Build on Strengths

January 16th, 2013

Is the glass half full or half empty?

Honestly answer the following four questions. Your responses may be the key to either an engaged, energized team or an uncommitted, unmotivated team:

  • Are you a leader who spends more time focusing on the strengths or shortcomings of your individual employees?
  • Are you a leader who spends more time documenting areas of improvement or areas where your employees excel?
  • Are you a leader who has taken the time to carefully identify the strengths of your team members?
  • Are you a leader who has made adjustments on your team to accommodate strengths of individual employees?

Some of you may be familiar with a Gallup study where two million people from various cultures were asked, “At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?”

Gallup’s research found that globally, only 20% of employees strongly agreed that they had the opportunity everyday at work to do what they do best.  Not surprisingly, none of these respondents were emotionally engaged on the job.

But practically speaking, where does a leader begin to identify and build on strengths?

Simply put: ask.

One practical way of leveraging strengths is by having a strengths-focused conversation.


What is a strengths-focused conversation?

A strengths-focused conversation is simply a structured conversation to have one-on-one, distraction free with team members, particularly with those who you identify as key talent and with those who you identify as not fulfilling their potential or seemingly unengaged.

One suggestion for structuring questions is to ask questions related to the person’s:


Knowledge – questions that give you a clearer picture of the individual’s formal education or learning which has come from professional experiences.

Example questions include:

  • In what subjects is your formal education?
  • What knowledge do you feel you have mastered through your professional career?


Experience – questions that help you gain a better understanding of the individual’s experience in current and previous positions and even in volunteer outlets.

Example questions include:

• What prior experiences have prepared you for your current position?
• If you became a consultant, in what areas or subjects would you feel confident in?
• With what specific skills do people seek out your help or frequently compliment you on?


Personal Attributes – questions that provide clarity around what that person is just has a naturally aptitude.

Example questions include:

If you could spend the rest of your life doing one thing, what would that be?
• When you are completely exhausted, what subjects can you still keep talking about?
• Describe the last project at work where you were excited and feel like you performed your best or made a significant contribution.


Aspiration – questions that help you identify where that person sees him/herself in the future with the organization.

Example questions include:

If you could create a brand new position in our organization, what would that be?
• What about our organization’s mission statement are you passionate about?
• If you could job swap for a day or longer with anyone in the organization, who would that be and how do you think that experience would match your strengths?


What a strengths-focused conversation is NOT?

A strengths-focused conversation is not one that promises an employee a promotion, a position, or readiness for promotion. The point of the conversation is to let the employees know you see potential in them, and as their leader, you want to be more intentional in helping them develop that potential by leveraging their strengths.

While formal in structure, a strengths-based conversation is not one that should be documented and added to a person’s personnel file. The results are for individual and personal development and to help you place them appropriately on the team.

A strengths-based conversation is not a one-size fits all.

Questions used with one individual may not be the best questions to use with another individual. The goal is to ask questions in each of the four areas of knowledge, experience, personal attributes, and aspiration.

What can you do with the results of a strengths-focused conversation?

Based on the discussion that occurs in the conversation, you could:

  • Help the employee set a short-term goal (6 mo to 1 year)
  • Help the employee set a long-term goal (more than 1 year out)
  • Match the employee with the right mentors
  • Make adjustments on the team so that the “players” are playing the positions where they are strongest and do more of what they enjoy
  • Allow the employee to participate in projects and meetings that help him/her reach desired short and/or long-term goals
  • Delegate those tasks you are doing that someone else with a passion for them could be doing


What you can expect from the time invested?

We know that teams which are built on strengths experience critical results such as

  • improved motivatation
  • higher engagement
  • better morale
  • higher productivity
  • increased loyalty to the leader
  • stronger commitment to the organization

The Brain-Based Bottom Line

Leaders who want to move from uncommitted, unmotivated to energized, engaged teams are those who choose to identify and build on strengths.

The primary way of doing this is by having a strengths-focused conversation with team members, particularly those who are critical talent or are not performing to their potential.

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