Five years ago, almost to the day, I was introduced to my strengths. I had been managing people formally for two years and been part of diverse teams at various organizations as a leader and team member. Based on a recommendation from a colleague, I participated in Leadership San Jose, a program for cross-sector high potential leaders to learn about their city and from each other (most major cities have a similar program through their Chamber of Commerce).
It was there I learned about leading from a strengths point of view. All too often we’re focused on what we’re not good at instead of where we shine. There, however, they emphasized focusing on strengths. I was inspired to buy a copy of StrengthsFinder 2.0, which came with a code for an easy quiz online that identified in rank order my top five strengths:
I can honestly say that this information - the naming of my strengths - was game-changing for me as a leader and a manager. It put words to what I knew about myself but wasn’t able to articulate well. Knowing my strengths has helped me to better accept myself and recognize the value I bring to the table. Additionally, I have been able to help the people around me understand and work better with me (more about this below).
I was recently reminded of the value of being aware of and leaning into your strengths through this Joanna Barsh piece on Centered Leadership. In it, Barsh stresses that the, “Best form of happiness is fulfillment...this is what happens when you live into your strengths.” Strengths aren’t simply, “What you’re good at, but who you are.”
What are strengths?
Gallup and the Clifton StrengthsFinder define strengths as:
“The unique combination of talents, knowledge, and skills that every person possesses. People use these innate traits and abilities in their daily lives to complete their work, to relate with others, and to achieve their goals. But most people don’t know what their strengths are or have the opportunity to use them to their advantage.
People who do focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs. They are more productive too, both individually and in teams. And they are more than three times as likely to say they have an excellent quality of life.
Discovering and developing your strengths positions you to do what you do best every day.”
Strengths are our personal set of tools we each should be using and developing as much as we can - every day. Instead of focusing on our weaknesses and areas of growth, a strengths-based approach:
- Places value and emphasis on the unique talents we each bring to the table.
- Pushes us to focus on what we’re good at and how to get better instead of spending time “fixing” what we are not.
- Does not expect us (truly - anyone - even if you are the boss!) to be good at everything. (This last one came as a huge relief to me!)
All that said, it’s not enough to identify my strengths; I’ve had to share them with my team, learn their strengths, and have them lead me as I lead them.
Sharing my strengths to better lead my team
Getting to know and work with my strengths in mind over the years has helped me define my leadership style and given me tools to communicate better about myself in clear terms and with examples. I can let the people around me know not only WHAT to expect from me but WHY and HOW it will look.
Here’s what I’ve shared with teams about my strengths in action:
Context is my number one strength. I use history and past decisions to inform the future. I appreciate lots of information - over communicate to me! As your manager (member of this team/leader/etc…), this can look and feel like me asking lots of questions - it is not because I don’t believe you or don’t think you’re smart, I simply want to understand a situation as deeply as possible. This helps me make informed and solid decisions.
With my strengths in view, I am also more clear on my blind spots and what I need from the team around me - not to correct or fix - but to be aware of them.
This kind of knowledge is also helpful when helping a new team work together. In 2011 before I relocated to work with a brand new team, I sent them each a copy of Strengths Based Leadership so they could each take the quiz themselves. During our first face-to-face meeting as a team, I used my strengths introduce myself, my leadership style and my expectations. After this first meeting, we put our strengths together on a grid so we could see who had what, where there was overlap and what we were missing.
This was a fun and engaging team building activity and provided the group with helpful work matching opportunities and space for reflection and dialogue.
Learning the strengths of others so we can all work better together
When you know the strengths of your team, you can tailor your approach with them based on how they prefer to receive information or get work done. Additionally, when you are adding to the team, you know what your leadership gaps are and can deliberately seek new members that round out your team.
For example, in one team I was part of, nearly 50% of people had Learner as a strength. They were comfortable with information at any point even if it wasn’t final and preferred having it early even if it changed later on. They also valued learning together and teaching and training each other. We adapted the timeliness of communication and levels of transparency (as often as we could) with the group and started staff learning circles for regular professional development. This team was also responsible for creating and piloting a brand new training program for our entire organization.
A strengths-based approach also provides a common language and helpful framework for giving and receiving feedback. Teammates can offer examples of when they have observed specific strengths in action, or when they’ve seen them taken to excess. This can be through short and private 1:1 check-in conversations as part of team meetings where each person has a chance to ask for feedback about a specific strength and offer observations to their pair.
A colleague of mine had the book tabbed by person and by strength for each of his direct reports. To help him center in the strengths of the person, he would spend 10-15 minutes before each check in reviewing their strengths. Even these few minutes spent reminding himself of the person he was working with and what unique value they brought to the table helped him plan how to best communicate leverage his team.
Tips for getting started with your strengths
Get the book and find a buddy. When I first began exploring my strengths, I did it along with a teammate. We bought the books together, took the test and shared our strengths with each other. It was fun to have someone close by that I could talk to, we gave each other perspective and could learn together. To get started, identify someone who has a chance to see you or check in on a regular basis. Set aside time (lunch once a week) where you can focus the conversations on strengths - what have you learned, what new thing do you want to test?
If you want to use them with your team - go first! To start leading with your strengths, you need to know what they are and start getting comfortable with them. If you want to understand and maximize the strengths of your team, tell everyone you can (your family, friends, colleagues, boss, direct reports) about what you’ve learned about yourself and why you care. Be willing to do anything that you’d ask someone on your team to do. When as the leader you are out in front saying, "I'm good at stuff, but not everything and that's okay" and "Each of you on the team is needed and valued for the unique traits and tools your bring", what happens is that trust is built across the team and permission is given for each member to dive into their strengths.
My strengths and I are off now to celebrate our five year anniversary - toasting to many years of authentic and fulfilling engagement. Wishing you the same!
By Megan O'Leary