I believe that a core component of leading people is to understand and leverage their strengths. Everyone has parts of their job they are good at and parts they aren’t. Knowing the parts they are good at and figuring out how to use that strength is important. Let me give an example.

At a former company, we had an ERP system that would have a data glitch once in a while. These problems often originated in our data, but required a lot of digging to find the problem. Help Desk personnel would go back and forth with the end users trying to track down the problem.

On rare occasions, one of the team, Alice, would get pulled into the bad data glitches. She would dive in and figure out the answer quickly. Like a scuba diver surfacing after finding buried treasure, she would triumphantly emerge from her office with the solution and an enormous smile on her face. But it wasn’t part of her job duties, so the Help Desk didn’t send them to Alice often.

After a few conversations with the team, I realized not only was Alice good at solving these problems; she was faster than anyone else, better at identifying root cause, and, most importantly, she loved doing it. Finding and resolving that type of problem was very satisfying for her.

So I made the decision that this class of problem was always to go straight to Alice, bypassing the normal help desk process. As a team, we solved this class of problem faster. Alice enjoyed her job more, and the problems became rarer.

Alice had a strength and putting it to use was beneficial to the company, the team, and, of course, Alice.

I have had team members that were great at working with others to resolve process conflicts. Other team members were outstanding at laying out the needed tasks for complicated Change Requests. Still others were great at making sure everyone on the team felt like they belonged. And so forth.

The book First, Break All The Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (Simon & Schuster), was very influential for me early in my management career. It presented the idea, backed up by Gallop Poll business research, that playing to people’s strengths was a much more effective management style.

So how should we think about people’s strengths? How do we go about discovering them?

The straightforward answer is to watch and listen. Watch what they do at work and see where their enthusiasm pops out. Listen to their answer to “How’s it going?” to see what things they talk about.

I found that specific questions can get to the core. For example:

Imagine a great day at work. You feel accomplished. You feel good about what you did today. You really like your job. What did you do?

When you are getting ready to come to work in the morning, what do you hope that you will get to work on?” 

Listen carefully to the answers. Tease out the specifics. For example, I often hear “I like to solve problems.” Follow up with questions to understand the kind of problems, the kind of solutions, what part of the business, or how they solved them. Over time, each person will reveal what they like doing and what they are good at.

We need to ask ourselves these questions as well. As a leader, it is very important to understand what we are good at and what we aren’t. Imagine the end of an upbeat movie where the main character is triumphant. What happens at work to make us feel that way? What is it we did that makes us feel that accomplished?

If we never feel that way, we might want to look closely at our job. It might not be a great fit. That’s true for the team as well. Not everyone is a “jump up and down with happiness” kind of person, but everyone should at least have moments in their job where they feel satisfaction for a task well done. Sometimes we have to listen to the complaints and understand the parts of their job where they feel underappreciated. Maybe that is part of their strength and we haven’t set up the job to give them that satisfaction.

It isn’t possible for any of us to spend every day only doing things that make us feel awesome. That’s why they call it work. Every job has parts of it that don’t thrill us, and maybe even some parts that we actively dislike.

But if we understand what parts make each person feel better about themselves and their job, we can make changes, some subtle, some overt, to leverage their strengths. This results in a stronger department and an increase in job satisfaction and engagement.

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