Leading to Strength
A coach’s guide to identifying strengths and using these abilities as the foundation for true professional development.
When you give feedback, do you concentrate on areas for improvement, or praise someone for what they do best? When you give a performance review, do you want to talk most about the victories or “opportunities?”
This article discusses how to focus on strengths for professional growth from a coach’s perspective and how to adapt this idea to practical use.
To do this, we’ll discuss the theory of focusing on strengths, show how to identify strengths from skills and weaknesses, and then discuss how to view professional development with this in mind.
Playing to Strengths
Life is complicated, so you might not have answered the questions above in exactly the same manner. The majority of us have had plenty of training on professional development, coaching, and interpersonal skills. We know not to dwell on failures or shortcomings, just as we don’t only celebrate victories and ignore what needs to be fixed. Yet, our cultural bias has a focus on fixing problems, making improvements, and helping people shore up their weaknesses.
In the books Now, Discover Your Strengths (Buckingham and Clifton, 2001) and Strengths Finder 2.0 (Rath, 2007), the authors suggest that our bias is backwards. They propose that we should find what someone is good at and encourage him or her to take those capabilities to another level. When we focus on areas where a person is weak, areas for which they may have little talent or natural inclination, they can likely only achieve improvement leading to relative mediocrity. All we have done is take professional development time away from areas where one could really excel.
A silly example to illustrate the concept: I can’t sing. I could take singing lessons, but I’m never going to be a professional singer. Given this has nothing to do with being a project manager, I would not be a more useful member of a team if I could sing a little better. Hopefully I would get some enjoyment out of the singing lessons, because that’s about all the benefit I could hope to see from the effort. Furthermore, a good coach wouldn’t encourage me to prioritize singing lessons. A good coach would know that I would be better served by spending my time on developing a skill for which I have more native talent, or at least something more closely related to project management, such as negotiation or presentation skills.
As a coach, how do we determine areas of natural talent or strength in others? Similarly, how do we determine areas of weakness versus areas where one may simply need more training or support? A great coach understands the distinction between a strength, weakness and skill and then uses this understanding to help others strategically maximize their true talents.
Identifying strengths, skills and weaknesses
Let’s first start with some basic definitions.
Author J.D. Meier explains the difference well. “Strengths are your dominant thinking, feeling and doing patterns that come naturally to you.” A skill is different – it’s a learned ability to do something with relative ease. For example, a person may be skilled at managing data in spreadsheets, but it’s not an area where they find gratification. This person may, however, have a strength in articulating that data to others. Working with people to solve complex problems is something this individual naturally enjoys and shows obvious talent in doing. The more this person focuses on this strength, the better they get.
Weaknesses then are areas where little or no improvement can be shown, no matter how hard a person works at it. As the line from “Chariots of Fire” goes, “You can’t put in what God left out.” In other words, if a weakness is an absence of strength, you can coach mitigating strategies, but you can’t make the weakness go away. However, if the weakness is a deficiency related to a competency, you may be able to address it through training or some other form of help.
Identifying strengths (and weaknesses) is a very personal process – each individual needs to take ownership of this work, as only they can articulate the areas where they not only naturally excel, but make them happy and fulfilled.
As a coach, you can certainly help guide this process by offering your insight, having candid conversations and then, once strengths are identified, strategizing together on how to capitalize on individual strengths.
Several guides exist that help individuals think about and determine their strengths. Buckingham, Clifton and Rath, the authors of the two books mentioned above, describe the Clifton StrengthFinder™ Themes, which measures the presence of 34 talent themes in an individual. The more dominant a theme in a person, the greater the theme’s impact on that person’s behavior or performance. Themes are deliberately general: their application within one’s chosen profession varies from role to role, and even person to person. These themes can, however, help identify where true talent lies.
Take, for example, Sue. Sue is a programmer. Writing great code is her skill, which she gained from a combination of educational and hands-on experiences. Sue discovered that one of her strengths is that she is a Learner, which is one of the 34 StrengthFinder™ themes. Because she is a Learner, Sue thrives in dynamic work environments and enjoys learning new programs and technologies. She understands technical details and can easily break down complex tasks. The combination of Sue’s skills and strengths makes her a great programmer.
Let’s say that as a coach, you’ve helped Sue discover that being a Learner is one of her strengths. So now, how do you use this information to help Sue strengthen her performance?
There are several ways that you as a leader can help Sue capitalize on this strength, such as:
- Making sure Sue is regularly exposed to new projects
- Pairing Sue with other teammates who have more of a difficulty staying up to date with technology or solving problems that are particularly complex
- Utilizing Sue as a resource for projects that require research, quick thinking, etc.
In order for this process to be successful, communication with Sue needs to take place on a regular basis. Sue needs to be open about times when she’s feeling unchallenged and you as a coach need to continually look for opportunities to use Sue’s ability to solve difficult problems and easily learn new processes or tools.
Although our authors, Buckingham, Clifton and Rath, encourage coaches to manage to strengths, weaknesses, of course, should not be overlooked. Understanding individual weaknesses allows coaches to:
- Identify areas of improvement (is it a weakness, or does he or she just need more training, education, etc.)
- Understand where to delegate tasks to others who may be stronger in a certain area
- Create a framework for teamwork – pair individuals with complementary strengths and weaknesses.
Let’s continue to use Sue as an example. While she is a great programmer and has many good strengths, she also has areas in need of improvement. One of those is her inability to effectively articulate her thoughts into words, especially to those she does not know very well. Sue can be shy and does not like to be the center of attention.
Sue can learn how to better communicate her thoughts on some level, but it is highly unlikely that Sue will develop to the same level of her peers where communication comes naturally for them. Even more importantly, being in roles that require constant communication is not something that Sue will enjoy.
A good coach will recognize this and strive to put Sue in roles where she is happy and has natural talent. To do this, a coach can give Sue projects where she can work behind the scenes or pair Sue with other teammates whose strengths balance Sue’s.
The authors of Now, Discover Your Strengths and StrengthFinder 2.0 provide an excellent case for focusing on strengths. We can use it not just for our own development, but as another great tool in our coaching toolbox. I encourage you to think about the lessons drawn from this when coaching your own team:
- Work with each person to evaluate individual strengths, skills and areas for improvement.
- Look for ways to maximize the true strengths of each individual
- Use your knowledge of individual weaknesses to leverage strengths
Remember that most leaders take employee strengths for granted and instead spend time minimizing weaknesses. Instead, learn to watch for true strengths and offer others an enriching environment for those strengths to grow. The end result will be happier, well-rounded employees and a stronger team.
Buckingham, Marcus, and Clifton, Donald O., Ph.D. Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: 2001.
Rath, Tom. Strengths Finder 2.0. New York: 2007.
Sources of Insight – https://sourcesofinsight.com/strength-and-weakness/