Rethinking Strength Based Development


Strength based development has been the dominant leadership development paradigm for a long time now. Its appeal is definitely powerful – I remember the time I took the Gallup Strengthfinder test and was mesmerized by its appeal and optimism. To be fair, I also found positive applications of the same in my worklife. In particular the tenets that make most sense are

  • Attempting to fix our weaknesses is hard work with limited returns
  • It is our strengths that have the leverage to move us to exceptional levels of performance

And hence the thrust on recruiting, developing and managing around employee strengths to build an ‘excellent’ organization.

But having run a business for over 5 years now, I do believe that the strength based development framework may be too simplistic and ignore a complex set of issues that running any dynamic business encompasses. Infact, focusing only on strengths may create a fresh set of problems centered around inertia and an inability to face ground business realities.

Specifically, I see myself questioning the following

  • Does strength based development lead to a ‘leadership complacency’ where the leader stays within his comfort zone and lacks the versatility to lead in an uncertain, dynamic world? In a narrowly defined stable environment, it’s the best thing to keep playing to your strength, but what if the playing field itself changes and your ‘one big strength’ becomes irrelevant, and worse yet, you have not developed yourself to keep adapting and building ‘new strengths’?
  • Is a leadership group which has been groomed based on an accentuation of their positives, resilient enough in the face of adversity and challenges? Can they reinvent themselves and redeploy efforts when circumstances change and motivate an entire organization to do so?
  • Are we not creating a homogeneous set of leaders at the senior level with similar outlooks, thus holding back the larger benefits of diversity?

Overall, while a strength based development strategy may be relevant for individuals in the talent pipeline, for the leadership team of an organization in a dynamic environment, it may need some rethink.  Just as organisations fail when they rely on the success formula that historically worked, leaders run into trouble when they assume their current strengths will always outdo their rivals. Bob Kaplan and Rob Kaiser argue in “The Versatile Leader” that a reliance on strengths produces a lopsided leadership outlook that makes for poor strategic decision making and misguided implementation.

Strengths have the potential for excellence – especially when used judiciously by leaders to build their teams by focusing time on best people, celebrating successes and building on established talent. But, I believe they also have the potential to skew our overall leadership priorities in a particular direction. What leaders in today’s business reality increasingly need is versatility and the objectivity to change, adapt and grow.


Leveraging ‘People Led’ development tools

people building business

Managers today play a vital role in talent management. Gone are the comprehensive career management systems and expectations of long-term employment that once functioned as the glue in the employer-employee contract.  In their place, the manager-employee dyad is the new building block of learning and development in firms. Good managers attract candidates, drive performance, develop, engage and retain people, and play a key role in maximizing employees’ contribution to the firm.

Employee Development Planning is often the most neglected yet important aspect of management. For many reasons this valuable activity gets ignored –

  • Managers tend to focus more on here and now vs future. Businesses operate in such dynamic environment that managers naturally focus more on day to day operational issues rather than thinking long term which may have less certain consequences.
  • Most organizational processes turn out to be so bureaucratic, time consuming and confusing that managers are just satisfied to finish them. There is hardly any time spent to create something constructive from the whole data.
  • There is just never enough time to do the job. Managers keep struggling to cope up with business exigencies and fire fighting.

Managers understand that taking genuine interest in the future of their team members builds loyalty, engagement and drives productivity. Some of the key tools that can be used by the managers in their day to day routine to help develop their team members are discussed below:

  1. Feedback – Regular, timely and objective feedback is the most impactful way of helping employees understand their current strengths and development areas which can be the base of development planning. Setting a rhythm to discuss performance, progress and pitfalls with employees provides them with confidence about their future.
  2. Coaching – It is a powerful way to help employee achieve an important goal! Managers can either themselves take up the role of a coach or assign someone within the organization as a coach to support employee’s growth and development. Coaching is goal oriented, time bound, skill/ task related intervention which provides guidance and support to experiment, explore and facilitate learning.
  3. Mentoring – It is long term relationship oriented tool. It focuses on skill/ career/ professional development of employee. Mentor can span the role of coach, motivator, role model, provider of contacts etc. Usually mentors don’t have direct working relationship with the employee so that confidentiality and trust are maintained.
  4. Networking – Providing ample opportunities to participate in cross functional meets, projects, presentations, trainings etc. to facilitate cross pollination of learnings. I helps brings fresh ideas, knowledge, thoughts and enrichment to routine job.

Using a healthy combination of such interventions ensure a deep connect with the employee and the organization. They also help in complementing other formal employee development initiatives like trainings, certifications etc.  to  create a holistic development model.