Want to build a strengths culture in your organisation? Here’s how.
I’m happy to tell you that I’m in love - with strengths! In our company, ‘working from your strengths’ is a transformational narrative that we share with all our coaching clients. I want to talk to you about the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ of strengths, because I think that if we really want people to be engaged, doing their best work and becoming future-fit, it requires a narrative shift to a strengths culture.
I use the Gallup StrengthsFinder 2.0 online self-assessment tool in individual and group coaching. My discussion in this article is based on the extensive research carried out around strengths, as well as personal experience. We also talk to Heidi Somerville, Performance Enablement Lead, Group People and Culture, Coca-Cola Amatil, and Debbie Higgins, Group Operations Manager – Events, from Merivale. Heidi and Debbie have both put the Strengths approach to work in their work practice.
Heidi: It has made a huge difference to the mindset that I bring to my work each day. Rather than being daunted by my weaknesses, I choose to be enabled and empowered by my strengths.
Why a strengths approach?
Do you remember showing your parents your school report card, with two ‘A’s’, three ‘B’s’ and a lone ‘D’. Put your hand up if they immediately asked you about the ‘D’!
That’s the opposite of a strengths-base approach. Similarly in corporate life we tend to spend most of our time fixing our weaknesses in order to succeed. Women, in particular, are enculturated to think that they have to keep fixing and improving themselves in order to be worthy. The problem with this kind of thinking is that you are never enough.
People who use their strengths everyday are more than three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life and six times more likely to be engaged at work. HBR 2016
You’ll succeed through strengths, not weaknesses
The fact is, it’s your strengths that are going to help you succeed. I’m not saying you should ignore the weaknesses, but don't obsess on them. Manage them, but don’t let them rule your life. The research tells us that when people work from a strengths base, levels of engagement and performance improve dramatically. People feel more confident in their abilities, and want to bring their best self to work every day.
Debbie: In a fast-paced business like Merivale, and particularly in an operational role, there’s no time to reflect. You have to be sure of yourself and act. It’s about strengths in action. You need to know and be confident about what you’re good at, know when to pull a lever with the team, and act decisively. Working from my strengths has been great in this regard.
Why do we need a strengths-based culture?
The culture of your organisation is about your shared commitments in terms of how you think, act and work together. It’s about ‘how we do things around here’. If an individual can make productivity and engagement gains from a strengths-based approach, what could a whole organisation or team achieve?
Heidi: We know that people who focus on their strengths, are happier, more engaged and perform better, so the question is, why wouldn’t you take a strengths-based approach to organisational culture?
Is your cultural narrative a positive or negative one? When we introduce the language and ideas of strengths more broadly in the organisation, it gives people a shared language, shared ideas and a positive, productive approach. Managers start talking about strengths in performance reviews! Team members start thinking in terms of leveraging best the strengths on their team. People connect with each other more effectively.
Coaching programs play a role in building strengths
Heidi and Debbie both explored the Strengths concept with Executive Central as part of either a group or individual program. We asked them more about their experience and the impact of strengths coaching in their practice.
How do your strengths help with your role?
Heidi: I’ve recently been promoted to a new role leading the future of Performance Enablement across the Coca-Cola Amatil Group. It’s a steep learning curve and one that could very easily feel over-whelming. But each morning, I get up and think about how I’m going to bring my strengths to play in any given situation that arises that day. Honestly, consciously focusing on leveraging my strengths (over focusing on those dreaded weaknesses!) has really changed the game for me, it’s given me the confidence and self-belief that I need to be successful in this role, and in my broader life. Although I have to admit it takes a whole lot of practice!
Were you surprised by your strengths?
Debbie: My strengths were what I expected, but what did surprise me was how accessible and user-friendly the ideas are – suitable for all types of people.
How have you put them to work?
Debbie: I was put in a new team – Group Operations: Sales & Events – in charge of 72 brands. I was able to confidently and comfortably articulate who and what I am as a team leader. This contributed to accelerating the building of the team I think. I have ‘discipline’ and ‘responsibility’ as key strengths. I had found that I could get a bit emotionally charged at times, in situations where I felt my integrity was being challenged. Coming to understand my strengths better enabled me to deal with things better in people-operations scenarios.
Understanding and leveraging your strengths is one thing, and understanding the impact of ‘strengths overplayed’ is another. When my two strengths of Discipline and Responsibility are overplaying themselves, I can get emotional and now I’m more aware of that and can deal with it.
Why do you think it’s useful to build a strengths-based culture?
Heidi: We know that people who focus on their strengths, are happier, more engaged and perform better, so the question is, why wouldn’t you take a strengths-based approach to organisational culture? It’s been interesting to watch how engagement around StrengthsFinder has built at Coca-Cola Amatil New Zealand. Initially we trialled it with a few teams, but positive word of mouth spread quickly and we are now inundated with teams and individuals wanting to discover their strengths – we can’t ask for better feedback than that!
What do you see as enablers and blockers for a strengths-based culture?
Heidi: I think the increased engagement and performance we see from people who take a strengths-based approach are the best enablers we have. Blockers? I do think that it does require quite a big mindset shift and there are some people who continue to focus on trying to ‘fix what’s wrong with people’. What’s exciting to see is that as they see the impact of a strengths-based approach, their mindset changes.
What’s the importance of a strengths culture?
Debbie: We’ve started using a strengths approach in Sales & Events, using it for manager development. My observation so far is that it increases people’s confidence about what they’re good at. It gives people an understanding of where they could improve, and empowers them to ask for help when they need it. Feeling OK to ask for help is really important, and is one element of mental health in the workplace.
What results do you see from a strengths-based approach?
Heidi: What I see is a happier, healthier, more engaged workforce and a business that truly supports the positive development of its people. At Coca-Cola Amatil New Zealand, we have an engagement score of 82%. We know our people are confident in bringing their whole self to work – including their strengths. I think in a way we’re a showcase for what a strengths-based culture can look like and the results it can deliver.
OK so how do I go about this?
I think the first thing is to get some individuals and teams doing the Strengths work. This way you create pockets of strengths culture, and as Heidi mentioned, other people start to want a piece of it. The second thing is, leadership is a vital enabler: for any cultural shift you need to have leaders and managers as role models.
You are welcome to contact us at Executive Central to find out more about our strengths-based approach to group and individual coaching. In the meantime there is plenty of information available on a strengths-based approach: here are some of my favourites: