A while back, I saw the great talk by former twitter Director of Engineering David Loftesness, The Engineer-to-Manager Transition, and one thing that stuck with me was his advice to “enhance strengths rather than fixing weaknesses”. A little more research shows that David is not the only one recommending this strategy. Several leadership consultants give similar advice on the topic, and state that employees who know about their strengths, and can use them regularly on their jobs, are more motivated and more productive.
However, most articles I found confine themselves to rather abstract advice. What does “enhancing people’s strengths” practically mean, day to day? I will try an answer in two parts:
- To enhance someone’s strengths, you have to first know these strengths. So, how do you find out about them?
- If you know about someone’s strengths, how can you particularly help them to fully use their strengths?
The easy case
Let us first try to answer the first question: How do you find out about a colleague’s strengths? Well, this should not be particularly hard, provided the other person knows her/his strengths: You can just ask them. A question I regularly ask during one-on-one conversations is: “Do you feel that you can use your strengths in your daily work?” If they say “Yes”, then I can ask them about what these strengths are, and how they use them. If they say “No”, we might have to take action, but the answer still suggests that they have a decent idea what their strengths are.
Finding out about strengths
But imagine Michael, a developer who is unsure of his strong points, or is too shy or modest to name them? In such a case, we can:
- Observe Michael in his daily work to find out how he interacts with others, how others interact with him, what kinds of tasks he prefers or excels at, etc.
- Use a tool like StrengthsFinder (TM) or some personality test like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
- Try to find out from Michael’s nearest team mates what he is really good at. Sometimes, co-workers are aware of a particular strong point of a colleague that was unknown to himself. Maybe Michael is a particular thorough code reviewer, while thinking he was just doing a normal job.
Most software developers I know are pretty good at self-reflection, though, and know their own strengths rather well. But: A little confirmation through a proven personality test can still be informative and create some common ground for further discussion.
Let us try to answer the second question from above: What does it mean, concretely, to enhance a strength somebody has? Let’s stay with Michael for a moment. In my opinion, it can mean two things:
- Providing training to develop and improve Michael’s strength.
- Creating an environment or opportunities where Michael can utilize his strength more than this is currently possible.
These two often go hand in hand: If you follow advice #2 by creating more opportunities for Michael to use his strength, the strength will be developed and refined further. Hence, the training aspect (advice #1) is automatically covered.
Let us look at some (near-)real-world examples:
You notice that Michael is popular among his colleagues. He is always friendly, and everyone feels comfortable around him. Also, he is helpful, patient, and good at explaining. This is exactly the kind of person you want as a mentor to take care of new employees. Go and get him interested in that responsibility! His people skills are Michael’s strength, and you create an opportunity for him to utilize it even more than currently (advice #2). If there is demand for more people managers, check if he is interested in people management, and send him to workshops to develop the required skills (advice #1).
During a 1:1, Clara, a relatively new employee, casually mentions that she realized that your department was not using Foomboo, your ticket workflow tool, to its full potential. Apparently, there are a lot of opportunities for automation. However, nobody seemed to be particularly interested in her suggestions so far. Ask about her suggestions. If they seem promising to you, grant her time to implement them in a test environment, and have her demonstrate them to the team. By doing that, you create space for her to exercise her skills, and use them to the company’s advantage (advice #2).
Carl, a frontend developer, is upset that his colleagues keep disarranging the CSS structures of the application. He sees the bigger picture, beyond the current task at hand, while others fail to do so. Encourage him to give presentations or workshops that explain the CSS architecture, and attend them yourself to demonstrate that what Carl says is important. A more heavyweight intervention would be to promote him into an architect role. (both: advice #2)
Carrie, also a frontend developer, is interested in performance. She delivers code that is pretty efficient, but shies away from educating others about performance. She says she is not sure how to present the topic, or where to start. Send Carrie to a workshop or conference on the topic (advice #1), or free up time for her to educate herself. Then, free her from some responsibilities so she can act as a performance advocate on the team, where she will be responsible for developing and spreading best practices (advice #2).
Permission, interest, encouragement
I think sometimes, promoting strengths is simply about providing permission, interest, or encouragement. Especially new employees are sometimes unsure what they are “allowed” or “not allowed” to spend their work time on. Organizations are complex, and there are a lot of unwritten rules. If they care about some topic and want to improve certain things, they might choose to do it under the radar, or in their spare time.
If you come across this - and, of course, if you like what they are doing -, then express your interest and appreciation, and turn their covert operation into an official one. Periodically ask how it is going to show that you care.
Enhancing strengths means giving people room to grow, and that can mean removing obstacles that keep them from growing. Carrie does HTML and CSS, but would like to move into programming? Try to find a replacement for her, and change her role. Jeff is bored with the topics he has been working on for over a year now? Help him find a new team whose topics he finds more interesting.
I know that these things will not always be possible on the spot, and that it is easier said than done. However, if you discuss the situation with the employee, and honestly try to improve it for her, she will appreciate the effort even if the end result is not quite what she wanted. She might still leave at some point, but maybe she will be willing to stick around a little longer, to see if circumstances change.
By having open eyes and ears towards your employees, and by enhancing their strengths, you will make them feel good about themselves. They will feel that they can grow in this environment. They will know that they can approach you proactively with ideas they have, instead of keeping those ideas in the closet and waiting for some future opportunity to present them - which might not come up until after they have switched jobs. In knowledge work, your employees’ ideas are pretty much all you have - make sure you don’t miss out on them!