Strengths in Action
I am about to start back to work from a 10 week vacation of strategic planning. Yes, I meant to call it a vacation not because my email backed up, or because deadlines were missed, or others had to pick up the slack of my absence. It is because I feel as energized as if I’d been spending that time relaxing on the beach and sipping a cool beverage while trusting someone else to watch the kids. I’ll admit (let my freak flag fly) — I do LOVE strategic planning! But beyond just being weird in this way, I want to talk about one explanation for this energy (and why I’ve bolded these key words).
Strategy is one of my top five strengths. I also have Learner, Analytical, and (thank God, or nothing would ever get done) Activator. My fifth strength, Individualization, means in a nutshell that I’m also good at seeing others’ strengths. This has all brought me to a point recently where I am just bursting to tell a wider audience about Strengths, specifically the breakthrough I had using my strengths in this most recent work experience, and why I continue to promote Strengths in work and life. A wonderful and succinct background on the Strengths movement can be found here. So, I’ll just briefly touch on the concept and focus more on my own experiences.
At my library, I work with the staff and organizational development council who secured a grant to build individual and organizational awareness of our strengths. This groups’ strengths work started a couple of year ago when we traveled together to see Marcus Buckingham speak. Buckingham is a very engaging speaker. It certainly helps to be smart, funny, handsome and have a British (Australian?) accent, but he is best known, I think, for taking Strengths beyond a mere personality test to a practice, a movement.
After this talk, I ran out to get a book — any book — that would get me the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment. My results are from the book Strengths Based Leadership. However, my 20/20 hindsight advice to you is pick up any other book than this one. I was anxious to get started and this was the only one in the student union bookstore at the time. I am currently re-reading through the Buckingham versions — try this to get a test, then this and this — which I recommend as more approachable starting points. The other key wisdom to getting this and taking it beyond a personality test, is have someone or group of someones go through the test with you and talk about the results — better yet, a certified strengths coach.
I know it sounds like a racket, especially to academic-minded individuals, and hey, it is in a way because it is a business, for-profit product. But let’s take it from Creating the Agile Library(1995!), shall we? Libraries will need to increasingly adopt more business and for-profit models of organizational agility to survive 21st century pressures. Are they not already? Not all, mind you, but certainly some. Beyond that reason, though, what can we actually learn about the effectiveness of this “better mousetrap”?
I can tell you what I learned from reading and talking about it within my HR and development circles. I can tell you a great deal more about it from working with my team, learning their strengths and how we might use them together more effectively. The most powerful lessons came to me from a combination of all of this and what Buckingham pointed out in the video above:
At some point in your career you will be using your strengths most of the time [rather than just some of the time] and it just doesn’t feel the same.
While I feel like I’ve kind of been using my strengths throughout my career, the lightbulb for me is how different I feel after spending 10 weeks intensely using my strengths. Not only am I happier and energized, but I found myself functioning way better at things I usually struggle with. I’ve been quicker to engage in conversations (my husband is both thankful and annoyed). I didn’t stumble for words in our unit’s f2f meeting. I even had several new ideas and have pitched them to folks. In the language of strengths, this is managing weakness. But it didn’t feel like managing. It felt fluid, more like swimming or sailing. What’s more (and to the point of Strengths), I found where I usually excel, I excelled better and faster. I taught, lead, and problem solved off the cuff — a credit I think to better practice in pulling my learner, analytical, and strategic strengths into action (activator strength). I tell you the pistons were firing this week in ways that I know are strengths-based, because it’s what the books said they would do.
A final point about my vacation ties back to that Strength Based Leadership book I started with — trusting the kids. Sure, there were things that during my strategic vacation my staff had to deal with in my absence. Not a lot, but some. The point is I trust my staff with our work in large part because I know their strengths and they know their strengths. Email did get backed up, but it got tackled it much quicker. Imagine if everyone’s strengths were put into play in this way. We would not neglect to attend that development opportunity because no one else can cover our work for us. We wouldn’t have to laboriously cross-train skill sets to make that happen. We all would begin to trust ours and our colleagues’ strengths and our organizations will be the better for it in all the ways that matter.
Buckingham & Clifton (2001). Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Free Press.
Buckingham (2007) Go Put Your Strengths To Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance. New York: Free Press.
Buckingham & Coffman (1999). First Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Haricombe, L.J. & Lusher, T.J. (1995) Creating the Agile Library: A Management Guide for Librarians. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
better mousetraps is a term Jim Govan (1977, as cited in Haricombe & Lusher, 1995) used to refer to “potentially useful ideas that we should examine carefully and then employ as best fits the local situation” (p2).