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Strengths based development


The goldilocks of strengths

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Not long ago, I had a meeting with someone who wanted to be a coach on our women’s programme. She was very experienced, had an impressive client list and good qualifications. She talked eloquently about her coaching and successes with clients. Many of her examples were about her ability to ask just the right question to get her client to see a situation in a new light.


I left the meeting impressed but with a nagging doubt. On the way home my unconscious mind offered up the reason. She hadn’t asked me a single question. This is a pattern I have noticed with other coaches and facilitators; they have a list of impressive qualification and skills but don’t demonstrate the same strengths in everyday conversation. In this case to ensure I had a full picture (or sense) of her skill.  By not asking any questions I came away with a sense she was not interested in others.

Take another example a senior leader we worked with who is known for her inspirational  talks, she is particularly good at telling a story which inspires and draws people in. Whilst I have seen her do this with a large group and greatly admire her for her skill, in a small leadership team it comes over as self-serving and dominates the meeting. Everyone gets frustrated that there can’t be more of a discussion and less of a one-way story.

This is a trait we often see in leaders, they are keen to tell you about their triumphs’ and qualities, often in amusing ways, but you can go a whole meeting without a single question about you or your interests.

Applying strengths

The very essence of coaching and leadership is to understand others and that’s just not possible when you don’t ask questions or build enough rapport to read what the other person needs in the conversation.

In discussing this with a close colleague he pointed out their track record speaks to their ability and its unlikely, they have the track record if they never ask questions as a leader with their team or a coach with their clients. They have strengths in asking questions and showing interest in others but did not ‘switch them on’ in these conversations. They did not register they needed to use their strengths in this situation. 

Strengths based development

The advice to play to our strengths has gained momentum in the world of work and is now the approach used in many training and leadership initiatives. But it’s an approach that can become a weakness in itself when people aren’t thoughtful about when to do what they do best. There is a subtly to this approach which is missing in talent strategy and leadership development.
Aristotle argued that virtues lie between deficiency and excess, and there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that success doesn’t come from playing to your strengths. It comes from playing your strengths in the right situations.

A recent study, had 1500 managers rated by their co-workers on four key leadership behaviours: taking charge, empowering others, creating a vision and executing. The researchers asked about how strengths were used but also if they were used at the right time and the right amount. You could call it a Goldilocks question: “Did the managers do too little, the right amount or too much of each skill?”

More than half of the managers were overdoing at least one leadership skill. And, the researchers found they could predict which one. Ambitious managers tended to overdo decisiveness and underdo empowerment. Sensitive managers had the opposite problem: They were too encouraging and not decisive enough. Inquisitive managers overemphasized innovation and underemphasized results. And conscientious managers did the reverse: They were so busy making sure things were just right they failed to focus on the big picture.

What to do

When I started out in HR (rather a long time ago) this notion of an over played strength and its impact was part of how we helped leaders. In the intervening years the idea has fallen out of fashion but maybe it’s time to bring it back.

The leadership programmes I worked on helped leaders to see that often our greatest weakness is the other side of our greatest strength. If one of your strengths is openness, watch you don’t overshare. If you are good at spotting problems, make sure you are not killing innovation before it’s had a chance to flourish.
If you are a leader (or coach) recognise your strengths but also give some thought to the unintended consequences of each of them, and what they look like when you use them too much. Then also think about the context when they will serve you and when its wiser to hold back. Your colleague probably knows your track record of delivery they don’t need to hear it but asking them about their purpose and ambition will build connection.

If you are an HR or learning professional look at your programmes and tools like 360. Are they helping leaders to not only identify strengths but also the unintended by products and the context when the strength is a strength and when it’s a weakness?

A real strength includes knowing how much and when to use it.

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