How to make strengths based leadership work

Founding your organisation on strengths based leadership sounds most attractive. It creates the picture of people operating at top efficiency, doing what they do naturally, and performing at a standard that is the very best they can do. With lots of laughter. Everyday. Without fail. Who wouldn’t want to work in an organisation like this?

Its central message is that people have several times more potential if they build on their strengths than fix their weaknesses. Indeed where people are encouraged to use their strengths they are 6 times more likely to be engaged in their employment and 3 times more likely to have an excellent quality of life[1]. Given that disengagement can cause everything from poor quality work to actively damaging products and services, attaining engagement offers significant improvement of a firm’s profit and growth. However successful take up of this strategy is patchy. More than half of American workers believe that working on their weaknesses would give better gains than working on their strengths[2].

Strengths are a combination of physical and mental attributes that enable us to undertake activities without undue difficulty and produce consistent high quality results. If we were sportsmen and women our physicality would be a significant indicator to the sport we suit best. Usan Bolt with his long legs and fast twitch muscles fibres is well suited to running. Ian Thorpe’s flexible size 17 feet were made for swimming, and the speed and flexibility of Serena Williams could have allowed her access to many sports, but made her perfect for tennis. For knowledge workers, strengths are not so easy to recognise as they come from deep within us. Had you met Bill Gates or Mike Cannon-Brookes before they were famous you’d likely find it hard to imagine that these men would become world renowned billionaires because of their strengths in software engineering and strategy. Maybe you would have noticed that they seemed more focused, attentive and disciplined than other people. Or maybe not.

Uncovering our mental strengths is complicated by us being humans filled with experiences, skills and a personality that have each been tempered by time and by our beliefs and convictions, producing reactions that occur in ways unexpected, so that strengths can be missed or appear misshapen.

Sites like viacharacter.org and Gallupstrengthscenter.com provide surveys that analyse character and strengths. Organisation appraisal systems can be tweaked to ask questions to do the same. Psychological profiles like DISC add insight by describing the way we work. Tracking our activities in a time journal, commenting on the attention we give each moment of our day (including our responses, feelings, level of interest, frustrations, health and results) provide significant insights too.

We are each a hotchpotch of ideas, skills, desires and more which mill about our heads, and which we want to apply so as to enjoy the rewards they bring. That is what strengths leadership is meant to enable.

Focusing on strengths celebrates difference and comes with an expectation that we will be comfortable with that. Not all people will feel this way. It is understandable that there would be some resistance. This article outlines 10 factors that are useful to consider when enabling a strengths based environment to occur.

(1) It requires big roles and high standards. It is through pushing to the edges and into new terrain that new ideas are formed, skills are formed and pleasure gained from scaling high mountains. Roles that are easily completed don’t work here. A strengths based organisation can easily become a victim of its own success unless roles are regularly adapted to grow with its people.

(2) It’s uncomfortable. In all organisations employees are engaged to achieve outputs and are then measured against these outputs. Organisations which wish to lead through strengths are no different except in how they handle weaknesses. Unless a weakness diminishes the efficacy of the strength, is a failing of character or is an essential skill (eg leadership requires strengths in each of four areas to be effective:  executing, influencing, relationship building and strategic thinking), it is ignored. That the human may be terse, or flighty, or need constant reinforcement is expected to be seen as a quirk that represents human uniqueness. It is to be accepted and managed. The upside is that diversity is naturally incorporated into the organisation.

In the past my work has included a firm where one of my client’s staff was described as having a “poor user interface but great operating system”. He is a good and kind man with a brilliant mind and sometimes painfully messy reactions. His leaders and team value his contribution and want him to win for the sake of himself and for their sakes too, thus his good qualities are displayed often, as are the tactics used to circumvent his lack of attention, uncomfortable comments, and unreliability. By accepting that his strengths and weaknesses come as a package the message is offered: “we accept you for who you are”. It’s not a perfect situation by any means. There are times when his action creates tension, but his presence benefits everyone by showing that even though we may have uncomfortable parts within us, that doesn’t affect our human rights nor the value we create in the world – this knowledge builds the confidence and resilience of all the team not just him.

(3) It takes courage to give an opinion and remain unperturbed when the idea is cut down, or when one finds oneself defending a minority position. Your people will experience this if your strength based organisation is to live up to its name. Regular communication and education about values especially those relating to communication, respect and compassion is needed to set the standards high and lay a path to reach them. Executives who excuse their own disrespectful behaviour on the basis their respect skills are weak demonstrate character flaws, which need to be attended to otherwise the strategy’s success is undermined. Focusing on an individual’s strengths carries the risk of separation as well as the joy of creative application. It’s the choice of the organisation which one will be sustained.

(4) Delay and stonewalling increase. Meeting attendees are asked to present themselves because their specific knowledge adds value to solving a problem. Others in the meeting likely don’t have similar breadth and depth in their field as they do, though their skills are high in their own discipline. The lack of common language and knowledge is a hurdle, resulting in increasing failures for meetings to come to a decision. Research has found that when 6 people attend a meeting there is a 31% chance that a decision will be made. [3] That’s right nearly 7 in 10 complex meetings don’t make a decision at all. Having a common language and decision making process is essential to improve these odds.

(5) Patience and precision are required. This is true for any organisation, but when the focus is on an individual’s strengths this can become more so. “Measure twice, cut once” is a standard to set. It focuses on high quality results and the passion and precision needed for their creation.

(6) Recruitment is harder than needed. Growing importance is placed on evidenced performance, yet performance systems rarely collect strengths data. Many 360s focus on what the team wants its leader to do differently, not what he does best. Strengths data is generally not collected in a fashion ready for trawling when new positions open, resulting in appointments made on best guess answers, through a drawn out recruiting process, or delayed. However, by your executives collecting written daily evidence of what their people do well, the results that are produced and the applicable situations, the organisation can be ready with a suitable name for that high profile challenging role when the time comes.

(7) Risk of crafting a role to a person and not an output. It’s easy to misunderstand the purpose of this strategy and craft a role to suit an individual and not a strategic and operational need. But when that person goes, what then? The role and those with which it interfaces will need to be restructured. This is wasteful at best. Such actions cut at the heart of the strategy. Instead of demonstrating that talents are used to enable the company, it says ‘special people have talents, and to use them the organisation must adapt’ thereby increasing potential for bias, and reducing trust. A role must be developed to meet strategic and operational needs, not the profile of an individual.

(8) Speed is essential. If a person in a new role doesn’t shine within the first 100 days remove them. It’s fair to them, and shows that the recruiting practise didn’t work not that the person is a failure. To keep them longer places the commitment of your executives under question.

 (9) Its easier to follow than be accountable. It’s much easier to follow the lead of someone else and then blame the system when results don’t occur, than become the change you seek. A strengths strategy places accountability for results back with the employee. Lack of understanding the tension between these stances may be the reason why attempts to implement this strategy can fail to produce the results desired.

(10) Well rounded teams are built out of people who are not. Bill Gates admits that he is weak in staff selection abilities and so has employed others to fulfil this role. He can focus on what he does best, and so can they.  Each person in his team has strengths in areas not held to the same extent by others. Separately they have gaps. Together they make a whole.  This is a real value of strengths’ based leadership – One + One equals much more. The opposite is the case when two people of mediocrity get together. By getting in one another’s way the result produced is less than one.

Growing the strengths of its people underpins the results of behemoths like Facebook and Atlassian. These companies are determined to create workplaces where people feel comfortable with their uniqueness, their abilities, their place on the team, and their value when they throw ideas around. Enabling them to feel safe to take risks too.

 

Thriving workplaces like these don’t just happen. That’s why I have a framework for making change like this successful. Why not watch this 4-minute video and give it a try.

 

[1] Rath, Tom 2007, Strengths Finder 2.0 Gallup Press, p iii
[2] Burkus, David, Building a strong organization: Exploring the role of organizational design in strengths based leadership, Journal of Strategic Leadership Vol 3, Iss 1, 2011 pp 54-66
[3] Adamson, Bret, 2015 “The challenger Customer: Selling to the hidden influencer who can multiply your results” Portfolio / Penguin

Other papers you may find interesting:

What is your CEO Leadership score

Validation: Three questions to improve your leadership edge

Growth and profit diagnostic

Route to compassionate leadership


Jennifer is a business and executive coach who helps leaders turn their strategies into remarkable results. 

She assists executives and business owners to achieve goals such as improved profit, productivity, leadership skills, business value. Her services are Business and Executive Coaching, Group Facilitation and advising on Board Governance. Her straight forward process help leaders achieve results without delay.

 To find out how she can help you, call +61 439 520 182 or email.