Use your strenghts



schiebloek dakakkerIn my final year working at London Business School, I often felt I was leaving half my strengths behind at home when I was cycling into work. I liked both client development and programme delivery. However in the world of the business school I had to do one or the other. So I swapped from Associate Director to Programme Director, but in either case I had to stop one of the things I loved doing. After a number of conversations I finally left to set up my own business and do what I believed in: combine client development and programme delivery.

Many corporates struggle with this tension of ‘fitting’ people in their structure and processes and allowing them to ‘flourish’ with their talents. Just mind the language difference between ‘fitting’ and ‘flourishing’. They belong to a different paradigm: You can fit parts into machines and the corporate world has extended the engineering language into their jobs and hierarchies. In ‘living organisms’ we like people to flourish. The trend is to shift more towards flourishing: development based on growing strengths (spikes) instead of spending a lifetime making up for deficiencies.

The bigger challenge is how to sustain that shift of focusing on ‘strengths based development’ through tools and processes. Two decades of competency profiles and leadership attributes with four level descriptions, have not helped us much to move to strengths based development. It has positioned development completely in the psychological domain: development is indicated by scores on competencies. All focus is on the subjective measurement. Our attention quickly shifts to what is broken, rather than what someone excels at. The urge to control also becomes hard to resist in all laborious performance management processes. Performance is a power game in many corporates.

Deloitte made a brave attempt to reinvent performance management described in the HBR issue, April 2015. They calculated that they spent about 2 million hours on performance management worldwide on an annual basis, mostly on the static elements of single year-end ratings and consensus meetings. They realized their process was too batched, too slow and too little focused on the future and on development. They dramatically reshaped performance management into a new design with three questions correlated the strongest with high performing teams: “My co-workers are committed to do quality work”, “the mission of our company inspires me” and “I have the chance to use my strengths every day”.

The focus of these questions is on the context in which Deloitte employees are working instead of their behavior as such. The three questions explore how conducive a work context is to play to someone’s strengths. The flowers in the garden don’t flourish more through a a 5-point scale rating. Strengths based development requires we get our hands dirty with the soil, the lighting and the water conditions of the work that needs to be done.