Why Focusing on Strengths is Good for Business
Research shows that organizations that, and people who, intentionally focus on their assets, strengths, and opportunities as a counterbalance to the natural tendencies to identify and solve “problems” are much more effective organizations. For example, for-profit enterprises that cultivate employees’ strengths, rather than work on fixing employees’ deficiencies, see gains in sales, profit, customer engagement, employee engagement, reduced turnover, and workplace safety (1).
What is Strengths-Based Leadership?*
Strengths-based leadership is a way of “being” in an organization that positively explores existing strengths and actively seeks opportunities to build upon those strengths.
Legendary business guru Peter Drucker famously said, “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”
Developing a strengths-based mindset, therefore, causes us to look at our work, our co-workers, our teams, our company, and our industry in a new way. Today, as organizations learn to survive in an evermore complex world, new competencies are are becoming more valuable. Technical knowledge, a focus on results, and personal drive are foundational but insufficient to thrive in a modern organization. Employees now need to help accelerate the business by developing relationships across functional areas of the business, collaborating with people who they may never meet in person, and working on teams with people who represent a range of races, gender identities, backgrounds, cultures, and points of view. To further maximize impact in an increasingly complex business world, employees must be resilient and focused on their own growth while delivering results.
What does it look like in real life?
For most of us, our job is to look for – and fix – gaps, shortfalls, missed targets, system failures, or inefficiencies. One of the most important findings from strengths-based research is that when people look for problems…they find them! Humans tend to believe a story that’s repeated over and over. So, when we repeatedly hear a message like, “we’re not hitting our numbers,” we go into a narrowly-focused mode where we “fix” the problem in order to hit the number. Of course, we all want to hit our numbers. But, the acute focus limits our peripheral vision. We don’t see or remember all the times the company has hit its numbers. With a deficit-based perspective, we can forget that we’re good at this already—that we may already have the resources we need, and that the brainpower is already there. A strengths-based approach would turn the question on its head and ask: “What was happening when we achieved our most profitable quarter? Who was involved? How did we communicate with each other to get those results?”
Isn’t this overly optimistic and unrealistic?
During the Camber Outdoors webinar, participants asked if focusing on strengths and not problems could come across as soft or un-businesslike. Strengths-based and problem-oriented perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Businesses always have “problems” that need to be solved, but reframing a situation through the lens of possibility gives teams more hope, optimism, and energy to develop solutions in innovative and efficient ways. Research shows that when people feel like they are contributing to an organization’s overall purpose, they spend more time on a challenge and come up with better solutions. However, when people are disconnected from the purpose and feel like they’re “cogs in a machine,” they tend to deliver the minimum effort to “solve the problem.”
How is this connected to Camber Outdoors’ mission?
Camber Outdoors exists to advance women’s leadership in the active-outdoors industries. It would be easy to focus on the fact that companies are “not there yet” when it comes to fair and equitable workplaces for all employees. Alternatively, Camber Outdoors prefers to focus on “what does good look like?” The organization understands that companies are unique, and the definition of progress may vary from one to the next. Camber Outdoors encourages member companies—particularly those that sign the CEO Pledge—to take an honest look at themselves, discover bright spots, articulate a clear vision for the ideal workplace of the future, set challenging and achievable goals, and work hard to achieve them.
What can I do?
1) Develop a strengths-based practice for yourself and your team. All change starts with the individual, and organizational change is really coordination of aligned individual change. You can start by observing the language in your meetings. Are people using deficit- or strengths-based language? You can also reframe questions you ask your team by using strengths-based language yourself. For example, instead of asking, “Why did we fall short of…,” reframe it as: “Let’s think of a time when we really were at our best as a team. What was happening? What made it work so well?”
2) Find the positive change-makers in your company. In every organization, there are people who approach challenges in new ways and who are also successful. These people are genuinely excited about the opportunity to dig in and get creative. Sit in on their meetings, include them on one of your teams, or build relationships with them in other ways. Observe how they think about the obstacles in front of them. Exposure to new ways of thinking will help you and your team be more open to a range of ideas, perspectives, and experiences.
3) Activate your Camber Outdoors membership. If your company is a member of Camber Outdoors, you have access to Camber Outdoors tools, resources, and events. Become part of a community committed to positive workplace change. Together, we can create outstanding active-outdoor industries for all.
* As part of its webinar series, Camber Outdoors presented strengths-based leadership as an organizational approach in an April 2018 webinar. The webinar was facilitated by Deborah Levine, a global CHRO at Brightstar, who has implemented strengths-based approaches in her company, and Cindy Feinauer, Custom Business Head at Specialized Bike Components, who leads in this way every day.
The topic of strengths-based approaches to leadership is commonly associated with the StrengthsFinder individual assessment developed by Don Clifton and Tom Rath at The Gallup Organization. However, there is also an expansive body of research that studies strengths-based implementation and impact at the organizational level.
(1) Rigoni, Brandon Ph.D. and Jim Asplund. “Developing Employees’ Strengths Boosts Sales, Profit, and Engagement”. Harvard Business Review. September 01, 2016 https://hbr.org/2016/09/developing-employees-strengths-boosts-sales-profit-and-engagement