Are those REALLY your strengths??

Posted October 19, 2009 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

So, I had an “aha” moment as I was sitting listening to Marcus Buckingham woo The Art of Management crowd last week: sometimes people with the best intentions can reek havoc on your career path.  Here’s what I learned:

Having been a disciple of Buckingham since reading his book “First Break all the Rules”, co-authored with Curt Coffman, I am completely enamored with the idea of strengths-based leadership. (If you’re wondering where Coffman is now, check his cool biz here.)

From 2000 on, I tried tirelessly to focus and clear on my own strengths and have “strengths-based” discussions with my direct reports.  I even worked in a consulting firm that embraced the “work to your strengths” philosophy and put a big emphasis on not fitting a “square peg into a round hole” and getting people into the “right seat on the bus”.

What I learned on Friday was that, for all this enthusiasm, I had only a partially correct view of what a “strength” really is.  I always interpreted that my strengths were partly what I enjoyed doing and was good at, but also what other people told me I was good at and what I got rewarded for (performance).  And here lies the problem.

What Buckingham pointed out was that when you’re using your true “strengths” you feel energized and engaged (not exhausted and depleted).  True strengths have less to do with your performance ability and more to do with the personal “juice” you get out of the experience.  In many cases, especially as you get more “seasoned” in leadership, you learn how to “manage” your weakness and can even get quite skilled at things that you don’t particularly enjoy doing.  For example, as a leader, I love the “big ideas” and hate having to wade around in the details of execution.  That being said, if you saw me in action you would think that I’m actually very good with details.  Which is very true… just don’t make me do it all day every day!

Buckingham suggested that we should call these things that we’re good at, that we don’t enjoy, anything BUT strengths.  Strengths are things are you love to do.  Here is a formula he provided to help you pinpoint those things that are truly your strengths:

  • Success (A strength makes you feel effective)
  • Instinct (You look forward to doing it)
  • Growth (You are inquisitive about it, and it provides you with focus)
  • Needs (You feel fulfilled when you’re in the task or have completed the task)

To help you begin to catalog the things that are your strengths, he suggested you try this exercise for a week:

Keep a diary and list all the activities that you’re doing in the day.  Jot them down as you do them (don’t try and reflect back at the end of the week).  Notice how you FELT when you were doing the activity.  Catalog your activities under two columns: 

I Loved the Activity

I Loathed the Activity 

The crucial element of the exercise is to clearly define what you loved or loathed about each activity.  Then, at the end of the week write a strengths statement and a weakness statement.  The example Marcus used was:

“I felt strong when I was interviewing Rosa.”  You then drill down to get really specific on what exactly about the situation made you feel strong.  His final draft became:  “I feel strong when I interview a person who excels at his or her job to explore why they excel.”

The key is to make sure it is an activity that YOU are doing, not something that is being done by someone else to you.  (eg: “I feel strong when I receive recognition from my boss.”)

Why not give it a try and see what you come up with.  In the next blog we’ll talk about how to STOP doing some of the activities that don’t play to our strengths.

Happy leading!


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  1. Don’t you just love those “A-ha moments?
    Here’s another point for you to consider: when you’re working within your strengths, it shouldn’t feel like work for you. It should feel like you!
    I tell people all the time that life shouldn’t be about our job description. Instead, it should be about how we use our strengths within the jobs that we do. Sure, “jobs” include what we do for employment but it can also include parenting, lifestyle, relationships and a ton of other jobs we are faced with every day.

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Hi Tim… you’re absolutely right. When you’re in the “zone” it definitely doesn’t feel like work. But what we’re talking about here is knowing yourself, isn’t it? I find self-insight is one of the most crucial qualities for anyone… whether you’re leading or not. Hard to pinpoint your strengths when you don’t know what you’re all about to begin with. Thanks for reading!

  2. […] started to pay a great deal of attention to what I enjoyed doing and what I loathed doing.  (See my blog post on Buckingham’s recent TO appearance to learn how to do this yourself).  I also took […]