Posted at 12:23 AM on October 30th, 2009 by Alex
It might seem subtle, but there is a major difference between strengths and skills.
A few decades ago, developmental psychologists figured out that our personalities are formed at a VERY young age. That age is still debated on, but there’s a general consensus in the psychology community that our personalities are decided by the time we make it to high-school. After that, we’re virtually resistant to change. The only “changes” that occur are further emphasis or de-emphasis of existing personality traits that have already been decided.
In other words - you’re stuck with YOU.
This was a pretty big find which affected a lot of people - among those affected pretty severely were those personal development gurus. You know, those people who write books and put on seminars teaching you how to be the leader you’ve always dreamed of being. In fact, when the news of personalities being fixed at such an early age made it to the mainstream, those personal developers took a bit of flack. If your personality is already settled, then how can a person hope to develop into a better leader? Isn’t “leadership” a part of one’s personality?
There are probably a few more steps in between, but my knowledge of the story picks up with now-deceased Donald O. Clifton, who coined the “Strengths” movement in the early 1990’s. The Gallup Organization picked up on his ideas and put them to press and media in a big way throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, and the movement is also carried on by personal development all-star Marcus Buckingham since his split from Gallup.
Mr. Clifton’s idea was pretty simple: Since personalities are virtually set in stone, stop trying to develop against them. Instead, find the strongest areas in every individual and focus there. A person’s strength areas might be pretty well set from early on, but that person can still go through a ton of development on skills in those areas.
The programs he went on to develop are known affectionately by millions throughout the world as StrengthsFinder and StrengthsQuest, and continue to be very effective. I’m a huge supporter of the Strengths movement, and definitely believer in “strengths first” development. In fact, I think everyone reading this should stop right now, and go pick up StrengthsFinder 2.0 at your local bookstore before reading any further.
Recently, though, I found myself in an interesting position - trying to reconcile two pretty big perceived differences in leadership development:
1) Psychology and tons of success over the last two decades point to a Strengths-focused approach being by far the best way to go.
2) I’m pretty lucky to be participating in an extremely successful leadership development program at a world-class company, and it’s focussed on making sure everyone who goes through rounds out 8 areas that they’ve identified.
My question: Don’t those conflict?
I started digging around and trying to come up with some rational explanation that BOTH of these programs are in the top tier of success stories in leadership development — and they both certainly are. After a lot of searching, I believe the difference comes in “strength” vs “skill”.
The Strengths approach identifies specific strength areas. Out of 34 strength areas, an official assessment will only divulge to you your top 5. This is true to form: if your greatest energy is spent developing your areas of strongest aptitude, then why should you even know where the other 29 areas stand in your list? 5 are more than enough areas to work on. For an example, here’s my list of 5 with a pretty short description:
INCLUDER - People who are especially talented in the Includer theme are accepting of others. They show awareness of those who feel left out, and make an effort to include them.
IDEATION - People who are especially talented in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.
WOO - Woo stands for “Winning Others Over”. People who are especially talented in the Woo theme love the challenge of meeting new people and winning them over. They derive satisfaction from breaking the ice and making a connection with another person.
STRATEGIC - People who are especially talented in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.
INPUT - People who are especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.
A strength isn’t as much an individual thing you do well as it is an area of your personality — it’s a subset of things that you excel at.
In differentiation, the leadership training I’m taking part in right now focuses on a specific set of eight skills and developing those skills in individuals who make it through the program. Here are the eight:
Vision - The act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be. A vivid, imaginative conception or anticipation.
Presence - The ability to project a sense of ease, poise, or self-assurance, esp. the quality or manner of a person’s bearing before an audience.
Adaptability - Ability to adjust oneself readily to different condition.
Deep Thinking - A plan, method, or series of maneuvers or strategy for obtaining a specific goal or result.
Personal Growth - A process in which someone passes by degrees to a more advanced or mature stage.
Living the Culture - The quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent. The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular group.
Talent Development - To allow and foster the growth of others to develop by education, demonstration, empowerment and support.
Communication Expert - The imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.
Notice a difference? It took me a couple times through, but pretty soon I started noticing a few interesting differences. The second grouping isn’t about an area of aptitude as much as it is about a set of skills. Those skills fit within some strengths areas, but NOT vice-versa. On the flip side, the first grouping (my strength areas) and the rest of the strengths areas are about identification of potential, and not necessarily leadership. In fact, if I remember right the StrengthsFinder series designates 10 or so Strength areas (out of the 34 total) that are well-versed for leadership. Surprise surprise: those 8 skills of leadership identified in the second grouping fit nicely into the “leadership” strength areas.
Put more simply: the company owning this leadership training program are only letting people through their screening process and into the program if they already possess strength areas within those 10 or so leadership areas. They aren’t developing a leadership personality in a trainee — they are merely taking someone who is already a leader and helping them to hone skills they already have an aptitude for.
Read through my strengths areas again, and it’s pretty easy to see that most of those leadership areas already fit in my zones of aptitude. ”Vision” goes with my “Strategic” strength area. ”Presence” and “Communication Expert” go with my “WOO” strength area. ”Talent Development” and “Living the Culture” match up with “Includer”. ”Deep Thinking” with “Ideation”, and “Adaptability” with “Input”. ”Personal Growth” seems a skill from a mix of “ideation”, “strategic” and “input”. They’re all there, and all skill-areas I have an aptitude in. Maybe I do belong after-all! :)
I’ve cracked the code, so now I can start to see where I fit. Personally, I feel the leadership skills I see most present in myself are vision, communication expert, and adaptability. As my strengths areas suggest, I’m always collecting information (input) and figuring how everything is connected (ideation) and plays into the big picture (strategic). With all that info, and a gift for seeing connections current and present, I’m a born “visionary“. Those same skill-sets of always collecting information and figuring out how it relates and works with everything else have let me spend my life thus far doing what I felt like doing at the time: from electrical engineering, to religion and philosophy, to graphic design and web-development, and now onto business. I’m built to handle differing and multiple roles; to be “adaptable“. And, my other strength areas of “WOO” and “input” are both all about getting through to people - which is where the “communication expert” skill-set fits.
So which of those areas are potential target areas for improvement? Well, all of them - especially the ones just listed. Like I said earlier: I’m a huge proponent of concentrating on what you’re already wired for. But since, as I also mentioned earlier, everyone in the training is sort of pre-screened for those aptitudes, we’re all candidates to work on all 8 of those leadership skillsets. One that I know I’ll really need to develop soon is “Talent Development“. I have a great way with people as things are, but I’m pretty unexperienced at spotting potential in others and developing it further. I think I’ll excel at it — but it’s an area I definitely need to put a few extra hours of practice in at. Another I want to pay particularly close attention to is “Presence”. I’ve been a leader in tons of organizations and a public speaker on hundreds of occasions, but I fear I’ve developed some of my skills in the wrong direction. A background in preaching at church and debate competition have left me overly sensitive the message, and perhaps not sensitive enough to my audience.
For both, as with any skill, practice makes perfect. That has to be guided practice though: understanding what you’re working on and why you’re working on it. For me, knowing that these are areas in which I have an aptitude to improve is freeing in itself - I can be confident I’m working on these because they are skills that I CAN improve. Other than that, I need to be prepared through studying each skill so I know what I’m looking for to improve.
That’s my story. How about you? What are your strengths areas? Where do you know that you have potential, but still need to take the time to really concentrate on improving? Leave some comments below!