I’ve been using strength-based performance and leadership approaches for a few years now in my work with groups and individuals. I love this approach and I want to tell you why because I think it's the secret of doing what you love and loving what you do.
The idea of working from your strengths is not a new one. In his 2008 classic Managing Oneself, Peter Drucker comments,
‘Don’t waste time cultivating skill areas where you have little competence.’
He advises using feedback analysis and journaling over several years to identify your strengths, reflecting on how you work best and what results you are good at generating. This is a great idea, however I like to fast track things a little for the people I coach.
I ask my participants to do an inventory – the Gallup Strengthsfinder 2.0 - before they come to see me. The Gallup survey is the most researched and best known, but you can find others on the net. The Strengthsfinder originator, Donald Clifton, came up with 34 empirically derived talent themes. The self-assessed survey identifies your strongest talent themes, with the focus usually being on the top 5.
Talents and strengths - what's the difference?
Although the inventory is called Strengthsfinder, it actually identifies your talent themes. What’s the difference? Positive psychologist Martin Seligman, in the book “Authentic Happiness,” defines strengths as traits that can be acquired, while talents are innate.
Donald Clifton, the originator of the Strengthsfinder inventory has a slightly different view. For Clifton, a strength is the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific activity. Talents are naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.
Personally I like to keep things simple, and for me, based on my Strengths work with hundreds of people, I would define talents as innate predispositions or potential strengths. What turns them into strengths? Hard work!
Being an ocean swimmer, I love to watch Olympic swimming events. I think we could safely say that in every case these people had a talent that was identified early on, and then the rest of it has been rigorous training and dedication.
OK, what’s the payoff for turning your talents into strengths?
It feels great. Clifton says that you know you are using your strengths when you look forward to that activity. I may not be an Olympic swimmer but I have been training long and hard on ocean swimming. I look forward to it and feel energized and motivated by doing it. I ignored that talent earlier in life, but I’m in there now!
Your performance improves. You can use your computer mouse with both hands, and probably should. However one hand feels more natural: it’s your preferred hand. Once you’ve learnt to use the mouse, that activity is effortless and fluid with your preferred hand. Strengths are a bit like that: you've got an innate talent, and you build on it. The Gallup research claims that people are six times more engaged at work when they’re working from their strengths.
Most organisations concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Energy, resources and time should go instead to making a competent person into a star performer. Peter Drucker
Using your strengths makes you a more effective leader. This is because strengths are really attractive. They create an energy around this person who is comfortable and powerful in their own skin. An added bonus is that with an understanding of the Strengths model, leaders can identify and develop the talents and strengths of individuals and teams.
Knowledge of strengths builds self-awareness. Realising that you have a unique set of strengths or potential strengths is a revelation and a relief. It builds self-esteem and self-efficacy. With this comes realisation of your non-preferred talents and a willingness to manage them rather than endlessly trying to ‘fix’ yourself.
Becoming aware of your strengths is essential for job satisfaction. No one likes to feel like a fish out of water. If you are uncomfortable in your role, then there are three things to consider: you haven’t yet put your strengths to work in that role; the role needs a bit of redesigning to accommodate your skillsets; or you are in the wrong role.
I had a big realisation – that I had strengths and that I should focus on them, not the weaknesses. I learnt to show off my strengths, to own them.
Tips for getting started with Strengths
The first thing is to understand your talents and strengths. Do an inventory, such as Strengthsfinder, and as Drucker suggests, keep a journal record of what strengths are getting the results you want at work. Perhaps you could chunk down the development of strengths by giving yourself a 30 day challenge. You might have an innate talent for connecting, but haven’t really developed it into an effective network. You could challenge yourself to connect with someone on LinkedIn each day for a month.
The strengths approach is relevant to life in general, not just to work. Clifton’s research claims that people using their strengths are 3 times more likely to report on an excellent quality of life. Now that’s something to think about.