You might have heard how 3M back in the 70s successfully used a “15 % time” program that allowed employees to spent 15 % of their working time to research and develop projects of their own – a program that fostered well-known innovations like the post-it note. An approach Google is also having great success with. At Facebook they sometimes hire highly talented people without having a specific role in mind, instead they allow these talented people to match their skills with a project of interest. What these highly successful market leaders are doing is that they focus on the strengths of their employees to create a competitive edge. But what can you do to utilize these strengths when you don’t have the excess capital as Google, and Facebook?
In ”How the Best Managers Manage their Employees” (read more) posted in B+P Insights on September 24th we presented some characteristics of how great managers analyse and capitalize on the uniqueness that each employee is bringing to your organization. In short, the analysis that a manager should make is based on three pillars: Strengths & Weaknesses; Motivational Factors; and Learning Styles. The primary message was that when you as a manager succeed in analysing the strengths, motivational factors and learning styles, you capitalize on these unique sets of characteristics by infusing each individual with confidence in his or her strengths, and combine the strengths and uniqueness of each employee with those of others.
Focusing on the strengths and uniqueness of the employees, as a mean to get better results is a leadership style called: “strength-based leadership”. It may seem obvious or even trivial that good results and good leadership is based in the strengths of the employees, but what is strength? How can you identify strengths? And how can you conduct strength-based leadership?
”The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.” – Peter Drucker
The essence of strength-based leadership
Before we can answer the questions above we need to take a step back and look into what strength-based leadership is. Strength-based leadership can be conducted on two levels: organizational and individual. On the organizational level, the leader analyses the unique set of strategic strengths of the organization to set a strategic direction in order to obtain competitive advantages. On the individual level strength-based leadership is about accepting that no one can excel at everything. People can’t be equally good at solving all the tasks required in an organization, and some people are more resourceful than others – both in terms of skills and commitment.
By focusing on what people are good at and delegating tasks accordingly you can minimize the resources spent on people solving tasks inefficient. Thus the purpose of strength-based leadership is an efficient use of the human resources in the organization. The quotation of Peter Drucker above is a good way of describing strength-based leadership. As a leader you should organise the strengths of your employees in such a way that their weaknesses become irrelevant.
In “What Great Managers Do” (Harvard Business Review, March 2005) Marcus Buckingham describes an example of a Walgreens store manager who identified the strengths of one employee to be structure, organization, detail-orientation and professional pride in delivering excellence. However, this employee wasn’t a good communicator and didn’t thrive in the interface with customers. The store manager capitalized on these strengths by assigning the “resets and revisions” task to this employee. “Resets and revisions” is an assignment that involves stocking the aisles with new merchandise and organize these to change predictable buying behaviour. By making “resets and revisions” a full time job for this individual resources for other employees who were better in the customer interface was released. The results were increasing sales and a series of perfect scores on the mystery shopper program that measured customer satisfaction.
According to a study made by Gallup (read more) people who use their strengths daily are up to six times more engaged in their job, which can benefit your organization through higher productivity, fewer sick days, lower degree of chronic disease, and less expenses related to health issues.
What is strength?
That some people are better than others to successfully solve a particular task can be argued to be a result of competencies and motivation. Competencies and motivation are often, but not always, positively inter-correlated meaning that competencies to successfully solving a task often are acquired because the motivation to learn and practice was high, and competencies to succeed often motivate the future act of solving a task.
Thus strengths can be found in areas where competencies and motivation is present. However, to identify a strength both the person in question and other people should perceive this person to be successful in solving a particular task, but equally important is that this person should be motivated by solving the task. The person should experience getting more energy by solving this task. If a person is good at solving a task but feel the energy draining, the person would not be motivated to solve the task, which ultimately if repeated too long can affect the joy of working and as a result the employee might become an inefficient employee – and at an extreme the employee might leave for another job.
Hence, to best use the strengths of an employee they should solve task that they themselves and others perceive them to be successful in solving, and they should feel motivated getting more energy by working with these task.
”Building employees’ strengths is a far more effective approach to improving performance than trying to improve weaknesses.” – Susan Sorensen, Gallup
How to identify strengths
If you accept that strengths are based on the motivation and competencies to successfully solving a task a natural question to ask is: “How do I, as a leader, identify strengths?” A holistic identification of strengths takes place in two tools: interviews and psychometric tests. As a strength-based leader you can benefit from dedicating time to interview your employees where you ask simple and open questions such as: “Can you describe the best day you have had at work in the last few months and why it was good?” and ”Which competencies did you use to be successful in this particular project, from where did you get the motivation to succeed?” etc. When the employee answer you can use more open-ended questions that relates to specific parts of the answer to further investigate what your employees are good at and what motivates them in their job.
The other element of a holistic identification is the use of psychometric test – or professional psychology. Various psychometric tests excel at identifying peoples’ preferred behaviour, strengths, weaknesses, and intelligence. It can be valuable to use these tools to support the interviews during 1-1 meetings and help you get a better picture of how you can optimize the use of your employee’s resources. However, using psychometric test should be done ethically: Be transparent with your employee, tell them the reasons, and that they also benefit from the process. Finally, provide a thorough feedback and use it to start optimizing their role in the organization.
Be a strength-based leader
When you have successfully identified the strengths of your employees the leader’s task is to organise them in such a way that the weaknesses become redundant. In general terms you can identify four broad categories of strength:
- Executing: Get things done, manage tasks, activities and people, focused and goal-oriented
- Influencing: Good communicator who exerts influence on other people by being persuasive and friendly. The person who builds relationships and bridges within the organization
- Reliable: The thorough person who people like, and whom have the patience to make sure that even the most time-consuming and difficult tasks gets done
- Perfectionist: The quality-oriented person who finds and optimizes inefficiencies in organizational procedures, products etc.
As a strength-based leader to align your employees’ strengths to the role they are expected to fill. This might require a restructuring of whom does what. But it also requires that the leader finds the right balance between what are my employees’ strengths and what do we need to be successful with our strategy. As a leader it is your responsibility to set and communicate the strategic direction, and it is within this direction that the employees’ strengths should be aligned to job-description. So you have to assess to what extent it makes sense to adapt a job-description to one of your employees’ talents. In this context it is also important to note that not every wish and personal ambitions can be met. Within the organization there are some tasks that needs to be done, and not all will be the most exciting tasks do. The strength-based leader is also aware of the benefits of building diverse teams. To capitalize on the influencer’s strength you might find it valuable to have the reliable person to cover the weaknesses of the influencer: patience and concentrated focus for long periods.
An important foundation is a transparent culture that fosters trust and environment in which people are open-minded and honest about values, dreams, ambitions, and motivation. Among other things this involves a focus on what people can do, and not what they can’t do. It is the things that your employees are capable of doing that actually add value to your organization – it is not what they cannot do. Appraise your employees, motivate them to do more of what they succeed in and are motivated to do. Seize every opportunity that exists during the day to observe and be attentive to your employees. Focus on what is going well and use this when turning a discussion in why something else is going bad. Analyse how your best employees are behaving to optimize your future recruitment efforts. Finally, you could also be creative with career-paths if you want to retain some talents who have high ambitions. If they do not have managerial skills they could be awarded another kind of responsibility.
Pros and cons
Even as strength-based leadership has the potential to get your employees to shine you also need to find a decent balance between focusing on both strengths and weaknesses. As a leader it is also your responsibility to assert authority and provide your employees with acknowledgement and fair criticism. In the table below are some pros and cons of strength-based leadership summarized.
By analysing your employees’ strengths and weaknesses you can make the weaknesses irrelevant by focusing on each individual’s strengths and combine different strengths. The benefits can be increased productivity, better results and a more inclusive dynamic at the work place. However, as a leader it is your responsibility to secure a fit to corporate strategy, prioritize on which strengths are relevant to develop and in which direction, and assess to what extent a re-organization makes sense. And please note that not every wish and personal ambitions can be met. Within the organization there are some tasks that needs to be done, and not all will be the most exciting tasks do – it is only in the ideal world that employees can engage in the tasks they find most exciting.
About the writer
Rasmus is our youngest management consultant. He is heading our Business Development, including social media and marketing. Currently he is finishing a master degree in management of innovation processes. He is a promising talent showing a profound understanding of how to cope with strategic challenges and organizational development.
Connect with Rasmus on LinkedIn: https://dk.linkedin.com/in/rasmuswvestergaard