The Squiggly Career: How to be a chief strengths spotter

When leading remotely, it's more important than ever to make sure your people spend their time on what they do best.

by Sarah Ellis
Last Updated: 26 Mar 2020

All leaders cast a shadow. As we struggle with new pressures under coronavirus lockdown and adjust to the globe's biggest remote working experiment, teams will be looking to you, their leader, more frequently and closely for cues on how to feel and behave. If you want to lead an engaged and productive team in the current climate, you need to adopt a strengths-based leadership approach.

The "why?"

Gallup found that employees who use their strengths are six times more effective and engaged in their role. In an environment where people are encouraged to use their strengths, leaders benefit from employee "discretionary effort" – the extra time, energy and effort we apply when we enjoy our work. As Jim Collins’ research in Good to Great highlights, one of the most critical tasks a leader undertakes is getting the right people on the bus; the value of these people is only realised if they're supported to do their best work. Here's how to develop a strengths-based leadership approach:

Strengths spotting and sharing

People often find it difficult and uncomfortable to identify and be confident about their own strengths; we are all our own worst critics. As a leader, your role is to be "chief strengths spotter". Observe and share with your team the moments when you see them at their best. This will help people to understand and appreciate the impact they are having. And watch out for generic praise: "brilliant" and "well done" is nice to hear but provides no insight into why something was great. If you want someone to continue or increase how they’re adding value, be specific. That might sound like: "I see you at your best when…" and "What went well about that presentation was..." and "Where I observed you had most impact in that project was..."

Start one-to-one catch ups, development conversations and reviews by discussing strengths. Ask strengths-based questions such as "What percentage of your week do you spend doing the thing you’re best at?" or "What would you like to do more of in your role?" 

Strengths stories

Every leader has the challenge to make the whole bigger than the sum of the parts. A collection of brilliant individuals will only take you so far. Research suggests that strengths-focused teams are 12.5 per cent more productive. Here are some practical suggestions for a strengths-based system of working (which are easy to facilitate remotely):

Win of the week: Pick a day of the week where everyone can share their win of the week. This small action helps people to feel their contribution is valued and, in tough times, reminds everyone of progress and encourages optimism. 

Strengths story-telling: This is a good exercise for a team that works together closely. In small groups (up to six), randomly assign names and share a strengths story about that person, bringing to life an example of when you have seen them at their best.

Celebrate the small successes: We’re good at remembering our big achievements but it’s often harder to remember the small successes we have along the way. A good way to start a regular team meeting is to ask everyone to share three successes they’ve had in the past month: a success at work, at home and where they’ve helped someone else to succeed.

Strengths swapping: When people use their strengths in new and different ways, they experience higher levels of satisfaction at work. Create opportunities for your staff to explore and experiment with applying their strengths in new contexts. This isn't just rewarding for employees, it also leads to greater collective intelligence for the organisation.

Actions could include...

Job swaps: Offer individuals the chance to swap jobs for a period of time (usually a minimum of six months) to give people the chance to learn and apply what they know.

Internal volunteering: Give people the permission, time and support to volunteer for internal cross-functional projects. This might be particularly pertinent right now as organisations need employees to develop and support new ways of working.

Team job crafting: Across a team there are often opportunities to make seemingly small changes to an individual’s roles while still making sure team objectives are met. An employee spending 10 per cent more time using their strengths can have a big impact on individual motivation.

J K Rowling points out "whatever money you might have, self-worth really lies in finding out what you do best". As a leader, you're in the privileged position to support employees as they discover and apply their strengths at work.  

Listen to: Squiggly careers podcast episodes 27 (finding your strengths) and 122 (how to make your strengths stand out and show up) 


Each week, Sarah Ellis, co-author of The Sunday Times best-selling book The Squiggly Career, discusses the pivotal role leaders play in developing people to perform at their best. 


We will be showcasing the country’s remarkable, talented, visionary and ground-breaking businesswomen of all ages, at every level and across all sectors, and those companies and colleagues that are helping them to succeed. Enter the Inspiring Women in Business Awards here. Nominations deadline extended to Thursday 23 April.


Image credit: Viaframe via Getty Images

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