Play to Your Strengths

An old cliche that's revolutionizing management

Joseph Wise knows exactly what he's good at. The 44-year-old CEO and chair of eSchool Solutions, an Orlando, Florida, company providing information technology systems to schools, is so disciplined that it's an uncommon day when he doesn't check off every item on his to-do list. He's got strong core values, and he rarely strays from them. He's also great at winning others over, has a powerful drive to be recognized and is a master arranger. "Basically, I'm a juggler," Wise says of this last talent. "I can put many factors in order, aligning people, processes and money."

Wise gained such knowledge about his character and talents from the results of his Strengths Finder profile, a test designed by The Gallup Organization to tell people what talents they possess and, conversely, what talents they lack. The flip side is just as important, Wise says. Because of the Strengths Finder test, Wise knows, for instance, that he is not talented in anything involving measurement and numbers.

"I look at everything qualitatively and not quantitatively," he explains. "That's why I have a fabulous VP of finance who has a huge measurement orientation." Wise knows his VP of finance's talents because he administers the 180-question, 30-minute exam to others in his organization. Knowing what everyone is good at helps him hire, promote and assemble teams in the 74-person firm far more effectively-and helps him to work better, too. "It's pretty liberating when you can say, 'This is not something I do well,'" Wise says. "Then you can get a team around you of people who can make sure you don't do that."

Unfortunately, entrepreneurs like Wise are rarities, according to a multinational study of millions of employees by Gallup. It found only 20 percent of people feel they get a chance to do what they do best every day at work. That's more than a shame, according to Gallup ex-chair Donald Clifton. In the best-selling Now, Discover Your Strengths (Free Press), he and co-author Marcus Buckingham say that the idea of sticking to what you're good at is the foundation for a whole new approach to management.

The strengths theory upsets conventional business wisdom by not saying you should get rid of your weaknesses. Instead, it says you should ignore them and capitalize on your strengths. The only way for a company or a person to achieve maximum potential, argue the authors, is to identify areas where built-in advantages exist and then work to become as good as possible at those. In other words, forget about being well-rounded. If you don't speak Spanish, don't try to learn. If you don't seem skilled at selling your products to seniors, don't try to force it. Instead, become a lopsided but phenomenally successful specialist.

The strengths theory is both timely and significant, agrees Susan B. King, a longtime Corning Inc. executive who is now acting as president of Leadership Initiative, a Duke University-affiliated leadership development organization. "When we are moving away from hierarchical structures in business to greater dependence on teams," she says, "it's really important that people understand what they bring to the party. In that, [the theory] is revolutionary."

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This article was originally published in the May 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Play to Your Strengths.

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