Strengths: How to unlock your strengths

26 July 2022

Norman Greenwald

We all have our unique qualities, strengths that we use to help us be successful. But can we articulate them? Can we define our own talent DNA? If so, how comfortable would we be to share our strengths with others? Would we feel we are being a little overconfident, or worse, arrogant? In this blog, I am going to talk you through how to unlock your strengths and look at how it can transform you. I will also share details of a profiling tool that elegantly defines what strengths you have and explain how I used it with the Compass for Life team.

The benefits of unlocking your strengths

howe to unlock your strengths

When we look at elite performers, particularly in the world of sport, they are super clear on what their strengths and talents are and try to use them as often as possible. They have the discipline and drive to continually practice and hone these strengths, so they have the confidence to deliver when the pressure is at its greatest. 

There are so many important reasons for us to understand and use our strengths. It feels good, for a start, and research suggests that strength usage is associated with higher levels of wellbeing

Using our strengths energises and engages us; it allows us to experience a sense of effortless creation. Ultimately, appreciating and applying our strengths is how we truly perform at our best.

What makes a good leader?

After serving in the US armed forces during World War Two, Donald Clifton returned to university to study and teach educational psychology. It was there where Clifton discovered that successful students — those who persisted to graduation — had notably different character traits than less successful ones. This was the starting point for Donald Clifton to explore strengths-based psychology. 

Clifton expanded his strengths-based research and started to explore the question, ‘What makes a good leader?’ Experts led by Donald Clifton set about answering this. Using decades of data from Gallup polls, 20,000 interviews with leaders, one million work teams, and consultations with 10,000 followers worldwide (Rath & Conchie, 2009).

Traits of the most influential leaders

leadership strengths

They found that the most influential leaders do the following (Rath & Conchie, 2009):

Invest in strengths

Focusing on and developing an individual’s strengths boosts engagement from 9% to an incredible 73% and leads to substantial gains for both employees and the organisation.

Surround themselves with and invest in a great team

Leaders may not have all the skills needed, but their teams do.

Understand their followers’ needs

Followers often have specific requirements from their leaders. Central to their findings was the idea that “while our society encourages us to be well-rounded, this approach inadvertently breeds mediocrity” (Rath & Conchie, 2009, p. 7). They identified that leaders striving to be competent at everything were the least effective overall.

Leadership traits of a high-performing team

Clifton and colleagues’ research identified four distinct leadership strength themes which high-performing teams possess:

• Executing – Knowing how to make things happen – turning ideas into reality

• Influencing – Selling ideas inside and outside the company and ensuring the team is heard

• Relationship building – Being able to form a team that builds on the composite skills of its members

• Strategic thinking – Helping the team make better decisions by focusing on where they could be

Individually and combined, these strength themes are invaluable in helping any leader understand how they can most effectively contribute to a team and form a “practical lens for looking at the composition of a team” (Rath & Conchie, 2009, p. 23).

Clifton Strengths (Strengthsfinder)

This research led to the creation of the Clifton Strengths (Strengthsfinder) profiling tool. They identified that these four themes consist of 34 specific strengths that can help a good leader think about individual contributions to a team and identify how to get the best performance from their team.

In the reports produced, the 34 strengths are listed in ranking order. Detailing the strengths you are most talented in, to the strengths that you are least talented. They explain the ways you most naturally think, feel, and behave. Gallup’s research shows that people who know and use their strengths are more engaged at work, more productive in their roles, happier and healthier.

Completing the StrengthsFinder Profile

The process of understanding your strengths is very straightforward! For example, each member of the Compass for Life team was invited to complete an online StrengthsFinder profiling questionnaire. Each question asks you to choose, on a five-point scale, which of two statements you most closely identify with. There are 177 questions and you have just 20 seconds to answer each one. Having just 20 seconds to answer each question helps to ensure you provide an answer that is a truer reflection of who you are and that you do not overthink your answers. 

On completion of the profile, each participant gets immediate access to a range of reports and insights. These reports both explain what your strengths are, and provide suggestions on how you could use your strengths to improve both your performance and well-being.

We followed this up with a 60-minute profile discussion. During this I was able to bring the report to life by explaining in more detail how each of the top 5 strengths work and how they can benefit the individual. It also provided an opportunity to explore how by understanding your top 5 strengths you can design a strengths-based personal development plan. Rather like the elite sports person continually practicing and hone the very things that make them world-class!

Compass For Life Team Strengths

Each member of the Compass for Life team are leaders in their field of expertise. Often in demand to provide a keynote talk or provide insights on their expertise. Having completed their individual profiles I was able to use that data to provide a team profile. The top 5 strengths of the Compass For Life team are:

1. Achiever (Executing Strength)

Teams strong in the Achiever theme have a great deal of stamina and work hard. They take great satisfaction from being busy and productive.

2. Learner (Strategic Thinking Strength)

Teams strong in the Learner Theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.

3. Strategic (Strategic Thinking Strength)

Teams strong in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.

4. Futuristic (Strategic Thinking Strength)

Teams strong in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be. They inspire others with their visions of the future.

5. Ideation (Strategic Thinking Strength)

Teams strong in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They can find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.

What does this mean?

Once you know the top 5 strengths of a person or a team, you can start to build a picture of how they operate when they are at their best (using their strengths). From their top 5 profile, the Compass For Life team operating at its peak is as follows: 

With 4 Strategic Thinking Strengths represented within their top 5, the Compass For Life team are thought leaders who consistently demonstrate big picture thinking. 

Visionary and inspired by the future (Super North Star) this team will start by creating a picture of what success will be in the future. Following this, they will quickly understand where they currently are in their journey towards this vision (South Cardinal – Strategist).

Inspired to learn and be the best version of themselves, further developing themselves will usually be the starting point on this journey. This learning will inspire ideas and possibilities and the team will pride itself on developing creative and innovative ways of achieving its vision (South Cardinal – Strategist).

Once they have created a way forward this team will have huge amounts of stamina to work incredibly hard to achieve success (West Cardinal – Warrior).

Is there anything missing?

With 34 strengths in total is there a possibility that some strengths are not represented? For the Compass For Life Team, the answer is yes. Not having strengths represented within a team could, potentially, create vulnerabilities for the team.The strengths which are not represented are:

1. Deliberative (Executing Strength) 

Teams strong in the Deliberative theme are best described by the serious care they take in making decisions or choices. They anticipate the obstacles. 

2. Context (Strategic Thinking Strength) 

Teams strong in the Context theme enjoy thinking about the past. They understand the present by researching its history.

To help ensure these underrepresented strengths do not create a vulnerability that could potentially impact on performance. When working on a project together it would be useful for the Compass For Life team to ask the following two questions: 

1. What are the potential obstacles that could hinder successful delivery and how do we mitigate them/overcome them? (Deliberative) 

2. What are the lessons of the past we need to consider? (Context)

Summary

Using the StrengthsFinder profile, leaders can recognise their strengths and invest in others. They can also become aware of any potential vulnerabilities which may derail team performance. Rather than attempting to become competent at everything and achieving only mediocrity, it is possible to create a high-performing team where everyone contributes to overall group goals and successful outcomes. A secondary gain from undertaking the profile also helps individuals and teams to understand themselves and others better. It fosters an even better team spirit, creates a common language of strengths, and creates a dynamic where it is more comfortable to call upon the strengths of your colleagues to support each other more often.

Learn more about the Compass For Life leadership training team and explore our leadership management training programmes.

References:Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2009). Strengths based leadership: Great leaders, teams, and why people follow. Gallup Press.