Strengths are all that matter


Developing Employees’ Strengths Boosts Sales, Profit, and Engagement by Brandon Rigoni, Ph.D. and Jim Asplund in the Harvard Business Review is worth your time and attention as a consultant. Many times clients will want you to work on making people better. But you are working to take them from just being mediocre to being borderline proficient. This is what happens when you focus on coaching someone through their weaknesses. They may improve, but only marginally. And their improvement rarely means much for the company. The worst part is that you have done nothing for the individual. Who goes home with a sense of fulfillment after a day of being borderline proficient? Nobody! 

Here are some key take aways from the article and how I try to apply them in my work with clients. 

Focusing on strengths builds culture

Gallup found that those who use their strengths every day are more likely "to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect." Rigoni and Asplund mention this as an aside before they get into the sales and profit numbers, but I think it should be the central focus of the article. 

My most successful clients are the ones who have the most fun. Their employees smile a lot at customers, laugh a lot with their managers and generally enjoy going to work every day. And the reason is simple. Doing what you're good at produces a very deep current of well being that is easy to share with others. 

It doesn't matter how many foosball tables your client puts in the break room or how many miniature boxed cereals they stock in the kitchen. If their employees aren't going home every day feeling like they were  born to do this or gifted to do that or just really damn good at their job, they aren't going to drive the culture that makes your client standout from all other other companies that do what they do. 

Developing strengths is key to employee fulfillment, which drives culture, which drives everything important in your client's business. 

If you don't use their strengths someone else will

The authors found a 26-72 percentage point decrease in turnover when companies with high turnover implemented a program to focus on developing employee's strengths. Let that sink in for a second. Companies with high turnover were able to drastically reduce it, not by increasing wages, not with performance compensation, not with increased benefits, not with perks, not with free sushi bars and unlimited supplies of Red Bull. They reduced turnover by changing things up so people were spending more of their time in their sweet spot. 

That begs the question. Why were people leaving in the first place? Go talk to them. They'll tell you. I've sat in on lots of exit interviews and I'm sure you have too. Less than 1% say "I'm leaving, but I don't know where I'm going." They have the next spot picked out. They've accepted someone's offer and money isn't the reason they give for leaving. It's always the opportunity: the opportunity to do more, the opportunity to spend more time on their first love, the opportunity to do what they know they were made to do. 

If your client won't put in the time and effort to find a spot where their people will shine the employees will do it themselves, and often that means they will be lost to a competitor. 

What's good for the goose...

Rigoni and Asplund suggest that step one is to start with leadership. In most small businesses the leader is not spending the majority of the time in their sweet spot. If you are trying to help your client improve sales, profit and engagement starting with the person whose time is most valuable is a pretty good idea.  How you do this could fill a book, but here are a few things that have worked with my clients. 

  1. Come up with a "will not do" list. This will include a lot of stuff that still has to get done. If you work with your client on building a culture of focusing on developing strengths you get to ask them completely different question than most business. Most CEO's look across their group of direct reports and try to decide which silo this soon to be delegated responsibility should land in. That's the wrong approach. Get them to think about the whole organization and ask "who's really good at this already?" It might be a manager, but it also might be an intern. Rather than just trying to get it off the owner's plate, think about who will develop the most if it lands on their plate. 
  2. Limit everything else to 20%. We would all like to spend 100% of our time in our sweet spot, and their are people who do, but getting there is a journey. Start by limiting non sweet spot activities to 20% of the owner's time and budget them as such. Make a list of all of these non-sweet spot responsibilities and shoe horn them into the week. You can squeeze them into a 2 hour block every day or carve out an entire day of the week just for them. This is a very effective tactic. At first your client may not think they can squeeze it all in, but if you force them to they will find out the things that aren't absolutely necessary just go away without much pomp or consequence.
  3. Be transparent. Use Strengths Finder, the same tool used by the authors, to identify your client's strengths and then get the owner to open up with their team. Get the to ask the team what things the owner is doing that don't fit into his or her top 5 strengths. Ask who would be better at these things or how the owner can play a smaller role in getting them done. Most business owners won't do this because it sets them up for accountability from their team. But those who do will find an easy out for things they didn't think they could stop doing. 

I read once that in his prime Tiger Woods rarely worked on his driving accuracy, one of his few weaknesses. He preferred to focus on improving his short game, a noted strength, and his extraordinary conditioning. Before Tiger very few PGA players hit the weight room as part of their regular training regimen. When asked about those choices and whether his lack of driving accuracy was holding him back he said that he usually hit the ball so far off the tee that he was well beyond most of the hazards golf course architects put in place to penalize less accurate players. And with his short game he was able to get back in a position to post birdies with less than stellar driving. As in golf, so it is in business.  If you develop your strengths most of your weaknesses become irrelevant.