Book extract: Now, Discover Your Strengths – Discovering Personal

It seems that employees today do not feel they are working to the best of their potential. However, research has shown that if staff feel they are making the most of their capabilities, the organisation can become stronger and more robust as a result. Marcus Buckingham and Donald O Clifton take us through tips on how to develop the strengths of your staff

We wrote this book to start a revolution, the strengths revolution.

At the heart of this revolution is a simple decree: The great organisation must not only accommodate the fact that each employee is different, it must capitalise on these differences. It must watch for clues to each employee’s natural talents and then position and develop each employee so that his or her talents are transformed into bona fide strengths. By changing the way it selects, measures, develops and channels the careers of its people, this revolutionary organisation must build its entire enterprise around the strengths of each person.

And as it does, this revolutionary organisation will be positioned to dramatically outperform its peers. In our latest meta-analysis The Gallup Organisation asked this question of 198,000 employees working in 7,939 business units within 36 companies: At work do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?

We then compared the responses to the performance of the business units and discovered the following: When employees answered ‘strongly agree’ to this question, they were 50% more likely to work in business units with lower employee turnover, 38% more likely to work in more productive business units, and 44% more likely to work in business units with higher customer satisfaction scores.

And over time those business units that increased the number of employees who strongly agreed saw comparable increases in productivity, customer loyalty, and employee retention. Whichever way you slice the data, the organisation whose employees feel their strengths are used every day is more powerful and more robust.

This is very good news for the organisation that wants to be on the vanguard of the strengths revolution. Why? Because most organisations remain startlingly inefficient at capitalising on the strengths of their people.

In Gallup’s total database we have asked the ‘opportunity to do what I do best’ question of more than 1.7 million employees in 101 companies from 63 countries. What percentage do you think strongly agrees that they have an opportunity to do what they do best every day? What percentage truly feels their strengths are in play?

Globally, only 20% of employees in the large organisations we surveyed feel their strengths are in play every day. Most bizarre of all, the longer an employee stays with an organisation and the higher he climbs the traditional career ladder, the less likely he is to strongly agree that he is playing to his strengths.

Alarming though it is to learn most organisations operate at 20% capacity, this discovery represents a tremendous opportunity for great organisations.

To spur high-margin growth and thereby increase their value, great organisations need only focus inward to find the wealth of unrealised capacity that resides in every employee. Imagine the increase in productivity and profitability if they doubled this number and so had 40% of their employees strongly agreeing that they had a chance to use their strengths every day. Or how about tripling the number? Some 60% of employees saying ‘strongly agree’ isn’t too aggressive a goal for the greatest organisations.

How can they achieve this? Well, to begin with they need to understand why eight out of ten employees feel miscast in their role. What can explain this widespread inability to position people to play to their strengths?

The simplest explanation is that most organisations’ basic assumptions about people are wrong. We know this because for the last 30 years Gallup has been conducting research into the best way to maximise a person’s potential. At the heart of this research are our interviews with 80,000 managers in hundreds of organisations around the world. Here the focus was to discover what the world’s best managers (whether in Bangalore or Bangor) had in common. The most significant finding was this: Most organisations are built on two flawed assumptions about people: Each person can learn to be competent in almost anything; and each person’s greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness.

Presented so baldly, these two assumptions seem too simplistic to be commonly held, so let’s play them out and see where they lead. If you want to test whether or not your organisation is based on these assumptions, look for these characteristics:

– Your organisation spends more money on training people once they are hired than on selecting them properly in the first place.

– Your organisation focuses the performance of its employees by legislating work style. This means a heavy emphasis on work rules, policies, procedures, and ‘behavioural competencies’.

– Your organisation spends most of its training time and money on trying to plug the gaps in employees’ skills or competencies. It calls these gaps ‘areas of opportunity.’ Your individual development plan, if you have one, is built around your ‘areas of opportunity’, your weaknesses.

– Your organisation promotes people based on the skills or experiences they have acquired. After all, if everyone can learn to be competent in almost anything, those who have learned the most must be the most valuable.

Thus, by design, your organisation gives the most prestige, respect, and the highest salaries to the most experienced well-rounded people.

Finding an organisation that doesn’t have these characteristics is more difficult than finding one that does. Most organisations take their employees’ strengths for granted and focus on minimising their weaknesses. They become expert in those areas where their employees struggle, delicately rename these ‘skill gaps’ or ‘areas of opportunity,’ and then pack them off to training classes so that the weaknesses can be fixed.

This approach is occasionally necessary: If an employee alienates those around him, some sensitivity training can help; likewise, a remedial communication class can benefit an employee who happens to be smart but inarticulate.

But this isn’t development, it is damage control. And by itself damage control is a poor strategy for elevating either the employee to world-class performance.

As long as an organisation operates under these assumptions, it will never capitalise on the strengths of each employee.

To break out of this weakness spiral and to launch the strengths revolution in your own organisation, you must change your assumptions about people.

Start with the right assumptions, and everything else that follows from them – how you select, measure, train, and develop your people – will be right. These are the two assumptions that guide the world’s best managers.

Firstly that each person’s talents are enduring and unique, secondly that each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of their greatest strength.

These two assumptions are the foundation for everything they do with and for their people. They assumptions explain why great managers look for talent in every role, why they focus people’s performances on outcomes rather than forcing them into a stylistic mold, why they disobey the golden rule and treat each employee differently, and why they spend the most time with their best people.

In short, these two assumptions explain why the world’s best managers break all the rules of conventional management wisdom.

Now, following the great managers’ lead, it is time to change the rules.

These two revolutionary assumptions must serve as the central tenets for a new way of working. They are the tenets for a new organisation, a stronger organisation, an organisation designed to reveal and stretch the strengths of employees.

Most organisations have a process for ensuring the efficient use of their practical resources. Six Sigma or ISO 9000 processes are commonplace.

Likewise, most organisations have increasingly efficient processes for exploiting their financial resources. Few organisations, however, have developed a systematic process for the efficient use of their human resources.

We start with you. What are your strengths? How can you capitalise on them? What are your most powerful combinations? Where do they take you? What one, two, or three things can you do better than 10,000 other people? These are the kinds of questions we will deal with in the first five chapters.

After all, you can’t lead a strengths revolution if you don’t know how to find, name, and develop your own.


Marcus Buckingham and Donald O Clifton are the authors of First, Break All the Rules, which has sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide. Their new book Now, Discover Your Strengths is published by Simon & Schuster in May and is the first truly interactive business book. It uses a new computer programme, accessible via a website and a unique reader ID number, to help managers discover their own talents and strengths.

To order your copy of Now, Discover Your Strengths (free postage & packing) please contact HarperCollins Publishers on 0870 900 2050 (24-hour order line).

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