Play to Your Strengths

An old cliche that's revolutionizing management
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the May 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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."

Stretch Your Strength

Personality, of course, is a very complex and researched subject. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung famously began classifying people into introverts and extroverts in the first half of the 20th century. Today, such tests as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the Meyers-Briggs and other personality tests have been administered to millions of people.

The strengths theory differs from its predecessors in the number of people in its sample study and in the sophistication and complexity of its results. While Meyers-Briggs tests classify people as one of 16 personality types, the 34 themes of the strengths theory can be mixed into more than 32 million combinations. That means an individual's themes are truly individual.

The simple premises behind the strengths theory are, first, that each person's talents are enduring and unique and, second, that each person has the most room for growth in the areas of his or her greatest strengths. These have clear implications for hiring, assigning and promoting individuals as well as designing and implementing training programs for them. In addition, once you know a person's strengths, you can manage him or her appropriately. A person who is strong in the analytical theme, for instance, should be given time to carefully sort through all the factors before being asked to make decisions.

The strengths theory has profound applications in planning companies' futures as well as in managing their work forces. For instance, if you accept that talents are enduring, you'll be more careful about hiring the right people in the first place. Strengths-based management techniques also advise entrepreneurs to ask people for specific outcomes, letting them achieve results in their own ways rather than dictating working styles that may not fit employee strengths. And, of course, knowing your personal strengths can be very handy when it comes to choosing how you'll spend your own time.

Uncovering Weaknesses

The basic idea behind the strengths theory-that it's better to concentrate on strengths than to develop weaknesses-does have limits. Communication, reliability, the ability to get along with others and some other talents are so important to so many kinds of work that almost everybody needs to become as skilled as possible in those things.

"Anything to do with morals or ethics, there is a baseline requirement," says Marcus Buckingham. However, he continues, if you know you or another person is weak in, say, empathy, the empathy-impaired individual can be paired with someone who empathizes well, limiting the damage caused by the blind spot. "With self-awareness," he maintains, "anything is possible."

You can also mess up using strengths theory. It's only too possible to misdiagnose strengths and put people in jobs they aren't suited for. "A second and perhaps most pressing risk is that you'll forget that the point of management is always the same thing-to cultivate performance," cautions Buckingham. "The point isn't to become so absorbed in the strengths of your people that you forget to get the job done."

A Strong Future?

Some experts predict significant effects on businesses of all sizes due to the radical ideas behind the strengths theory. "If it spreads broadly, it could have a huge impact because it turns much of management and organizational development on its head," observes King. "It is much more humane. It is much more positive. It is not fear- or punishment-based. And companies that have implemented it have reduced turnover, increased productivity and reduced cost."

Businesses spend so much time training people to repair their weaknesses, with such disappointing results, that the idea of achieving greatness by not trying to do everything well is a truly big one, even if it only revolutionizes training. But, more important than that, entrepreneurs such as Wise hope that catering to their employees' and their companies' strengths as well as their own will make their work both more productive and more enjoyable at little cost.

"It's well worth it," Wise says. "No one brings everything to the table. This really helps us cut to the chase [and see] how an applicant or team member is wired."

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer who specializes in business topics and has written for Entrepreneur for 11 years


More from Entrepreneur

Our Franchise Advisors are here to help you throughout the entire process of building your franchise organization!
  1. Schedule a FREE one-on-one session with a Franchise Advisor
  2. Choose one of our programs that matches your needs, budget, and timeline
  3. Launch your new franchise organization
Discover the franchise that’s right for you by answering some questions about
  • Which industry you’re interested in
  • Why you want to buy a franchise
  • What your financial needs are
  • Where you’re located
  • And more
Try a risk-free trial of Entrepreneur’s BIZ PLANNING PLUS powered by LivePlan for 60 days:
  • Get step-by-step guidance for writing your plan
  • Gain inspiration from 500+ sample plans
  • Utilize business and legal templates
  • And much more

Latest on Entrepreneur