Marcus Buckingham was recruited out of Cambridge by psychologist Donald Clifton for a company he founded called Selection Research, Inc. (which took on the Gallup name in 1988 after being acquired.) The company helps business identify talent based on strengths. The partnership between Clifton and Buckingham produced several bestselling books, including Now, Discover Your Strengths. An instant business classic, the book was written to “start a strengths revolution.” Thousands of companies have used the book and the accompanying “Strengthsfinder” profile to understand talent and how to find the right match for their jobs.
Buckingham starts out by defining “strength” as “near perfect, consistent performance.” Being pretty good at something is not enough. It starts with talent, which Buckingham describes as an innate ability – something you may have been a natural at all your life. In fact, being a natural is what keeps many of us from understanding true strengths; if it’s that easy for me, doesn’t everyone find it to be easy too? The answer is often a resounding “no,” but we still tend to disparage talents that don’t take enormous, painful effort on our part.
Turning a talent into a strength takes time and experience. You’re born with talent, but you must add knowledge and skills in order to excel. Learning and practice over time are what make your gifts consistent and useful on the job. Even elite athletes practice and get coached every day, no matter how great their natural athletic ability may be. Talent doesn’t guarantee you’ll win the competition. It doesn’t work in reverse, however; if you work on a skill, it will make you a little better at performing a task, but it won’t compensate for a lack of talent.
Here are some basic premises about working with your strengths:
- If you are using a strength, you must be able to perform extraordinarily well every time you use it, and you must derive great satisfaction (even joy) from doing the task. If you’re good at it but don’t enjoy doing it, it’s not a strength.
- You do not need to be well-rounded in your role at work. In fact, Buckingham wants to dispel the notion that high performers must be well rounded. In Buckingham’s experience, many high performers had very sharp peaks of talent, and may have been average – or worse – at performing other parts of their jobs. They excelled by playing to their strengths.
- Lastly, Buckingham asserts that you will excel only by maximizing your strengths, and not by fixing your weaknesses. He hopes to persuade workers and managers to let go of the notion of training to overcome weaknesses; it doesn’t move the needle very far. His recommendation is to redistribute work so that each team member is working primarily from his strengths. Find a partner, outsource some work, or delegate to someone who can do the task well.
Buckingham asserts that our language for speaking about strengths is very rudimentary. Take for instance the ubiquitous “good with people” skill. Using the language of the Strengthsfinder profile, Buckingham asks: “”What does that tell you about [two people with that strength]? It doesn’t tell you, for example, that one excels at building trust once contact with another person has been made, but that the other is brilliant at initiating contact. You wouldn’t put the great trust builder in the same role as the great networker.” If you’ve managed customer service or sales teams, this makes perfect sense to you, even if you’ve never used those words.
Your performance when using your talent is instinctive, natural and probably locked in by the time you turn 16 years old. By that time, your brain has discovered what comes easily to you, and starts spending its energy on the synapses that work best and eliminating unused synapses. It’s why we lose much of our ability to master foreign languages after our childhood; our brains gradually specialize, and focus on the things we do best – our brains become more efficient.
Next post: Now, Discover Your Strengths.