Why we coach a strengths-based approach to performance

Jane Counsel, front and centre

In our company, ‘working from your strengths’ is a transformational narrative that we share with all our coaching clients. I want to talk to you about the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ of why we are such advocates of the strengths-based approach to performance. Because if we really want people to be engaged, doing their best work and becoming future-fit, it requires a narrative shift to a strengths culture.

My colleagues and I use the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 (formerly gallup) online self-assessment tool in individual and group coaching. My discussion in this article is based on the extensive research carried out around strengths, as well as personal experience. We also talk to Heidi Somerville, who is Performance Enablement Lead, Group People and Culture, at Coca-Cola Amatil, and Debbie Higgins, who is Group Operations Manager – Events, with Merivale. Heidi and Debbie have both put our strengths approach to work in their professional practice. Heidi tells us:

“It has made a huge difference to the mindset that I bring to my work each day. Rather than being daunted by my weaknesses, I choose to be enabled and empowered by my strengths.” — Heidi Somerville

Why a strengths approach?

Do you remember showing your parents your school report card, with two As, three Bs and a lone D. Put your hand up if they immediately asked you about the D.

That’s the opposite of a strengths-based approach. Similarly in corporate life we tend to spend most of our time fixing our weaknesses in order to succeed. Women, in particular, are socialised to think that they have to continually fix and improve themselves in order to be worthy. The problem with this kind of thinking is that you are never enough.

People who use their strengths everyday are more than three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life and six times more likely to be engaged at work, according to a Harvard Business Review study.

You’ll succeed through strengths, not weaknesses

The fact is, it’s your strengths that will help you succeed. I’m not saying you should ignore the weaknesses, but don’t obsess on them. Manage them, but don’t let them rule your life. The research tells us that when people work from a strengths base, levels of engagement and performance improve dramatically. People feel more confident in their abilities, and want to bring their best self to work every day.

Debbie says that knowing and calling on her strengths has been a confidence and performance booster in a fast-paced business like Merivale.

“You have to be sure of yourself and act. It’s about strengths in action. You need to know and be confident about what you’re good at, know when to pull a lever with the team, and act decisively. Working from my strengths has been great in this regard.” — Debbie Higgins

Why do we need a strengths-based culture?

The culture of your organisation is built on your shared commitments in terms of how you think, act and work together. It’s about ‘how we do things around here’. If an individual can make productivity and engagement gains from a strengths-based approach, imagine what could a whole organisation or team achieve? Heidi says the benefits of this approach are becoming clear at Coca Cola Amatil.

“We know that people who focus on their strengths, are happier, more engaged and perform better, so the question is, why wouldn’t you take a strengths-based approach to organisational culture?” she asked.

When we introduce the language and ideas of strengths more broadly in the organisation, it gives people a shared language, shared ideas and a positive, productive approach. Managers start talking about strengths in performance reviews. Team members start thinking in terms of leveraging the strengths of their team members. And people connect with each other more effectively.

Coaching programs play a role in building strengths

Heidi and Debbie both explored the strengths concept with Executive Central as part of group and individual programs. They are now readily calling on their strengths to enhance their performance at work.

“I’ve recently been promoted to a new role leading the future of Performance Enablement across the Coca-Cola Amatil Group,” Heidi said. “It’s a steep learning curve and one that could very easily feel over-whelming. But each morning, I get up and think about how I’m going to bring my strengths to play in any given situation that arises that day. Honestly, consciously focusing on leveraging my strengths (over focusing on those dreaded weaknesses!) has really changed the game for me, it’s given me the confidence and self-belief that I need to be successful in this role, and in my broader life.”

Debbie said the strengths we identified with her were not a big surprise. “But what did surprise me was how accessible and user-friendly the ideas for using them are – suitable for all types of people,” she said.

“I was put in a new team – Group Operations: Sales & Events – in charge of 72 brands. I was able to confidently and comfortably articulate who and what I am as a team leader. This contributed to accelerating the building of the team, I think. I have ‘discipline’ and ‘responsibility’ as key strengths. I had found that I could get a bit emotionally charged at times, in situations where I felt my integrity was being challenged. Coming to understand my strengths better enabled me to deal with things better in people-operations scenarios.”

Understanding and leveraging your strengths is one thing, and understanding the impact of ‘strengths overplayed’ is another. Debbie said that she now understood that. “When my two strengths of Discipline and Responsibility are overplaying themselves, I can get emotional and now I’m more aware of that and can deal with it,” she said.

Building a strengths-based culture

Heidi said that people who focus on their strengths, are “happier, more engaged and perform better”. So the question is, why wouldn’t you take a strengths-based approach to organisational culture?

“It’s been interesting to watch how engagement around StrengthsFinder has built at Coca-Cola Amatil New Zealand,” Heidi said. “Initially we trialled it with a few teams, but positive word of mouth spread quickly and we are now inundated with teams and individuals wanting to discover their strengths – we can’t ask for better feedback than that.”

Further benefits of a strengths based approach

“We’ve started using a strengths approach in Sales and Events, for manager development,” Debbie said. “My observation so far is that it increases people’s confidence about what they’re good at. It gives people an understanding of where they could improve, and empowers them to ask for help when they need it. Feeling OK to ask for help is really important, and is one element of mental health in the workplace.”

“What I see is a happier, healthier, more engaged workforce and a business that truly supports the positive development of its people,” Heidi said. “At Coca-Cola Amatil New Zealand, we have an engagement score of 82%. We know our people are confident in bringing their whole self to work – including their strengths. I think in a way we’re a showcase for what a strengths-based culture can look like and the results it can deliver.”

Contact Reyna to discuss strengths-based approach to performance.

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