It’s counterintuitive, I know, but when we think about developing people, we should consider working on those areas in which they are already strong rather than their purported weaknesses.
That’s a hard concept to reconcile when we are staring at the results of a competency assessment that has several clearly low-rated items. But unless those items are derailers, that’s not where our attention should focus. We should instead continue to build up those skills that can clearly set that person apart – the ones that will allow them to contribute their best work.
This message is the life work of Marcus Buckingham, a thought leader in the area of strengths-based management. It’s important to recognize how Buckingham defines a strength – it’s an activity in which a person feels strong, something that puts them in a state of flow, where they lose track of time. Other signs of a strength include competence (they’re good at it), love of learning in that arena, and joy in doing that kind of work.
“You will learn the most, grow the most, and develop the most in your areas of greatest strength. Your strengths are your multiplier.”
~ Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work, p 55
If you want to help people to contribute significantly on the job, identifying and utilizing their strengths is the best way to achieve that end.
A personal endorsement
I have seen the value of this approach in my own experience. Hands down, the best professional development activity I’ve engaged in with direct reports has been a deep discussion of their strengths.
We used Marcus Buckingham’s book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work (2007), and took the time to identify and share our strengths. More importantly, we then assigned work on the team based on the insights that analysis provided. The process entailed keeping a running list of all the activities that felt absorbing and energizing over a several week period. Then we looked for patterns in the kind of work that seemed to make us feel strong.
The exercise is far more insightful than what you get from a strengths-finder exercise (which would identify your strengths from a list that includes such items as maximizer, or learner). In contrast, using Buckingham’s analysis, I was able to say that the kind of work that really gets my juices flowing is “researching and studying topics in L&D and translating them or envisioning their use for practice.” Having first defined this as one of my strengths back in 2011, this skill is the core of the work that I do even now, which is why I not only enjoy it, but actively work to get better at it.
For my team, the exercise was equally revealing. I was able to get to know them at a deep level quite quickly through our conversations about what their own analyses uncovered. In determining how we were going to manage our portfolio of projects, we were able to divide the work so each of us could contribute at their best.
We were also able to redistribute work so people could be freed from aspects of the job that were not in their bailiwick. The Go Put Your Strengths to Work exercises also shed light on “weaknesses” – those areas that really drag a person down.
In our case, my team members had strengths in the area of project management, and they urged me to let them manage projects that I was leading because it was clearly an area that wore me out and that I didn’t do particularly well to boot. I held on to those tasks because I didn’t want to dump that work on them, all the while they were secretly desiring to take it over. They could do it better and faster, freeing me to do more of what they saw me do exceptionally well.
This customized approach to job assignment allowed us to become a highly-tuned team, delivering on our mission, advancing our knowledge and skills, and enjoying the work in the process. As a team, we of course recognized that we all have to do aspects of our jobs that we would rank as least favorite. But when we can organize ourselves so that everyone is doing some of the work they love and do best, the results can be stellar.
Recognizing uniqueness and playing to strengths
In Marcus Buckingham’s latest book, Love + Work (2022), he has recast strengths as “red threads,” but the concept is the same. Red threads are identified by finding “signs of love: you instinctively volunteer for it; you disappear within it and time rushes by; you feel mastery at it” (p 99).*
Buckingham also elaborates on the importance of recognizing each person’s unique individuality, or wyrd (an ancient Norse term that refers to each person’s distinct spirit). He uses wyrd to refer to the unique configuration of each person’s mind, their individual accumulation of loves and loathes, their depth of personal experience. If each person can find work that takes advantage of their wyrd and their red threads, they will be much happier in the work and better able to contribute something special and valuable.
“You have galaxies within you. These galaxies will shine brightly for only your life span. And, upon your death, once they shine no more, nothing and no one will ever shine in quite the same way again. It’s overwhelming. What a responsibility. What an opportunity. What a gift your loves are to the rest of us.”
~ Marcus Buckingham, Love + Work, p 42
In developing people, then, an important point of clarification is to discover where they are able to be completely immersed in the work, what excites them and allows them to do their best. Then you can customize your development approach toward building on these strengths, helping your employees to establish themselves as power players in specific arenas. Give them detailed feedback on how their strengths are driving their greatest accomplishments. Help them see how they can become even more effective and encourage them to push themselves to greater expertise. Urge them to use their strengths to make a real difference.
We don’t ask athletes to play every position on the field or court; we don’t ask musicians to play every instrument or even every genre of music. Likewise, we shouldn’t ask each employee to be equally competent at every line in an impossibly long job description or every element of a competency framework. Instead, helping people to play to their strengths will not only give them the kind of growth they crave, it will also allow them to do exceptional work that matters.
* For the record, I prefer the exercises in Go Put Your Strengths to Work over those in Love + Work – they are more elaborate and contain recommendations for defining those activities you loathe as well. From it, I was able to discern how to manage my team based on our findings about loves and loathes.
This post is part of a series exploring the moves leaders can make to promote development of their teams and employees. Check out the entire developing people series. And please get in touch if I can help you to aquaint your leadership team with these moves and the details of practices that ensure they are effective. I can offer a workshop and other learning materials on the subject.