“So what are your Strengths?”

This is probably one of the simplest, yet most powerful questions one can ask or be asked in a personal and professional setting. I have personally wondered how to help others answer this very question for a long time. This post finally puts into words how I went about it in the last 9 months, when I decided to become a professional coach. Apologies for the serious lack of brevity with this particular post! I have been working to get this out for a while in response to many friends and colleagues.


What this post is about..

This post tells about my story from Passion to Profession:

  1. The root of it all. Trying to help others answer the tough, but very natural question – ‘What are you good at?’
  2. My own first and early tries to decipher the strengths of a corporate team using a personal SWOT analysis
  3. How I got into contact with Strengthsfinder and why it was a disappointment then
  4. My leap of faith earlier this year to put all professional eggs in one basket and become a professional strengths coach
  5. My first reflection on using the Strengthsfinder assessment professionally after about 6 months
  6. Celebrating the unreal fact of running a Strengths Coaching business. Welcome to ‘Strengths Discovery’!


A tough question

How well can we really reflect and articulate on our own innate talents? I often found a glaring lack of deep understanding of people’s unique talents in organizations, as well their ability to use that knowledge in a meaningful way. It especially struck me as inconsistent and unnatural to separate a workforce into ‘Talent’ and ‘Non-Talent’. I always had the firm belief that talent is innate to everyone in their own unique way.

When I started to become accountable for the success of a team of professionals some years back, some big questions were vexing me right from the start:

  1. Are the team members actually doing work that brings out the best in them? Does it match their talent?
  2. How would I even be able to identify with some reasonable confidence what they are good at, when every person has a different level of self-reflection, masking behavior or simply varying ability to communicate it well?


Baby Steps with a traditional SWOT

Deliberately ignorant in the beginning of structured methods that were out there to identify talent and strengths (and there is an ocean of methods, as anyone who is even remotely interested in this area knows), I chose to experiment first using a simple yet elegant method to at least capture what my team members could articulate about their own Strengths and Weaknesses: a personal SWOT analysis. (https://www.mindtools.com/pages/videos/personal-swot-transcript.htm).

 

So what were my first observations at that point?

On the positive side:

  • the process to identify team members’ strengths this way took longer with some people than others, simple due to my varying ability to draw out the right questions (one contributing insight that eventually lead to this blog)
  • it became apparent, despite its simplicity (and some would say lack of sophistication), the SWOT analysis was useful. It helped to ‘rediscover’ that some people would work really better on a technical/functional path, than for example people engagement or change management.
  • I formed the working hypothesis at that point (and after sharing my approach with peer professionals) that using any established method of discovery is usually better than none and will yield good basic results when applied with intent and consistency (this could be SWOT, StrengthsFinder, MBTI, Disc, Hogan, <add 20 more assessments here>).

However:

  • I realized that the quality of the SWOT result was directly dependent on my own skill as an ‘interrogator’. Creating a trusting environment and asking the right questions depends on individual skill. I probably did some things right and other things wrong, but concrete positive results were evident. However, I never lost the feeling that I left potential on the floor, given I mostly relied on my own intuition.
  • The resulting language of strengths and weaknesses was ‘variable’ to say the least and widely non-transferable and difficult to explain to others without lengthy elaboration. Again, it depends on one’s ability to find the right words and accurately self-reflect.

So while being effective on some (for me personally just acceptable) level, having gone through the SWOT process had left me with two main thoughts:

This can’t be it.

There must be a better (and even standardized) way to describe people’s talents and thoughts.


My First Contact with StrengthsFinder was actually a disappointment.

Two years ago, in a team workshop, the HR leadership team that I was part of was first exposed to the StrengthsFinder tool. Strengthsfinder is a web-based talent assessment tool that was developed by the Gallup organisation on the basis of decades of their own research in personal development and positive psychology. Anyone can actually go and take the survey for 15 USD on www.gallupstrengthscenter.com, without getting a coach or additional support. As I experienced though right away, the lasting effect of a lack of personalized coaching on the result makes the whole effort quite pointless.

The coach assigned to our team let us do this (to me unknown then) psychometric assessment, which struck a nerve with me right away in the beginning.

Suddenly, I had a standardized vocabulary to put in words why (for example) I always got up hours ahead of the rest of my family to study (my top number one talent theme came up as Learner to confirm that trait)or why I naturally strive to understand and value individual’s needs (my third talent theme was recognized as Individualization) or why I always have to finish books in an excruciatingly slow way, extracting every last bit of info and knowledge out of them (my fourth talent theme is Maximizer).

 

Why was it only small? The effect faded away very fast. And as is so often, the Strengthsfinder report created some ‘Ohhh’s and ‘Ahhh’s, a trickle of initial reflection and plenty of group amusement in the leadership team, but then quickly found its permanent place somewhere in a shelf, where it was never looked at again.

That included me.

I have reflected on this. Why did it not work with longer effect? My take on it:

  • While the group workshop sections that built on the Strengthsfinder assessment were interesting, they fell short of explaining the results properly on an individual level. For example, people simply equated the top 5 as their Strengths (which is a wrong and damaging shortcut, I’ll explain in a moment). The fact that we have to now find dedicated ways to invest in our identified talents was not apparent.
  • There was no time for building individual comprehension of the terminology in an adequate way. The 34 talent themes flooded onto us at once and it was too much in too short time.
  • Most crucially, once the workshop ended, the use of the talent theme results was zero and follow-ups were not happening (especially through leadership). Coaches know this element as the crucial step to build accountability in a client to take further behavior change.

So what happened was unfortunately typical for psychometric assessments and delivery of many workshops in the industry. A lot of money (and workshop time) is spent, the tool is administered, it creates a short buzz and flicker of insight and engagement, but then fades away, as everyone gets back to the ‘real’ world and is just too occupied to find ways to connect the assessment results to their actual challenges.

What an unnecessary waste for all involved.

But as you can tell, this was not the end of it and Strengthsfinder had a second chance with me.


Taking a leap of faith

Earlier that year (2015), I was at a juncture. Accept that my corporate department would largely move from Singapore to Australia and try to get a role there? Or should I accept that my role would not exist in Singapore anymore and be made redundant here?

Eventually, the latter choice was the natural and surprisingly straightforward one due to convincing family reason here at home in Singapore.  It was then that I took the ime to figure out what could be next. It struck me quickly that aside from the exciting functional journey I went through over the past 10 years, the most rewarding aspect of my work were the constant opportunities to mentor and coach people in my team and beyond, especially the Aha moments created through using a Strengths approach in my early experiments.

The SWOT experience above let me have a second serious look at Strengthsfinder as a tool and I found I might have done the method injustice. Being still recognized as the best-established tool for a strengths-based approach I chose to become certified, if only to criticize the tool with credibility and move on to something else if it did not work out at last. I met up with the Gallup organization in Singapore, ask them some tough questions and took the leap of faith to invest in their almost 10k SGD certification program that lead to me becoming a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach in June 2015. Finally, I had a toolkit to work with.


Was it worth it?

Fast Forward 6 months – my early and honest opinions on Strengthsfinder as a practicing coach

What are my early reflections on the Strengthsfinder assessment, method and delivery after having coached individuals and groups for a while?

  • The tool is surprisingly accurate. I have in the past years consistently been given feedback of being too logical and questioning at times. Even after taking the certification program, my full endorsement for Strengthsfinder took a while to brew and only after seeing the results first hand. A few dozen times of coaching showed how neatly and consistently it describes a coaching client’s way of behaving. A peer coach once described it to me as an ‘almost crazy and wonderful advantage one has’ just by knowing those 5 words standing for their top talent themes. The report has become a shortcut to lead into a coaching conversation much deeper and faster than the normal questioning way.
  • Gallup does not like to say it much, but I do it here. “Strengthsfinder” is a nice name that is easy to market and to make the product accessible to people. ‘Strengths’ sounds great and that is fair enough. However, what it is, in fact, is a Talent-finder, where Talent is defined as our “most natural thoughts, feelings and behaviors that can be productively applied”. In no way are talents automatically Strengths and this is the most common misconception about the tool and assessment takers who don’t get coaching support will have a hard time finding out about that. Strengthsfinder helps people figure out what their most likely sources of potential strengths are. And it’s then up to the client to find out how mature they are in actually using the power inherent in them.
  • Without a coach, the Strengthsfinder report will in 99% of all cases be folded and stored away, having been a waste of time and investment. Here my opinion is also different to Gallup. While they propagate a vision where ‘1 billion or more people will take Strengthsfinder in the coming years’, I would only be happy with ‘1 billion or more people to take and understand their Strengthsfinder results in the coming years’. The difference is incredibly important to me. Nothing much is gained in my view if 1 billion people take the assessment and only 10 million of those then actually benefit from it with any lasting effect. I have already done enough coaching sessions to know that people will take very little from just reading the assessment results (if they read it at all, after going through the somewhat strenuous 177 question pairs). Reflecting with a trained coach (even a short as 1h) however consistently creates this exciting moment of insight and ‘Aha’.
  • One last word on why Strengthsfinder, why not MBTI, why not any other assessment? As I said above, I believe that most of the assessment types out there have their place and use and applying any of them to an individual who has never done one before in their life will be meaningful to a certain degree. It is beyond that minimum level of insight that the different assessments play out their strengths (pun intended). I chose Strengths Coaching (and Strengthsfinder as the most prominent assessment type in that field) because I believe it is the best tool available at the moment to figure out quickly and reliably what the natural extremes in someone’s unique personality are, so they can be leveraged from. It also suits my personal style as a coach very well.


Strengths Discovery as a profession


I am incredibly fortunate to have found a business partner during the Gallup certification program who shares my exact vision. Where are we now?

We have founded our very own company ‘Strengths Discovery Pte. Ltd.’ in Singapore in June 2015 which is an embodiment of our shared idea to help people answer that initial tough question ‘What are you really good at?’. So to get back to the start of this post: How do we finally get people to answer that question?

Well, we help people figure out what they are naturally good at, using Gallup’s Strengthsfinder assessment and a focused Strengths Coaching approach. This way we give people a recognized and easy language to describe their own natural ways to think, feel and behave. We will then use that insight to invest in and develop their strengths, so they are equipped to face personal and work challenges.

It is really exciting to do this for a living now. Thanks for all the well wishes over the past months and support that got us here!

Best,
Maik

Some bonus: Our own-produced flyers!