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Putting Your Strengths to Work

written by Jeremy McCarthy 9 November 2010

Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP '09, is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. Jeremy's blog is The Psychology of Wellbeing, and he teaches courses and offers a free webinar on Positive Leadership. He has also authored the book, The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing: A Guide to the Science of Holistic Healing. Like The Psychology of Wellbeing on Facebook or follow Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremycc). Full bio. Jeremy's articles are here.

To the Rescue

To the Rescue

OK, so you’ve taken the VIA Survey to determine your character strengths.  And after reading one (or several) of Tom Rath’s books on strengths and leadership, you’ve taken the Strengthsfinder 2.0 test to get another perspective on what your strengths are. You’ve even done the Myers Briggs Type Indicator to find out your personality type.

You are finally ready to use this new-found self-knowledge to turn your job into your calling.  But you may still be scratching your head and wondering, how do I do it?

Now What?

This is precisely the question that Marcus Buckingham answers in his book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work.  According to Buckingham, the tests described above give you valuable information, but they don’t really tell you everything you need to know to start applying your strengths in your every day life.  In fact, he argues that the tests above don’t really tell you your strengths at all; they tell you your talents.

The Composition of a Strength

Talents are innate abilities that each of us has, but that vary from individual to individual.  Talents are an important part of the strengths that we use every day, but they do not tell the whole picture.  In addition to talents, which are fairly stable over the course of a person’s lifetime, people also have skills and knowledge, which are developed as people learn and grow through practice and study.  According to Buckingham’s definition, a strength comes when someone determines the highly specific actions and circumstances where use of talents, skills, and knowledge leads to behavior that is energizing and successful.

Obviously, the word strength can be used in many different ways,and so it’s pointless to debate the semantics. However there is tremendous value in analyzing and clarifying the specific instances where your strengths come into play.  I have been doing strengths workshops with hotel and spa employees, and while it is one thing to identify their top strengths or talents by using a standardized test, it is quite another to get them to identify their strengths in action.  No one is better than the individual at determining what a strength in action looks like, because only the individual knows how it feels in that moment.      

What about Weaknesses?     

Heart of Quartz 6

Heart of Quartz 6

In my training programs, the idea is not to ignore weaknesses, but to spend a little time really focusing on our strengths and how to do more of what we do well.  Because we tend to be biased towards the negative, we sometimes forget to do that.  But ignoring weaknesses would be creating a new bias that would be equally unhealthy. 

Buckingham addresses weaknesses in his book in a healthy way.  He provides tools to help determine your dominant weaknesses, that is, the ones that are really getting in your way.  He calls them your Kryptonite, referring to the substance that sapped Superman’s strength.  He suggests focusing on those and then not worrying much about lesser weaknesses because, “Frankly, this time would be far better spent figuring out how to free up one of your strengths.” 

A Gradual Approach to Improvement 

Buckingham’s book includes a series of exercises that people can use to get more clarity around their strengths and their weaknesses. It also provides tips for applying that knowledge in the workplace.  Like Tom Rath in his book on Wellbeing (both Rath and Buckingham began their research working at Gallup,) Buckingham focuses on small incremental improvements rather than instant transformation.  The question to ask is, “How can I play to my strengths a little more this week than I did last week?”  Those incremental improvements, week after week, are the steps that can craft a job into a calling.

For more on this book, see Kathryn Britton’s excellent review, Using Strengths When You Work

Next Week in DC
Marcus Buckingham will be the keynote speaker next week at the annual conference of the International Spa Association in Washington D.C.  I’ll be sitting near the front–if you can make it, come say hello.


References and Recommended Reading:

Buckingham, M (2007). Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance. NY: Free Press.

Buckingham, Marcus, (2009). Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently. Thomas Nelson.

Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.

Rath, T. & Harter, J. (2010).  Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements.  Gallup Press.

Rath, T. & Conchie, B. (2009). Strengths-Based Leadership. New York: Gallup Press.

To the Rescue! courtesy of Tommy Huynh

Heart of Quartz 6 courtesy of Howard Dickins

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Dan Bowling 9 November 2010 - 7:22 pm

Good article Jeremy. I think the Gallup measures and the VIA are a good blend when using with companies, coaching clients – heck, anybody. They are related and different at the same time- the first involves talents, as you point out, the second something a little deeper. I like to do an exercise where the client draws lines connecting the top strengths from each measure (probably picked that up from one of you on this message board). I am finding – anecdotally – that the Gallup tends to resonate better with younger corporate types, the VIA (given its reflective tonality) more with very senior executives. I would be interested in your – and others – thoughts on this.

By the way I gave a keynote not long ago and referenced the work of the strikingly handsome Buckingham. I put his picture on the screen, and as people sighed with disappointment that it was I standing there instead of young Marcus, the host noted how much cheaper I am!


Jeremy McCarthy 9 November 2010 - 8:57 pm

Thanks Dan, I think that’s an interesting point about the age differences on reception of these strengths tests. I think the VIA is the most conceptual which can make it more difficult to connect to every-day-real-world activities. I have had people question, “what does my capacity to love and be loved have to do with how I do my job.” I’ve found there is always an answer to that question (i.e. there is a direct link) but it takes some effort to get there. What I like about Buckingham is he teaches how to move away from the ethereal/categorical strengths of VIA towards identifying the specific activities that a person does on a day to day basis that are energizing and fulfilling. I am giving a workshop on this tomorrow morning to a group of hotel managers (this will be part two, they already did the VIA in part one,) so I will let you know how it goes!

p.s. Buckingham is a good looking guy, but he doesn’t have your Southern charm!

RJ Johnson - 21st Century Appreciative Inquiry 10 November 2010 - 10:12 am

I have taken the VIA Survey and it was definitely me. My biggest challenge however is just keeping my strengths/values in front of me throughout the day. I wrote a post about this, http://21stcenturyappreciativeinquiry.com/innovations/ignite-your-values-and-spread-the-fire/ and if you have time, would be interested in your feedback.
Best regards,
RJ Johnson

Kathryn Britton 10 November 2010 - 10:19 am

Your comment about Love and Be Loved reminds me of two earlier articles, one by Tan Yee-Ming (Might as Well Use Them if You’ve Got Them) where she helps an executive understand how he uses his VIA strengths, particularly in customer contacts, and another by Margaret Greenberg, Using the “L” Word in Business.

It also makes me think of the research reported by Chris Peterson, that West Point was surprised to discover that the only VIA strength that was highly correlated with instructor judgments of leadership ability was … Love and Be Loved.

Ah well!

Katie Manning 10 November 2010 - 11:46 am

I enjoyed reading your article. I have taken the VIA and found it interesting to recognize my strengths and come up with ways to better apply them. I agree that it is best not to ignore weaknesses, however, I am not quite sure how to address them. You mentioned that Buckingham provides tools to identify dominant weaknesses, but does he explain how to improve upon those weaknesses?

Thank you,

Katie Manning

Jeremy McCarthy 10 November 2010 - 2:33 pm

Hi RJ, great article. I agree, half the battle is building awareness of strengths on an ongoing basis. I am enjoying seeing the cumulative effects on the hotel teams I am working on as the strengths become more and more a part of their language. One of the things I like about the VIA (and you give some other reasons on your blog,) is that it uses every day language that anyone can get. You practically have to have a pHd in Pscyhology to understand what ENFP is in Myers-Briggs, but if I tell you my top strengths are gratitude and humor, you can get that right away.

Jeremy McCarthy 10 November 2010 - 2:38 pm

Thanks Kathryn, great links! people think of Love as an emotion and the workplace as an emotion free zone. One of the things I like about Tony Hsieh from Zappos (whom I wrote about previously here and on my blog,) is that he talks about people being who they really are at work and not some robotic worker version of themselves. Encouraging people to express and use their emotions at work can help them to use their strengths.

Jeremy McCarthy 10 November 2010 - 2:41 pm

Thanks Katie, Buckingham does offer some tips for dealing with weaknesses including 1) stop doing the activity 2) team up with someone else who has that strength 3) offer up a strength (so that you become more valuable for your strengths and the need to force you to use your weaknesses becomes less, and 4) change the way you think about your weakness. another thing I’ve heard people say with the VIA survey is to think about how you can use your strengths to bolster a weakness. I hope that gives you some ideas to consider. If you get a copy of the book he provides specifics around those steps above. Thanks, J

Oz 10 November 2010 - 3:05 pm

Jeremy – I prefet a pesonality profile such as MBTI – it gives you lots more information than the VIA or strengthsfinder.

Jeremy McCarthy 11 November 2010 - 9:04 am

Thanks Oz. The MBTI is a fantastic tool for those who have studied it and have adequate training. But the VIA allows people to immediately understand and begin discussing their strengths with no time investment in training. And weeks later they will still know and understand what their strengths are. People who really know the MBTI (which also has a lot more research around it,) have a wealth of information they can apply. But it is not nearly as user friendly for the uninitiated.

RJ Johnson - 21st Century Appreciative Inquiry 11 November 2010 - 10:20 am

What have the hotel people done to make the language of strengths more of their daily vocabulary? I realize that it takes time. I am just wondering if the steps have been pre-planned or more or less just arose.
Best regards,
RJ Johnson

Senia 14 November 2010 - 4:31 am

Hi Jeremy,

Completely agree with your point re: Tony Hsieh and Zappos that letting people express emotions at work is fabulous.

I’m also interested in RJ’s recent question.

I can tell you that in academia, there are some professors that do use strengths concepts, and it’s invigorating! For example, one professor asks goes around the room and ask students what they liked about an article or paper before the discussion turns to how to make it better.


Scott Asalone 18 November 2010 - 7:10 am

Thanks. Timely article and a good reason for me to reread Buckingham’s book. Over the past two weeks I’ve facilitated three workshops and two national conference calls on strengths. Both the for-profit and non-profit organizational managers love the focus on strengths, but want to know how to use it.

Two exercises I find very useful are mapping strengths to daily tasks and differentiating between “what” strengths and “how” strengths. Mapping is suggested in one of the Gallup books and just involves writing down what you do during the day and mapping strengths to the tasks to see how you can do them better, enjoy them more, or highligh your strengths while doing it. Additionally I have people pair up in dyads and coach each other where they can use their strengths even more. They always come up with amazing stuff.

Also, what I’ve found particularly helpful is seperating the “what” strengths (tasks, jobs) from the “how” strengths. Most of us can quickly assess the tasks we do well, i.e. presentation skills, accounting, leading meetings and the more we develop these the more successful we will be. Both the VIA and StrenthsFinder focus on the “how” strengths, i.e. how I do things well. These are more applicable to all of the tasks that I have to perform in a day, so as an achiever I can create lists to get even the most odious tasks accomplished. I find that this differentiation helps managers to identify both the what and how strengths to develop. It also allows them to start assisting their employees immediately since the “what” strengths are much more visible to them.

So, just a few ways I’ve found to make the strengths idea real to managers. Thanks for the article and enjoy the conference.

Jeremy McCarthy 18 November 2010 - 2:19 pm

Scott thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom about working with strengths. I think you should expand your comment into an article on its own as it is clear that you have much you could share about the practical applications of strengths psychology in the workplace. I learned a couple of things from your comment. Thank you.

RJ Johnson - 21st Century Appreciative Inquiry 22 November 2010 - 8:07 am

I second Jeremy’s request for an article about helping people better apply their strengths at work. There needs to be more written in this great area.
Best regards,
RJ Johnson

Editor K.H.B. 22 November 2010 - 9:43 am

Hey Scott, I third the idea. We’d love to have an article from you. Be in touch.


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