Now, Discover Your Strengths

By: Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D.



“A great organisation must not only accommodate the fact that each employee is different, it must capitalist on this difference”. So decrees Marcus Buckingham co-author of “First, Break all the Rules”.

Together with his co-author Donald O Clifton, he claims that rather than focus on addressing the weaknesses of our teams, we need to exploit their talents and turn them into strengths that we can exploit. Join us for the next 12 minutes to find out the reasons behind this conviction.

Lesson #1: The Structure of Strength

Only 20% of employees working in large organisations feel their strengths are being utilised every day. Even more concerning is that, the longer they stay with a company the more entrenched this feeling becomes. This goes back to what Buckingham stated in his earlier book, First Break All The Rules. Organisations are built on two false premises:

We can all become competent in anything, and our growth potential is our biggest weakness.

With a false focus on what we cannot do, we spend little or no time on what we can do better. Buckingham believes great managers do the opposite: They recognise that each person’s talents are unique and they see this as the key area for growth. So what is a strength? Buckingham gives the following definition: consistent, near perfect performance in an activity.

Ponder this. What do you do that is near perfect, everytime? To discover our strengths, Buckingham suggests we need to understand how to differentiate our natural talents from what we can learn.

Firstly, talent is a pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour. It’s our lens.

Secondly, what we can learn – knowledge – is the lens of someone else. To create strength we need to be able to separate the two perspectives then pull them together into one: the associated skill.

Strengths = Talent + knowledge + skill

Although it’s possible to develop strength without full knowledge or skill (often described as being a natural) it's never possible to fully possess a strength without talent. Let’s look at each ingredient in a bit more detail.

Lesson #2: Knowledge in Two Parts

There are two kinds of knowledge:

Factual knowledge – data, statistics, facts, truths.

The second type of knowledge is experiential. It’s knowing – as a child – not to touch a hot stove after having burned fingers. It’s knowing that a good relationship with a VP’s secretary can increase access.

To discover our strengths we need to acquire both types of knowledge, complementing each with the other. Skills bring structure to experiential knowledge. Eventually, having exploited the experience and its benefits, we are likely to formalise this into a repeatable series of steps and actions - a skill.

Skills enable us to avoid trial and error and to embed the best actions into our normal behaviour. If you learn a skill it will help you get a little better... but it will never turn into a strength without the third ingredient: talent.

Buckingham defines a talent as a repetitive collection of thoughts or feelings that can be used to deliver a beneficial outcome. If you are competitive, it’s a talent. If you are persistent, it’s a talent. If you are obstinate, it’s a talent.

Yes even negative traits, if relevant to the position, can be talents. Every day at work we have decisions to make and talents dominate this decision making. We are not able to externalise every decision we make in a day. Our talents are our brains natural connections – what we do without thinking.

That’s why teaching a skill to someone will never have the same success as someone who has the talent. Our talents are hidden within our natural reactions and are therefore hard to detect and define. To pinpoint talents therefore, we need to look at ourselves in a different way.

Lesson #3: Signposts to Strengths

As we’ve identified, talent is a key component of strength. So to find our strengths we must first find our talents. Buckingham suggests we should monitor our spontaneity. How we react to the situations and challenges around us reveals the source of what we do “naturally” and how we handle things.

Buckingham also suggests we consider our yearnings. If given the choice, what would we do? Yearnings pinpoint our underlying drive: no matter how much we may be kept apart, we return to these preferences.

Another way of identifying talent is to consider your learning outcomes. What have we studied, practiced or have been coached that we were able to pick up quickly? If we look at fast learning, there must have been something behind its rapid attainment: probably talent.

Finally Buckingham suggests we look at our satisfactions. What do we do at work that gives us the most pleasure? What is the underlying practice behind the reward? What makes us happy at work? Behind these satisfactions will be a latent talent – the foundation to future fulfilment.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb. If you are doing something and are thinking how much longer will it take – this is not talent based. On the other hand if you are thinking how can you do this again – then a talent is present.

Lesson #4: Snags to Succeeding With Strengths

No matter where you live in the world there is one common thing that gets in the way of success: our weaknesses and the underlying belief that we should focus on their elimination. For many of us, the fear of our weaknesses significantly overshadows our confidence in our strengths. Many of us may put this down to ego control: we don’t want to appear egoistic by “begging” up our strengths. We may also be reluctant to promote our strengths because we think they are not much to write about.

Instead, as in a resume for a job, we stress what we think the audience would like to hear. What we must do is remove ourselves from this internalised lens and visualise our capabilities from outside: and see ourselves as others see us. If our weaknesses has some relevance to our work, we need to identify if it is a skills weakness, knowledge weakness or talent weakness and then come up with a remedial plan. Here are Buckingham’s resolution strategies:

  1. Get a little better at it. If we can move one or two steps closer to competency each time we come across the weakness, then eventually that weakness will disappear.
  2. Design a support system. Find a system that stops you worrying about your weakness — and free up your time to practice and exploit your strengths.
  3. Use a strength to counter a weakness. Are you more efficient in the morning? Do you have difficulty in making decisions? A strength and a weakness. Put them together and make decisions in the morning – strength wins, weakness loses. Whatever our weakness we are likely to have a strength that can overcome the deficiency and erase it from our day.
  4. Find a partner. Are you good at analysis but poor at presenting the findings? Find a partner that is the opposite: poor at analysis and good at presenting. The partner may likely exist within your work-environment, or they could be external. Becoming Yin to the other’s Yang makes a win-win for both parties.
  5. Stop. Stop getting involved with the weakness. Ask the question – “Do I really need to be doing this?” Give the responsibility to someone else. This might seem defeatist, but in many cases the whole action is liberating and gives a boost to focus more on strengths.

Lesson #5: Building a Strength Based Organisation

There is great benefit to building up our own strengths. Now imagine if everyone in our organisation could play to theirs too. Buckingham believes this is the differentiator for organisations. Since each person’s talents are everlasting, we should spend a great amount of time and effort in finding strength holders in the first place, rather than recruiting those without and hoping training can deliver. Buckingham suggests we should build a strengths based hiring system. Here’s how:

  1. We need to build our selection system around an instrument for identifying talent. This may be some form of psychometric test – or even Buckingham’s own “Strengths Finder” system (you’ll need to read the book in full to discover its findings). Used properly, it is a consistent benchmark for evaluation and comparison.
  2. We need to calibrate our system by studying our best performers. Here we are taking the generic model and personalities and making them specific to the needs of our organisation. There may be some personalities we must have, and others we don’t need. This is unique to our organisations.
  3. We need to teach the language of talent throughout our organisation. When people talk of staffing needs they should use a common language attuned to the system.
  4. We need to build a theme profile for our entire organisation. What does a company person look like? We can all recognise the characteristics of a Southwest Airlines staffer. Can we do the same for our own company?

After all of this effort, we need to ensure its upkeep by aligning our performance metrics to talent. We need to figure out the right way to measure the desired performance. Buckingham suggests we refer to the twelve outcomes covered in “First, Break All the Rules” as a good benchmark. We covered these in an earlier summary, and it’s worth a re-read.

Secondly, we need to introduce a performance scorecard for every employee. Why? Despite strengths being individual, we still need common controls and assessment to ensure efficiency. By having a balanced scorecard for each employee we can assure we address each of the areas that provide the biggest impact. Finally, we need to ensure strengths are the focus on every employee/supervisor discussion. A permanent focus on strengths ensures we don’t fall back into the weakness mitigation trap.