All too often, employee development can feel like a search and destroy mission. Organizations train managers to identify, target and extinguish employees’ deficiencies. And since everyone has weaknesses to some degree, any search is certain to turn up areas for improvement. But in our zeal to identify and correct deficiencies, we may neglect the opportunity to recognize strengths and build on them. Whether you are thinking about this as a manager or for your own career building on strengths is motivating and effective.
Development shouldn’t only be about fixing the negative; in fact, I’d suggest that building on the positive is more important for creating an engaged, productive team than working on a deficiency. Employees have more motivation to develop and deploy a skill that aligns with their career interests and their best selves. The payoff for leveraging strengths is higher for the organization and the employee.
Take Eric. He works for an international consulting firm that wants its people to be ‘triple threats’: great at selling business, developing teams, and implementing the work. Most people don’t naturally fit that model, so the firm’s professional development process is left to create them. Eric is great at selling business. He builds strong client relationships and maintains an extensive professional network. Clients love his strategic focus and compelling ideas. But implementation bores Eric and, not surprisingly, he isn’t as good at it. Despite outselling his colleagues by 40 to 60 percent, Eric continues to receive negative performance feedback due to his less-than-stellar implementation skills. And efforts to improve those skills have left him frustrated. Wouldn’t it be better if the firm let Eric focus on selling work full time and allowed others to implement it?
At Eric’s firm, senior executives determined that separating sales from implementation leads to over-promising and under-delivering, so all sales professionals are required to lead the implementation of the projects they sell. It’s a reasonable strategy, but for Eric, his deficiency in one area negates his strength in another. He is currently considering offers from several companies that would be happy to let him sell and not implement.
According to a recent Gallup report, people whose work aligns with their strengths are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and three times more likely to report having excellent quality of life. Engaged and happy employees have a big impact on an organization’s success and ability to retain staff, but how can companies make sure their people are in positions that play to their strengths? Do you even know your own strengths?
We often take our strengths for granted and assume that what comes easy to us must also be easy for others. Recognizing our personal strengths keeps us from being dismissive of those who don’t share our abilities and points us toward ways to leverage and increase them.
Karen, an analyst in the intelligence community, asked me to help her staff become better at pattern recognition, an important skill in their line of work and one that Karen excels at. She could look at thousands of pages of data and quickly identify potential security threats. But her staff would need days if not weeks to come to the same conclusions. After our first training session, her staff showed significant improvement, and in a few days they were performing better. But no matter how much training we did, her staff couldn’t approach Karen’s ability. I asked her if she thought she was exceptionally gifted in this skill. She rejected that idea, saying her staff are as intelligent as she is.
Of course, intelligence and skill are not the same. Months later, Karen attended a leadership course that required taking an IQ test, and to her surprise, she scored in the 99th percentile in pattern recognition. No wonder she was so effective!
Now that Karen has recognized her strength, she can leverage it — and her staff — in ways that are more productive. Knowing others simply are unable to distill data as quickly as she can has freed her from insisting that everyone perform at her level. She now does the first cut at the data since she is so much faster and turns it over to her team to create matrices and reports to share with others.
As Karen looks for new jobs, she identifies positions that will leverage her ability to distill data.  She recently interviewed to lead a team that analyzes a broad range of complex data  across multiple organizations.  This job is another good fit for her strengths.
Intuitively we know that when we focus on our strengths we feel more confident and altogether better about ourselves. When we do work that builds on our strengths, it is easier and more fulfilling. Imagine going to work every day and doing what you do best. The first step to making that vision a reality is to recognize your gifts.