Rethinking Strength Based Development

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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 Strengths – Lessons from the Animal School!

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Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent in swimming. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The Animal school story is similar to what is widely practiced in our academic institutions and organizations where standardization is the rule and uniqueness goes unnoticed. The predominant strategy of academic institutions and corporate world is overcoming weaknesses while leveraging strengths would bring better results.

Some of the most successful Leaders have the capability of recognizing the uniqueness in individuals and promoting their inherent strengths. Promoting an employee’s strengths has numerous benefits:

  • It enhances people performance and helps them move up the growth path
  • Helps promote better employee engagement and satisfaction at work
  • Fosters trust and confidence in organization culture

It is of utmost importance that we consciously promote and adopt ways to leverage strengths which are relevant to the job to promote them effectively. Most of the time, an employee’s talents or strengths need to be discovered, channelized and promoted in the right direction. Individual development plans need to talk about harnessing strengths as much as addressing development needs. A holistic development plan needs to work on dual approach of building strengths and managing development needs. While managers use various tools while trying to overcome development areas, leveraging strengths also needs a structured and consistent effort.

The 3X model described below empowers leaders to continuously explore and exploit the unique strengths of team members thus creating a virtuous cycle of personal development and business growth.

  1. Exposure – Talent needs to be promoted by providing visibility at the right places. Providing leadership exposure to unique skills and strengths helps build right level of connect and paves way for career development.
  2. Expertise – Building on passive strengths by imparting training and coaching on the same to convert it into active expertise. The employees can use their expertise to upskill their team members and peers thus creating and enhancing opportunities of peer and team learning.
  3. Experience – Last but not the least, more and more opportunities should be given to exercise the strengths in the form of high impact projects, organization and team level initiatives.