As I was tracking the World Cup statistics from FIFA.com, I found myself recalling a local soccer match I had watched with my mother a few weeks ago. Based in California, my OD consultant mum was in town for the weekend and accompanied our family to Billings for a state tournament.
We both shook our heads as we witnessed the teenaged girls on the field struggling. A month before we had seen this same team play with success and hold strong against their opponents. “Well,” I remarked, “we’ve both now got a great leadership case study to share.”
This was a set of strong players who played in the fall on a rarely-defeated high school team. Some are fantastically aggressive defensive players, others can run like the wind, and still others have beautiful ball handling skills. Yet, hearing the coach yelling at the girls from the sidelines, I figured she had not gotten the memo on why managing from your team’s strengths is a winning strategy.
As we caught snippets of the coach’s assessment of what the girls were not doing right, I was reminded of a manager from the beginning of my career with IBM. A favorite story whispered around our department recounted when our manager, we’ll call him Bill, began giving one of our senior software developers, Terry, some actions to complete. As Terry listened and mentally noted the “to do’s,” Bill couldn’t stand it. “Pick up the pen, here’s a piece of paper. Now, write this down,” he stammered. That Terry was African American and probably 10 years Bill’s senior made this slight even more inappropriate. Bill was the same manager who asked me if I was going to have children because that might affect if I could continue to be “on the fast track.” Perhaps he missed the interpersonal skills, sharing confidential information and EEO sessions during manager’s training, but we were all quickly looking for ways to escape his leadership.
Tell me long enough I am a bad employee/soccer player/partner and I’ll probably begin to believe you. In contrast, focus on what I am good at and notice how I square my shoulders, show up and perform well.
Strengths-based leadership is the concept of focusing on what team members do well, while giving each the opportunity to improve our skills in other areas. As one high tech sales executive illustrated for me, “A new sales rep will land in my office and say, ‘I can’t write,’ and I have learned to say, ‘Let’s not worry about that now, because I know that you are great on the phone. Focus on selling on the phone, and if you’d like to learn to write better we’ll work on that later.’ By acknowledging everyone’s strengths, I have a top-selling sales team.”
A Gallup survey of more than one million work teams, which also conducted more than 20,000 in-depth interviews with leaders, tracked why participants followed the most important leader in their life. The research uncovered that, ” the most effective leaders are always investing in strengths. In the workplace, when an organization’s leadership fails to focus on individuals’ strengths, the odds of an employee being engaged are a dismal 1 in 11 (9%). But when an organization’s leadership focuses on the strengths of its employees, the odds soar to almost 3 in 4 (73%). When leaders focus on and invest in their employees’ strengths, the odds of each person being engaged goes up eightfold.”
A friend asked me to come into her 5th/6th grade classroom last week to tell a story. When I arrived, one of the 12 year olds looked me right in the eyes and said, “You are the best storyteller.” Another added, “I love when you tell stories.” When my friend hugged me and told the class that I was giving them a wonderful gift by dropping by and that they were so lucky to have me, I thought, “what a contrast to the soccer weekend.” Instead of doubting myself as those teenaged athletes did, I sat up straight and delivered a tale from China as best I’ve ever told it in the past 10 years. I bought their assessment of me, just as we are all prone to do.