationships of all time: Wayne Gretzky and Dave Semenko.

Wayne Gretzky is arguably the best hockey player of all time. He is the leading point-scorer in NHL history, with more assists than any other player has total points, and the only NHL player to achieve over 200 points in one season. Yet at around 185 lbs for most of his career, Gretzky never had the stature or strength of other players. If he ever got into a fight, he would get creamed.

Had the Edmonton Oilers bought into the conventional view on dealing with weaknesses, they might have told Gretzky to bulk up. Instead, they paired him with enforcers like Dave Semenko who made it clear: mess with Gretzky and there would be pain.

Focusing on your Area of Genius

The Oilers allowed Gretzky to play to his strengths. In the language of our firm, they allowed him to focus on his “Area of Genius.”

Your area of genius is the intersection between things you excel at and what you love to do. In our experience, people who work primarily in this area do the best work and stay the most motivated.  For this reason, our team tries to have our people in their areas of genius over 80% of the time.

Focusing on areas of genius has made a huge difference to our firm over the years. Because we encourage people to play to their strengths, and we recognize that everyone has different genius areas, it has allowed us to develop more diversity in our firm and our skillsets.

We all can agree that we have strengths and weaknesses. The question we must ask ourselves is how we want to handle our weaknesses. Some things to consider:

How much time do you spend in your area of genius? At work? At home?

How much time does your team spend in their respective areas of genius?

If the answer is less than 50%, it might be time for a change.


*A special thanks to Phil Mittertreiner of Potentials Unlimited for this 'playing to your strengths' analogy.




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