“When employees know and use their strengths, they are more engaged – nearly 6x more – have higher performance and are much less likely to leave their company.” – Gallup
Like so many others, I learned to lead through trial and error. It wasn’t until late in my career that I consciously employed a strengths based leadership approach. The idea behind a strength based approach to leadership is that the most successful organizational leaders can’t be all things to all people and therefore should lean on their strengths and find ways to navigate areas that may be weaknesses. Had I been exposed to this concept earlier in my career, I would have been much more effective as an individual contributor and supervisor.
Strengths based leadership can be a mighty arrow to add to your leadership quiver. It allows supervisors to approach employee engagement and development with a positive mindset. According to a Gallup poll, this approach leads to a 7-23% increase in employee engagement, 8-18% increase in performance, 20-73% lower attrition, better collaboration, and 21% higher profitability.
A New Form of Leadership
The “my way or the highway approach” has never really worked; it was just tolerated. This type of attitude stifles initiative and limits innovation—both critical for business in today’s fast-paced world. In his book, The Leadership Decade, Buddy Hobart speaks to this when he speaks about the war for talent, the cost of turnover, and the importance of knowledge transfer.
Today’s employees will not settle for the “my way” method of leadership. They seek a sense of purpose in their work; they need to function in an environment that allows for growth and development; they need to feel valued; they want to view their supervisor as a resource. Gallup also found that 51% of employees say they are actively looking for a new job or watching for opportunities. Today’s workforce is in the driver’s seat, especially our most talented employees.
Not long ago, I had an employee who had a gift and passion for helping others. She was interested in seeking a career in counseling, and I encouraged her to enter a program that would allow her to become a credentialed counselor. She found a program where much of the coursework could be completed remotely, but it required several weeks of in-person clinical practice. She became concerned about the program causing her to miss work. I acknowledged that we would lose production from her absence, but, based on her role, the training she would receive would ultimately make her more valuable to the company and our clients.
The next obstacle we faced concerned funding for the course. I was able to leverage my network and provide her with a letter of recommendation that helped win her a scholarship to defray the cost of tuition. When she finished this course, she returned with new skills, knowledge, and an incredible amount of energy. I knew she wouldn’t stay with our organization; we were a small company with limited opportunities for her to grow to her potential. I did, however, ask her to stay for a period of time in order for us to leverage what she had learned and to help identify and train her replacement.
Play to Your Team’s Strengths
Strengths based leadership doesn’t mean effective leaders ignore weaknesses. Instead, we focus on our team members strengths and what they bring to work each day. I recently had this conversation with one of my long-time friends and mentors, and he said: “Do you think that Pat Riley (LA Lakers coach) had Shaquille O’Neal (perhaps the most dominant inside basketball players ever) at the foul-line all practice working on his free throws? No, he spent the majority of his time working on dominating in the paint.” It doesn’t mean Shaq never spends any time at the line working on his free throws. It’s just not a good use of time and energy.
Again, this doesn’t mean we ignore weaknesses; instead, we recognize that focusing on and leveraging our strengths is a much better use of time. There will be times when a weakness will need to be addressed. This can be done by developing the skill, developing a support system to bypass the weakness, or finding a teammate that might possess the required skill. This strategy requires leaders to become more coach-like—not showing people the way but helping them find their own way.
Clarity and transparency are critical to fostering a culture where this strategy can grow. Leading through vision, purpose, and intent provides a foundation for employees to align their priorities and execute with disciplined initiative. Leaders at all levels need to provide their teams and direct reports with clearly articulated expectations and defined outcomes.
To create buy-in and commitment, ask your employees what they think—seek their input and listen. Ask questions. This approach also allows individuals to feel that their opinions and input matter. They feel valued. This strategy requires the leader’s willingness to underwrite risks and act as a buffer for their employees. All of this requires patience and trust.
It is vital to get comfortable delegating projects with well-defined standards and expected outcomes. Create opportunities for engagement to check on progress. By doing this, the leader creates additional developmental opportunities. By allowing employees to navigate projects this way, they will see their supervisor as a resource.
Over time, by leveraging strength-focused leadership, trust between coworkers is cemented, communication is improved, resources are saved, and project outcomes are achieved.
Leadership isn’t about being the best; it’s about bringing out the best in others. Strengths based leadership brings out the best in all of us.