Building a Strengths-focused Organisation - Getting Started

Building a Strengths-focused Organisation - Getting Started

Building a Strengths-focused Organisation - Getting Started

James Brook
Strengths Partnership Ltd

Our recent discussions and observations with Human Resources (HR) practitioners and line managers suggests that whilst the vast majority quickly recognise the advantages and possibilities arising from an organisation built around employee strengths and successes rather than weaknesses and 'gaps', the process of implementing such an approach can appear daunting. In particular, the time and financial requirements to implement such an approach, as well as getting top management buy-in, have been cited as reasons for being cautious about transitioning the organisational mindset and people management infrastructure. In this article, we will try and address these concerns and provide practical and low-cost ideas and guidance to get you started down the strengths path.

Although a great deal more research is needed, there is a growing body of research that suggests that strengths-focused people management and development holds significant promise for improving employee engagement and organisational results such as profitability, turnover, safety and customer satisfaction (e.g., Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002).

Some of the specific benefits of such an approach include:

* Helps people get clarity on their natural strengths, enabling them to use them more productively and with greater agility
* Helps people understand and minimise the impact of their weaknesses, providing them with a wider and more creative choice of strategies for dealing with these areas
* Encourages a positive, energised team environment where people appreciate and play to each others' strengths
* Builds a culture of engagement and excellence
* Promotes resilience, confidence and optimism, enabling faster and more effective change
* Strengthens the organizations brand proposition to candidates, therefore improving talent attraction and retention

But these benefits will remain unrealised if HR and line management decision makers are unwilling or unable to start moving the organisation away from more mechanical, transactional and control-based people management approaches to processes and practices focused on strengths.

Be Open to Challenge Current Assumptions

As management guru Peter Drucker pointed: "Get the assumptions wrong, and everything that follows from them is wrong" (1998, p.1).

A strengths-focused organisation is built on a different set of assumptions about how talent in hired, managed, motivated and deployed. The most important of these are:

1. Exceptional performers are not well rounded. They learn to apply a few unique strengths well and become agile in the way they use these across different situations.
2. Many behaviours rooted in underlying character cannot be easily learned; they are fairly 'hardwired' by the time we are in our teens.
3. Fixing weaknesses is important, but does not lead to outstanding performance; it only prevents failure. A better understanding of one's strengths can help manage or mitigate weaker areas.
4. Peak performance in organisations is rarely an individual phenomenon, it occurs through complex interaction between the individual, his/her team and the performance context.

HR and line management decision-makers should start discussing these assumptions in relation to their own set of beliefs and assumptions around how people are managed. Some of the questions that should be asked include:

1. What beliefs and underlying assumptions will help us attract, develop, retain and deploy the talent we need to meet our current demands and future challenges?
2. How do our current talent management practices and processes square up with the answer to the first question, above?
3. What do we need to do differently to implement the beliefs and assumptions we feel are necessary to attract, develop, retain and deploy talent?
4. How can we measure the success of our talent management activities and programmes?

Part of this discussion requires critical and honest reflection and dialogue about the success of existing assumptions and approaches. For example, despite being used by companies for nearly 4 decades, the evidence of a link between traditional competency systems and harder measures of performance such as revenue, profitability and customer engagement is inconclusive (Bolden, & Gosling, 2006; Corporate Leadership Council, 2005). Yet many organisations fail to question the effectiveness of their people management systems and practices, preferring instead to take the well trodden "cow path" and persevering with approaches based on oversimplified, weakness-based assumptions.

Identify Opportunities to Pilot Strength-focused Approaches

Rather than trying to introduce radical transformations in the way talent is managed, start by identifying opportunities to experiment with or pilot different approaches based on strength-focused research, concepts and better practices. In order to engage the hearts and minds of managers and employees and be most impactful, these should be aimed at addressing immediate challenges/blockages or making progress towards critical organisation goals and imperatives. We have identified several examples below which would require relatively low investments of time and money:

1. Communicate to managers your expectations about the changing beliefs and assumptions regarding people management. We recommend you keep this relatively low key at first to avoid making it too much of a big deal and raising unrealistic expectations and accusations of "yet another management fad". It is sufficient to communicate that the team/organisation will be focusing more on strengths in future and that all employees are required to think about their strengths and ways they can make these even more productive.
2. Train managers to hire, manage, develop and retain talent based on strengths. If managers don't understand and embrace these new assumptions regarding managing talent, it is highly improbable that you will be successful in building a strengths-focused organisation. Accordingly, it is important to invest in training managers, providing them with knowledge, skills and tools to implement your goals.
3. Refocus the performance dialogue between managers and employees to make it more prospective and focused around strengths and outcomes rather than weaknesses and formulaic approaches to performing the job. Questions that could be incorporated include: "What strengths have you used to achieve your outcomes in the last performance period?"; "How can you use your strengths more productively to achieve your goals in the next performance period?"; "What can I do to help you use your strengths more productively?" and "What additional goals or outcomes might be possible for you to achieve if you were able to play to your strengths more often?".
4. Start using your competency framework as a tool to guide employees around areas of particular strength and how they can optimise these rather than as a prescriptive, check-list based measurement tool.
5. Build teams based around complementary strengths and invite them to discuss work environment factors that enable or block the productive application of strengths. Enablers/blockers could be anything from management style, through the nature and frequency of rewards and recognition, to the design and layout of the work environment.
6. Introduce a strengths assessment tool (such as ©Strengthscope™; to help people understand their underlying personality and performance strengths and how these can be used more productively at work. This type of tool has the added benefit of creating a common language around strengths in the organisation and provides decision-makers with a more accurate and focused basis for having strengths-focused discussions about performance and potential.
7. Incorporate strength-focused thinking into the hiring process. Rather than simply asking candidates about competencies identified in the job description, focus more on the person and what energises them at work. Ask candidates about their strengths and how they have used these across different situations in the past. Questions that can be asked include: "What activities and tasks have you found to be particular energising in the past?"; "If I had to ask other people who know you well about occasions when you have been particularly energised and performing at your best at work, what do you think they would say?"; "Tell me about an occasion you feel you have been so totally immersed in a task at work, that you lost track of time and nothing else seemed to matter?"; "Which work-related strengths do you feel you have not been able to use as much as you would like in your current/previous roles?"; and "What do you consider as your weaker areas? Provide examples where you have been able to manage or mitigate these to prevent undesirable results?"
8. Promote talent based on underlying strengths, values, and a desire to learn and progress as well as skills, knowledge and experience. Remember that the latter are generally easier to learn, whilst the former are extremely difficult to change.

Don't Ignore Weaknesses

It is crucial to point out that a focus on strengths does not mean people's weaknesses are disregarded. We have found that through better understanding one's strengths, people are likely to understand and manage their weaknesses more effectively.

This occurs for the following reasons:

1. Weaknesses are often strengths in overdrive or overplayed strengths. For example, when productively applied, my "courage" strength (which has been largely instrumental in my career success to date) means I take on challenges and risks and am prepared to challenge the status quo in support of positive change. However, earlier in my career, I was far too eager to take on risky positions and challenges that had a high probability of failure and challenged established views and assumptions head on. This behaviour was perceived as reckless, obsessive and overpowering by others. One of my greatest strengths had gone into overdrive and become a potential derailer. Through understanding that my courage strength has an associated "darkside", I have been able to apply it more skillfully based on a careful assessment of the situation.
2. By exploring performance weaknesses as well as perceived or real performance "blockers" from a strengths perspective, employees will feel more confident about dealing positively with their weakness/performance blocker. This perspective will also broaden the options available to them to meet the development challenges, often resulting in some highly creative solutions. For example, Britain's new Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been able to adequately compensate for a lack of natural charisma and oratory which characterized his predecessor, Tony Blair, through employing his strengths of efficiency, dependability and tough mindedness.

Build on Successes and Measure the Impact

Sharing successes and better practices from early pilot projects across teams and organisational boundaries will cement successes and build a cadre of advocates who are sufficiently willing and informed to carry the strengths message deeper into the organisation, and even beyond it to their families and social institutions.

One of the implications of this is that you should select the target group for your pilot work carefully. Identify a higher profile group that comprises a large proportion of key influencers or 'connectors', as these people are more likely to be able to engage the social network and "spread the word" about early successes and learning.

However, leveraging the power of social networking to promote enthusiasm around strengths-focused initiatives is not enough. It is crucial to measure, as accurately as possible, the success of these pilot projects. We recommend the following four questions are explored using quantitative and/or qualitative measurement techniques:

1. How do people feel about the strengths-focused project? (Do they feel it has made a positive difference?)
2. What new learning has arisen about how to identify, measure, deploy and develop strengths as a result of the project?
3. To what extent does the project result in people using their strengths more productively and exerting additional effort?
4. To what extent does the project result is measurable changes in organisational outcomes (e.g., improvements in employee and/or customer engagement, increases in revenue, reduction of costs, product and process innovation, etc.)

Have the Courage and Resilience to Stick with It

Finally, any change involving shifting mindsets and core assumptions such as this requires a fair amount of grit and courage in order to overcome inevitable objections, mistakes and organisational inertia. However, when the benefits and opportunities associated with a strengths-focused organisation are weighed against the risks and longer-run costs of staying with weaknesses-based approaches and ineffectual traditional competency systems, including losing out in the growing "talent war", the returns on this additional effort will almost certainly be worthwhile.

In this article, we have tried to present practical and easy to implement ideas and guidance to get you started down the strengths path. However, it is important to remember that there is no "one size fits all" approach to building a strengths-focused organisation. Tremendous opportunities exist for pace-setters to trail blaze new strengths-focused ideas that create strongly differentiated and sustainable people management advantages. The most important step is to plant the seeds of change and encourage fast growth by having the courage, belief and enthusiasm that there are refreshingly different and more positive ways to change people's behaviour and improve performance. Like a tree that over time becomes bent in the direction of the strongest prevailing winds, the direction of the change will be shaped by the organisation's members and environment, enabling best use of strengths in the way it attracts, develops, deploys and retains talent. For more information and advice on designing and implementing a strengths-focused talent management strategy contact James Brook, Founder and Director on Strengths Partnership at; Ph: +44(0) 7976 454 445.

Bolden, R., & Gosling, J. (2006). Leadership competencies: Time to change the tune? Leadership 2 (2), 147-163.
Corporate Leadership Council (2005). Literature Key Findings: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Competency Models. Downloaded August 2005 from
Drucker, P. (1998). Management's new paradigms. Downloaded 14 July 2007 from Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., & Heyes, T.L. (2002). Employee engagement, satisfaction and business-unit level outcomes: Meta-analysis. Princeton, NJ: The Gallup Organisaiton.

James Brook, M.Soc.Sci, MBA

James is founder and director of Strengths Partnership Ltd (, a management consulting firm specialising in strengths-focused leadership development, coaching, talent management and organisational change solutions. He has 15 years experience in leadership and talent development, having worked in various international roles in consulting and talent management.

James specialises in strengths-focused solutions to talent development and performance improvement; building authentic, inspirational leadership; executive and cross-cultural coaching; and designing innovative assessment approaches to identify, retain and develop talent. 

Author:James Brook Strengths Partnership Ltd