By Marcus Buckingham
(Harvard Business Review Press 211 pages, $23.95)
Strengths rule. Over the past decade, we have seen the stream of studies about the benefits of focusing on our strengths rather than obsessing over our weaknesses. But that still leaves many of us in a quandary. Our organizations may not have caught up with the strengths movement, and are still focused on ferreting out and then improving weaknesses. Or we're not quite sure what our strengths are.
Marcus Buckingham, a pioneer in the strengths movement, has been working with others to address those issues, and has developed a set of tools that assess your strengths, accompanied by an online performance management and learning channel for you to use them. "You have a genius. Everyone does," he writes in StandOut 2.0, his latest book.
He says that may sound grandiose. But we all have an edge – specific areas where we stand out – and they're quite precise. Move slightly out of your strength zone and your outstanding performance can plunge. An example is Michael Jordan, the basketball star who turned to baseball and was suddenly mediocre. "While you may be capable of doing many, many things, you have a comparative advantage, an edge, in very few. This is not to say you shouldn't stretch yourself with new challenges," he writes. The strengths might help you with those new challenges, as Mr. Jordan's natural athleticism did. But they may not be enough.
An accompanying lesson is to remember who you are and recognize when you are straying from your best self. He tells the story of another Michael, a friend of his, who was successful as a software engineer, hard-working and reliable. When promoted to team leader, he also excelled as he was a terrific explainer, patient when others were slow to learn. But when he was promoted to project manager, he struggled with two key aspects of the job: Designing, testing and retesting software, and handling clients tactfully. He wasn't capable of either, the job draining him to the point that one morning he couldn't bring himself to put his keys in the car door and go to work. Fifteen years later, he hasn't worked since.
Conventional wisdom tells us to push beyond our comfort zone. But he notes that successful people do something different: They push themselves within their comfort zone. They aren't complacent. But they sharpen their edge.
His new book reveals nine strength roles that capture how we operate. Each of us has two that are dominant and worth focusing on. He offers online assessments, but perhaps from the descriptions you can pick yourself out:
A practical, concrete thinker, at your most powerful when reacting to and solving other people's problems. You believe there is always a better way and come alive when called upon to find it.
You are a catalyst, enjoying bringing people and ideas together to make something better than it is now. You have a wide array of contacts, and people are drawn to you because you are so passionate about their skills.
You love to create new things, starting by making sense of the world, pulling it apart, and then developing a better configuration. This requires time by yourself, which you cherish.
You are driven to ensure the right thing happens, ensuring a world in balance, ethically and practically. You are a conscience, a passionate protector of what's right.
You are a persuader, engaging people directly and convincing them to act. You may do this by force of argument, charm, ability to outwit others, or a combination of all three.
You see the world as a friendly place, where around the corner, good things will happen. During uncertainty, you are optimistic, a tremendous advantage.
You are sensitive to other people's feeling and are compelled to recognize those feelings and give them voice. You are intensely loyal and forgiving, but not a pushover.
You are intent to raise the energy of people around you, aided by your positive outlook. You can assist, challenge – you aren't always soft and gentle – and will become impatient or riled when others are sucking energy out of a situation.
You relish the potential you see in others and want to help them achieve or unleash it.
Much of the book is focused on explaining those strengths, noting how to handle them in certain situations and where you can go wrong. Going through them all in quick succession as I did, without doing the assessment, makes for dreary reading. But if you find out your strengths and focus on those chapters, no doubt it will be a more fruitful experience.