Capitalizing on Your Strengths

Best-selling author Marcus Buckingham is back with a new book advising people to focus on what they do best -- complete with a test to uncover your talents

It all starts with your first unsatisfactory mark in kindergarten. From then on, most people devote tons of time and effort to correcting their weaknesses. People who sweat at the sight of a podium take classes to become better public speakers. Stiff managers take leadership workshops to learn to be more in tune with their staffs.

Marcus Buckingham has two words for these people: Don't bother. The best-selling co-author of First, Break all the Rules is back with a sequel -- Now, Discover Your Strengths (The Free Press, January, 2001) -- that's based on a simple premise: You're never going to excel at what you do worst, so focus your energies instead on improving what you already do well.


  Aloof managers, for example, won't ever be truly great empathizers because they aren't hardwired with this talent -- and their efforts to improve are damage control, not development, argues Buckingham with co-author Donald O. Clifton. Rather than worry about that, they argue, find ways to "manage around" your flaws.

Fact is, many people are so fixated on their weaknesses that they take their talents for granted. One way to identify those, the book suggests, is to take note of your spontaneous reactions. Think of the last time you attended a party where you didn't know many guests, the book recommends. Did you seek out new faces -- the sign of an extrovert -- or hang around with your close friends? By analyzing ourselves this way, the authors argue, we get closer to detecting our talents.

Buckingham and Clifton, who are affiliated with opinion researcher Gallup Organization, base their opinions on 30 years' worth of Gallup interviews with 2 million people. From those, Buckingham and Clifton have developed 34 "themes" they say define human talent. Each theme represents a personality type -- the person who looks for agreement, or who's inquisitive, or who takes charge, and so on. All of us, the authors assert, exhibit some combination of these themes.


  To make it easy to I.D. that combo, the authors devised a 180-question personality test that identifies a person's five dominant themes. Each book jacket is stamped with a 14-digit code you use to take the "StrengthsFinder Profile" test on the Web. The site asks for loads of optional demographic information, such as occupation, race, and education, for research use. If enough people answer honestly, Buckingham and Clifton could decipher which themes are common among health-care professionals, sales managers, or other groups.

The test has no right or wrong answers. Each question consists of two statements, and you have 20 seconds to choose which either "strongly" or "moderately" describes you -- or to adopt a neutral position if neither fits. The authors didn't want to skew the results by making the choices obvious, so most of the paired statements aren't polar opposites. One pair reads "I organize. I analyze," while another is "I like contests. I like to work." (See BW Online, 02/05/01, "The Personality Test that Outed Our Reporter.")

After the test has pinpointed your top five themes, you go back to the book and read a detailed description of each -- Zodiac signs for business people. Those who share a Strategic theme sort through the clutter to find the best course of action. Those with a strong Fairness theme root for the underdog and hate to see someone get promoted just because of who they know.


  It's great to know what you're good at, but it doesn't matter much if you can't draw on those talents at work. According to Gallup research, only 20% of employees in large organizations strongly believe they're given the opportunity to do what they do best every day at work. So Buckingham and Clifton devote their final discussion to advising managers on how to capitalize on the strengths of their employees.

Their message is simple: Ditch the cookie-cutter management style. Understand each person, and tailor your approach accordingly, using the advice in the book. While some of the tips might help, others are a trifle odd. To oversee someone with a strong empathetic streak, for instance, the book advises that managers "pay attention but do not overreact when he cries. Tears are a part of his life."

The book also provides a four-step process for building "strengths-based" organizations. That nontrivial pursuit involves changing how a company hires, measures, trains, and nurtures its employees. Actually, it's more like a 20-step process -- and it's easy to forget which step you're on. For example, creating a hiring system that's based on strengths -- step one in the four-step process -- has five steps of its own.


  Still, you'll find useful nuggets. One involves career development. Everyone craves prestige, which usually comes in the form of a promotion. A great reporter becomes an editor, a salesperson becomes a sales manager. Trouble is, the authors argue, people are often promoted into roles that don't fit their strengths. They may have a better title on their business card -- and earn more -- but they aren't doing what they're best at.

Buckingham and Clifton propose that organizations change their titles and pay structures so employees are rewarded for top performances in roles most suited to them. Why can't the very best store manager have a senior title at the company? they ask. Why can't the top-selling customer-service rep make 40% more than an average one? If rising labor costs are a worry, the authors add, companies could link the extra pay to performance.

And what about those flaws that undermine top performance? That's where "managing around" a weakness comes in. You can try to get a little better at it, the book suggests, or you can lean on someone else for help: A numbers-challenged entrepreneur, for instance, could seek out an accountant. Or if all else fails, just stop trying to change. Admit you're never going to correct a particular weakness, and move on.

By Jennifer Gill in New York