Getting Stronger with Strengths – A Review of ‘Strengths Based Leadership’

What would you rather do more of – something you are good at doing? Or something your manager says you are weak at doing?

Throughout my professional life, manager after manager provided “employee performance reviews” on an annual basis. Most were supposed to also have “interim reviews” but those were typically self assessments where I was challenged to be as hard on my own performance as possible. In those annual reviews, and it didn’t matter if it was a year when I was a highly ranked individual contributor or a year when my team and I “under performed” to the company goals – the reviews were pretty much the same – here are the areas you underperformed and here are the weaknesses I see in your performance that you need to focus on…

I see the same thing in employee-employer relationships and performance management. Too often employee performance plans are committed to solely developing the employee weaknesses. Trying to change adult behavior, turning a “weakness” into a “strength” – well, it’s next to impossible without the right motivation.

No one was offering me the right environment to let me focus on my strengths, leverage what I was best at, in order to move the dial on team and personal production.

Imagine though if every employee performance plan placed a focus on the strengths of the employee – “you are good at these things, let’s find ways for you to spend MORE time on these elements and reduce the time you spend on these elements.” Fantasy land? Maybe. But more likely it takes an investment by leaders and managers to objectively identify each team members’ strengths and then determine how those strengths can best support the team objectives.

In their series of books that includes Strengths Based Leadership, Tom Rath and Barry Conchie do a fantastic job of getting to the objective truths of strengths in behaviors, motivations, and interests.

“… we have studied leaders who built great schools, created major nonprofit organizations, led big businesses, and transformed entire nations. But we have yet to find two leaders who have the exact same sequence of strengths. While two leaders may have identical expectations, the way they reach their goals is always dependent on the unique arrangement of their strengths.”

Effective leaders:

  • Effective leaders invest in their strengths (you have to OBJECTIVELY define your own strengths to invest in them)
  • Great leaders surround themselves with highly competent people (from interviewing and then employee development)
  • Effective leaders understand the needs of their followers in depth (relationships and engagement)

To get to the heart of effective leadership, the authors looked at why leaders that focused on strengths had a significantly higher employee engagement (73%) compared those leaders that fail to focus on strengths (9%). Too often leaders focus on either their OWN strengths, or they focus on their followers weaknesses (“we need a performance plan to address your weaknesses!”), rather than leveraging strengths based systems.

The authors found four domains of highly effective teams:

  1. Executing – When teams are good at executing, they can conceive a new idea and bring it to fruition quickly and efficiently.
  2. Influencing – Influencing is a matter of someone speaking up and making sure the right point of view is presented to these broader constituencies.
  3. Relationship building – Relationship building is all about strengthening the organization, synergy is created meaning the output ends up being greater than the sum total of the various inputs contributed.
  4. Strategic thinking – Teams need to have some people in them who can stretch their thinking and help them work towards a much brighter future.

Based on these domains, the Gallup Organization developed 34 “themes” to clarify individual interests, behaviors and motivations of team members. Only when you know the individual behaviors and motivations – IN AN OBJECTIVE EVALUTION – can a leader maximize the potential collective wisdom of the team. Much like sales, marketing, staffing, budgeting, etc – it takes both the knowledge AND systematic implementation of the tools to make them effective. Knowing your own strengths, or weaknesses, or those of your team, is close to useless if you are not maximizing those in a system to build strong team production.

And in the end, how much better – happier, more productive, more efficient, more creative – would every organization become if people were allowed to function in and focus on their strengths, rather than always being directed toward improving their weaknesses…

“The best leaders get to live on. Think for a moment about the leaders you respect – whether they lead countries, organizations, communities, or families – who continue to live on because of the way they have shaped your thoughts and beliefs. Even though you may not notice it in the moment, the most effective leaders forever alter the course of your life. Perhaps the ultimate test of a leader is not what you are able to do in the here and now – but instead what continues to grow long after you’re gone.”

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Communicating Through ‘Crucial Conversations’

If I had a nickel for every critical interaction in my life that, within seconds of it happening, I wanted desperately to have a ”do over.” These conversations, usually fed by some emotionally charged position from one side or another, often led to a total MIS-communication rather than any productive or effective communication. It usually turns out that only AFTER such a conversation do I realize where the whole thing went south…  And the damage was done.

In this book Crucial Conversations, authors Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler outline key elements and patterns of what most people would call “difficult” interactions.  These can include performance reviews, conflict resolution, or other heart to heart discussions at work, and then often typical interactions at home between spouses, siblings, teachers, or even some neighbors…

The authors define a ‘crucial conversation’ as “A discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong” and the outcome greatly impacts their lives.”

Not surprisingly, one critical theme in the process is actively listening rather than actively telling. Finding a common ground, rather than a direct focus on the differences (only 5%-10% of the facts/stories are usually in dispute, but will dominate the conversation and fuel emotion and disruption). Achieving a common ground by asking for their views and perceptions, and then applying that to a common goal for the interaction will amplify the potential success of the interaction.

The book offers several learning techniques for the skills presented, including the STATE mnemonic for discussing sensitive subjects:

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story
  • Ask for others’ ‘paths’
  • Talk tentatively
  • Encourage testing

Another great tool in the book is a series of outlines on how to apply the principles to very specific types of difficult personality types (i.e. deference to authority) and specific crisis moments (i.e. handling sexual harassment).

The result is an outstanding book with well delivered approaches to handling crucial conversations, likely a tool for the vast majority of us, both at home and the office.

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Why “Win-Win” Negotiations Means That You Lose: ‘Start With No’ by Jim Camp

You plan to renegotiate a lease, or a contract with a vendor, or any number of the day to day negotiations that happen in your small business and your personal life. A prevailing thought process is to plan for the “win-win” resolution of the negotiation before you even get started. Both sides feel like winners and everyone is happy with the outcome.

It sounds fair, right? You go into a negotiation with a “win-win” attitude, and then you compromise your way into an agreement.


In his book Start With No, Jim Camp outlines why “win-win” is a failed strategy in your negotiations. Better negotiators employ “win-win” strategy AGAINST you, but planting the seed that YOU need to compromise so they can get to their best outcome.

“Negotiating under the banner of win-win, you’ll have no way of knowing if you’ve made good and necessary decisions leading up to the compromise.”   

Letting go of expectations and assumptions – be the blank slate. Too often we allow emotions to clutter our negotiations, leading to unsound decisions and compromises from a position of weakness.

“In a negotiation, decisions are 100% emotional. Yes, 100%. Research psychologists have proved this beyond any doubt. Our so-called rational minds kick in only after we’ve made the decision, in order to justify it after the fact. Your job as a negotiator is to see emotions clearly and overcome them with precise decision making. Your job is even to use emotions to your advantage with precise decision making.”

 Mr. Camp makes a solid case for key tactics in creating a winning strategy for negotiating:

  •  Know your mission & purpose (clearly defined)
  • Focus on your behavior, not the outcome (control what you can control)
  •  Ask good questions (listening better than talking)
  • Have no preconceptions (blank slate)
  • Negotiate with the real decision makers (work with “blockers” to get to decision makers)
  •  Stick to your agenda (focus)
  • Identify the key pain point (clarity)
  • Build your budget (including money, time, energy, and emotion)
  • Keep it simple (less is more in negotiations)
  • Don’t think “pay-back”, think “pay-forward” (don’t allow compromise to be confused with self-esteem)

“The negotiation really does start with ‘no’ – not with ‘maybe’, definitely not with ‘yes’, but with a firm, clear ‘no’. In any negotiation, this is the key word I want to hear. Everything that precedes it is mere window dressing. How can this be? Because ‘no’ is a real decision that induces the party across the table into actually thinking about why they’ve just said ‘no’. The responsibility of making a clear decision helps the adversary focus on the real issues of the negotiation.”

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Do You Need A ‘Band Aid’ Solution?

I’ve often used the phrase “Band Aid solution” to referrer to something as “temporary” or “simple minded”… In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell makes a great point with:

“A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that term should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history, Band-Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop. The Band-Aid solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost. We have, of course, an instinctive disdain for this kind of solution because there is something in all of us that feels that true answers have to be comprehensive. There are times when we need a convenient shortcut, a way to make a lot out of a little, and that is what Tipping Points, in the end, are all about.”

So many solutions to our problems are right in front of us, and they are often not nearly as complicated or as expensive, as we feared. They were taught to us in a training class, or shared with us over a luncheon, or brought to us by a mentor or a peer. The solutions are often the easy part of problem solving, brought to us by employees, vendors, managers, trainers, and one another… Implementation, consistent execution, and accountability are the far more difficult and time consuming elements of problem solving.

Instead, our human nature infuses us with complacency or fear of change, or worse, BOTH. So we see business stick with worn out ideas because “it’s worked for us before.” Engaged a different mindset. Find people that have solved the problem you are facing, and then implement even small steps towards the same solutions. Build on those small steps toward consistent execution. Finally, add an accountability piece for each step in the process, including measuring and reporting results.

Band Aids are all around you. Sometimes you just have to ask for one.

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So Why Am I Micro-Managing My People?

I often see small business owners who get confused about being “engaged” in their business with being a “micromanager.”

“I’m NOT a micromanager, and that’s a big reason I wanted out of the corporate world and into my own business” is a common statement.

So when does being an engaged small business owner cross the line to being a micro-manager?
It’s been said that a successful farmer has his footprints all over the farm (no idea to whom to credit, but I think Bob McNair gets at least partial credit – ).
Is there a fine line between micro management and active engagement? No, but there is a huge difference. I don’t know many people that relish the idea of being a micro-manager – it’s a lot of work, it’s often counterproductive, and your opportunity to focus on the “big picture” is blown away.

So how does the small business owner get their footprints in more parts of the farm?

Be active
Being active is different than being around. A business owner can be around but not actively present. He can be available but not a contributor. Without a genuine interest in the people around him, and an investment in those people as contributors towards their mutual goals, then being around is likely inhibiting growth and production rather than adding to it…

Be engaged
Staying engaged with employees, with initiatives, and with solutions creates an environment that enhances your awareness of who is contributing to the team and your ability to future proof your company by anticipating and resolving challenges before they diminish your enterprise and income. Engagement doesn’t mean knowing every detail and taking over every interaction – it means listening enough to know what the real world issues are, then helping find solutions to build a productive culture.

Be enthusiastic
It’s not always good times and celebrations, but being there as a positive influence in good times and the not so good times says more about the small business owner than any tirades and tantrums do when things get rocky – and things do get rocky. Bringing energy and enthusiasm into the situation gives others at least the opportunity to both change their own attitudes and see other opportunities in their circumstances.

The challenge to these things is sustaining honesty, trust and sincerity… Any of these traits can backfire when they are not sincere, or are parceled out inconsistently. Practice and get feedback from those you trust on your progress to being more available, more engaged, and more of a cheerleader for your team.

There are plenty of tools (much less expensive than your time) to help you manage activity (typically the heart of micro-management)… Managers or senior staff can manage the tools that report the activity. Let them be micromanagers if you MUST have them. Side note: setting constructive goals with employees, creating usable performance reviews and metrics, then holding each person (employee and supervisor alike) accountable for quality performance management, should take care of the issues requiring micro-management…

It is difficult If not impossible to motivate a group of people all the time. However, your activity, your engagement, and your positive enthusiasm will certainly give everyone the opportunity to CHOOSE to be more motivated, more inspired, more open to change, and ultimately more productive.

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Are Resume “Objectives” Obsolete? Maybe!

I find myself falling into the same pattern of habits that I counsel small business owners of breaking… So often I end up doing something a certain way simply because I’ve always done that something that way. When I am called out on it, I’m often somewhat defensive and taken aback as to whatever reason I use to justify an old and unproductive habit. Only afterwards do I see the habit for what it is – unproductive and obsolete.

I found this to be the case with my resume. (Side note – a friendly reminder that the best time to update your resume is NOT when you are looking for a job, but when you are stable and under no pressure to have a beautiful resume!) More than one recruiter has now told me to “take out that ‘Objective’ section” because it’s a waste of space on your one page resume.

What? I’ve always had an Objective! Everyone has an Objective section! How will the reader know why they have the resume?!?!

Employers and recruiters understand your Objective – it’s to get the job you are applying for. Duh!
Save some space on your resume, drop the Objective but include a rocking cover letter to explain your application and interests.

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Patience: The (not so) Silent Killer (of productivity)

No – that’s not true. Or is it? I often see small business owners who are paralyzed in their business – frozen in a cycle of unproductive habits. Some call themselves “patient” while others will throw out “watching the market” or “letting others figure it out” or “waiting it out.”

Regardless, the lack of thoughtful decision making (goals, plans, execution) will set you up for failure.

Patience can be lipstick on a pig – it can be confused with complacency, fear, indecisiveness, and the end result is that precious time is passing you by.  Time – the great equalizer (everyone has the same 24 hours in the day, but successful people maximize their time better than unsuccessful people) – passes and your “patience” is letting opportunity slip through your fingers.

Fight your excuses – er, your “patience” with a few systematic weapons of waste destruction:

  • Set short term goals – start with a daily goal, then weekly, then monthly, then… Set the example for your team to do the same.
  • Create accountability – your manager, a peer, spouse, your coach, whomever you trust to share and motivate you towards your new short term goals.
  • Short term goals won’t always mean short term profits so understand what the “win” for your goals will be (collecting more information will make a better sales funnel today = better sales tomorrow, for example). Eventually, all your long term goals many be income related, but regardless, know that there is a “prize” for achieving the goal.
  • Celebrate others who attain their goals. Foster a culture of success – short term and long term. At the same time, there is an accountability/coaching/mentoring piece as well. When people fall short of agreed goals, there needs to be some constructive action (systematic performance management).

Patience is, in its truest form, accepting the current state while plowing ahead with ambitious goals for improving the current state. Patience is not resignation.

Let go of using patience as an excuse to be stagnant. Make productive action plans towards short and long term goals!

Just Do It already!

Just Do It already!

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