The phrase “Play to your strengths” has been around for a long time, but the message didn’t hit home from a leadership perspective until Curt Coffman and Marcus Buckingham released “First, Break All the Rules – What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently” at the turn of the millennium. And playing to strengths is just that – something the world’s greatest managers do all the time, both for themselves and their teams – yet SO many managers miss this completely.

Now, a true strength isn’t just what you are good at, it’s what energises you. That means that when you play to your strengths you get better results – and become far more engaged with your work. I believe it is THE single biggest strategy you can apply to sky rocket your organisation’s performance AND engagement at the same time.

But for most of us, getting to know our strengths is the biggest hurdle. It’s all too common to know our weaknesses yet be completely inarticulate on our strengths. For those of us who don’t know how to identify strengths where can we start?

It’s easier to think if you ask the right questions – just grab a pen and some paper and get stuck in.

When was the last time you felt a real buzz?

One of the best ways to do it is by going through your diary. First of all – look back over the last few weeks. When was the last time you felt a real buzz? Think about the times you felt at the top of your game, ten feet tall and bullet proof, when you seemed to lose all sense of time because you were completely engaged in what you were doing, when you felt completely engaged and ‘in the zone.’

What were you doing? Make a note of it. Make sure it’s not about what other people were doing or saying, just focus 100% on what you were doing. The best way into that zone is to play to your strengths, and understanding what you were doing at those times is the key to identifying your strengths.

Now, look through your diary over the next few weeks. What are you looking forward to? Which are the days when getting out of bed won’t be a problem? When you can see that time will just fly by. What will you be doing? What is it about the activity that energises you?

Now let’s go back again, but this time we’re going to span years and decades rather than days and weeks. As you reflect back over your life, what kind of stuff did you find easiest to learn? What type of things did you pick up naturally, almost as though you already knew them but they just needed bringing to your conscious attention? Whether in education, or socially, or at work – what comes naturally to you?

Look back over your answers and look for the common themes. When you were at your best you will almost certainly be using your strengths, when you are at your worst you will almost certainly be using your weaknesses. Even common themes of weaknesses are helpful to tease out – because they will be indicators of the strengths on ‘the other side.’

Think about all of these things in the context of work – although if you get completely stuck then it may be more helpful to look elsewhere. What are your hobbies? What clubs or associations do you belong to and why?

Talk through your notes with someone who knows you well – but remember that although they can see what you are good at, you are most qualified to identify what really energises you. Work through the notes you have made and start pulling out the common themes – then decide on your top 5.

Use them

So once you have identified your top 5 strengths, what next? The answer is incredibly simple.

Use them.

Gallup research has indicated that only 17% of workers in the UK have the opportunity to do what they do best every day. Imagine if it was 70% – or even higher in your organisation? What would that do for results AND engagement?

Once you have worked on this yourself, then take the same approach with your team. But don’t be tempted to skip doing it yourself – to really understand it you need to experience it and model it.

But be warned. The world doesn’t care whether you use your strengths or not. It doesn’t care whether your team use their strengths or not. It cares about getting the job done. So it’s your responsibility to make sure that you and your team get the job done in a way that puts strengths to work.

This is a big deal. Why? Because 40 years of Gallup research has revealed that the single biggest predictor of a consistently high performing team is the answer to the question “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.”

What answer would your team give?


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Peter Anderton

Author: Peter Anderton

A sought after coach and change agent, Peter has spent many years in Organisational Development, focusing on developing high performance leadership teams, executive coaching, strategy and change. He builds relationships quickly and is as comfortable in the boardroom as he is at ‘grass roots’. Known for his integrity, energy and a real passion for making things happen, he has a uniquely direct yet supportive style that delivers.

Peter is a qualified NLP master practitioner, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Chartered Engineer.