6 Reasons to Take a Strengths-Based Approach to Leadership Development

I have long been a proponent of a strengths-based approach to developing people, both in work and in life. Though, it wasn’t until I endeavored into executive coaching years ago that I realized my approach to leadership development, coaching youth sports, and mentoring more junior staff was rooted in strengths.

A strengths-based approach to development (both personal and professional) is grounded in positive psychology and advocates spending the lion’s share of development time on leveraging and amplifying one’s strengths as opposed to focusing on developmental areas (otherwise known as “weaknesses”).

While there are different philosophies and methodologies (e.g. TotalSDI, Strengthsfinder)  associated with building strengths, Group Sixty’s belief is that leaders, managers, and individuals should take a laser focus on their top strengths while recognizing that different contexts call for the use of other strengths lower on the strengths profile. In fact, Group Sixty conducts a strengths-based assessment at the outset of each coaching engagement to help kick-off coaching conversations and individualize our approach with each executive.

“Leadership is a relationship between leader and follower. The best leaders have developed enough self-awareness to not only know and maximize their strengths, but to choose their strengths in each situation and relationship so followers can use their strengths.” - Tim Scudder, PhD and Author, Strength Deployment Inventory and The Leaders We Need

Throughout my career and life, I have observed 6 distinct benefits of a developmental approach grounded in strengths.

 1. Tailor Development to Each Person’s Unique Gifts (One Size Doesn’t Fit All):  In sports, it would be folly to assume that each player has the same set of athletic gifts and interpersonal characteristics and to coach all players in a uniform manner. Similarly, why would organizations, leaders, and managers take a “one size fits all” approach to developing their people?  We are all different, and using a strengths-based approach allows us to individualize our development efforts in a way that enables our staff to excel in a way that is natural and authentic. For example, motivating and engaging a leader who is high in a performance oriented strength such as “Risk Taking” might entail conversations around taking smart risks and adopting processes to ensure “failing forward ” and learning occur from any risks that go awry.  On the other hand, developing a leader with process-oriented strengths such as “Analytical” might provide a pathway for conversations focused on fast, informed decision making to increase the pace of execution.

2. Provide a Lens to Frame Development Conversations: Strengths also provide a lens to use in conversations around specific situations and topics.  Recently, I coached an executive around the launch of a new strategic initiative for their organization. At the outset of the project, the focus was discussing his “Caring” and “Inclusive” strengths and how to use them to accelerate early trust-based and collaborative relationships within the cross-functional project team. Later on, our conversations centered on how to leverage his “Risk Taking” strength within the context of a process focused team. The result was the creation of a set of gating criteria to meet before proceeding in each phase of the project thereby satisfying his desire to move fast and take risks as well as the broader team’s need for process.

3. Gain Permission to Engage:  A strengths-based approach also provides permission to engage leaders by using the data and insight from the assessment as a starting point for a conversation. For example, a leader identified as “Competitive” may bristle at that characterization, but as we usually find, some additional questions and insight usually lends insight into how that perception surfaces in their work life. Data from a strengths assessment also provides a way to initiate a conversation around potentially sensitive topics because it creates a starting point to explore areas that assessments begin to uncover.

4. Help Leaders Adapt to a Specific Context: Even the most adept leaders struggle with tailoring their approach to different personalities and interactions, and understanding their full arsenal of strengths (as well as how they can be interpreted) allows them to choose the right one for the given situation. Coaching conversations can help leaders learn how to not only lean on their dominant strengths, but also start to use those that fall towards the bottom of their strengths profile.  For example, another past executive coaching client had dominant strengths including “Ambitious”, “Forceful”, and “Persuasive” which served him well in most interactions. Over time however, we worked on how leveraging the “Reserved” (With a focus on listening) and “Inclusive” strengths could drive greater contribution from direct reports and create a more collaborative team environment.

5. Improve the Effectiveness of Communication: Another way executives can use strengths to aid their development is through improved communication.  Once you understand your own strengths as well as those of people with whom you interact, you can tailor the content, format, and style of written and verbal communication to maximize its impact and also how it is received. As such, developmental conversations focused on communicating using strengths are a key area to drive accelerated executive performance.

6. Guide and Accelerate a Personal Development Path: Strengths are also useful to guide an individual leader’s ongoing personal development path. For example, a leader who is high in the “Communication” strength can be encouraged to join Toastmasters to help continue to develop as an engaging speaker or enroll in a creative writing course to enhance the impact of their written communication.  Or uncovering that an individual contributor on your team has “Developer” as a Strength may indicate that this person would flourish in a supervisory or mentoring role. 

As discussed above, a strengths-driven approach to leadership development accelerates the growth of individual leaders and teams and increases the impact of coach-coachee and manager-direct report relationships. The most powerful endorsement for this approach is the ROI it can achieve; according to a study by Gallup, 90% of workgroups who used a strengths-based approach saw sales increase 10-19%, profit improve 14-29%, customer engagement increase 3-7%, engaged employees increase by 9-15%, and a decrease in turnover (6-16% in low turnover organizations, 26-72% in high turnover organizations).

How has a strengths-based approached fostered your own development as well as that of other leaders in your organization?