Building a Strengths-Based Leadership Development Program

April 22, 2013 — 11 Comments

This is the third post of a three-part series on the leadership merits of Gallup’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 strengths assessment. In the first post, I shared the practical benefits of the assessment itself. Then last week, I explained how the each person tends toward one of four leadership styles and how each style significantly impacts team performance.

Leadership with CranesThis week, I’d like to share some ideas on how to build a strengths-based leadership development program for your organization. I realize that not everyone is in a position responsible for serving an entire organization in this way. However, at the very least, these ideas can shape how we think about the implications of organizational leadership. Here they are:

Use a Strengths Model Before a Competency Model

I’m a huge proponent of competency-based leadership programs, in part because I’ve helped build one before. But there’s another, more objective reason: your organization ought to know what you are looking for in your leaders. Most leadership competency models include the likes of communication, planning, problem solving, initiative, etc. But a competency model isn’t the best place to start.

Here’s the psychology: think back to when you were a kid bringing home your school report card. Your courses (i.e. “competencies”) were a pretty standard set. If you had one A, several passing grades, and a failing grade, which one got the most attention? The truth is that students who aren’t intrinsically drawn to math (and therefore don’t excel at it) will never become great accountants. But that won’t prevent them from become great lawyers, doctors, writers or salespeople.

The temptation with competency models is to attempt to turn everyone into an autonomous, standard issue leader. But even if this were possible (it’s not), the ultimate success would turn out to be the ultimate failure since everyone would be good, good would become average, and no one’s contribution would be unique or noteworthy. No one is rewarded for being average. We can all be remarkable if we focus on our natural strengths, and each strengths contributes to a distinct leadership style.

Competency models should establish a leadership baseline. Each leader ought to be able to score a passing grade. But priority should be given to maximizing and utilizing each employee’s strengths instead of over-managing their weaknesses.

Take a Strengths Assessment Corporately

It should come as no surprise that I advocate for the StrengthsFinder 2.0 strengths assessment. Depending on level of infiltration (either partial or full), here is the priority I suggest that it be administered to:

  • HR Development staff (who will be responsible for building/managing the program)
  • Executive sponsors (who will be the face of the initiative)
  • Executive team who will need to practice what the organization preaches, not to mention play to each other’s strengths)
  • Managers (who will need to demonstrate commitment to lower levels)
  • Individual contributors
  • New employees via New Employee Onboarding experience

Provide Interactive Training for Each Career Level

One way to ruin an otherwise good intervention is to provide information with no analysis, application or collaboration. Strengths training ought to include all three. Tell each audience the benefits of the assessment and of the program in general. Demonstrate specific instances in which their strengths awareness can and should be applied. Then provide open-ended discussions or scenarios for the group to engage together.

Depending on the organization, it might be just as effective to provide training team by team instead of by career level.

Offer Team-Specific Resources

As I discussed in the previous post, the team-level is the critical target for strengths-based leadership development. When it comes to strengths, individual effectiveness only goes so far. The greatest power comes in its application to teams. So go the extra mile by providing job aids, reference sheets and intranet resources. You might put together a discussion template to help teams map out a new project leveraging each one’s strengths. One resource that is a must is a Team Map so that anyone can see the team’s strength profile at a glance. (I’ve included a link to sample Team Map template here and StrengthsFinder also includes one in the resource section of their website).

Introduce Strengths-Specific Language in Visible Places

There’s no point in having core values if no one ever talks about them. It’s the same thing with strengths – especially if you are going to go the extra mile to include strengths in your leadership development program. This means the organization should refer to strengths in high profile communications, such as newsletters, emails or executive town hall events. Also, employees should be able to display their Top 5 Signature Themes visibly at their work spaces with a small certificate on their cubicles or a desktop artifact.

So there they are, some best practices for including strengths in your organization’s leadership development program. For additional assistance, I’m available to help your team build your own program, to deliver a StrengthsFinder workshop or coach through any step of the process. Visit my Consulting page for more information, or simply contact me.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.
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  • It’s not enough to know our strengths we must grow and develop in them. This year I started to be more specific about my personal growth plan and it including areas of strengths. Wonderful post!

    • That’s great Dan – the next step beyond that is to help others grow in areas of their strength. Hopefully this post gives some ideas, although there are so many ways. At one of my past clients, we used to say leadership should lead 1) themselves, 2) others (i.e. their teams), and 3) the organization as a whole.

      • It sure did give the readers some great ideas. Thanks for writing such a great series, I’ve really enjoyed it.

        • Thanks Dan, if you ever write anything on StrengthsFinder would love to have you share a link somewhere in this series to add the resource.

          • Sounds good. You should think about putting all the strengths post together, adding more content, and release it as an eBook!

          • Funny story, I actually randomly had coffee with one of the original StrengthsFinder content developers a few weeks ago. So I’m clearly not the expert!

          • Sweet, what’s his name? You still have something to say about the topic. You could give it away as a email sign up bonus. Which I highly recommend doing some kind of free eBook or product that you can offer people who sign up for you email. It’s a huge deal. We can talk over the phone about it if you would like. Just let me know.

          • I’ll email ya 🙂

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