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The first time I dove into Marcus Buckingham’s work, I must admit, I was rather skeptical about it.
Sure, the basic idea that he was writing about—that people should build on their strengths instead of trying to correct their weaknesses—was plenty solid (and a topic I’ve explored before).
Peter Drucker, for one, had expressed the same view since at least the mid-1950s, about the same time that Abraham Maslow and a few others began to advance a similar notion as pioneers in the field of positive psychology. “One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence,” Drucker wrote. “It takes far more energy … to improve from incompetency to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”
Nevertheless, the quick online test that Buckingham was promoting to help me uncover my individual strengths and set me up “for personal and career success” struck me as some kind of managerial snake oil. How accurate could such a tool possibly be?
Then, much to my surprise, it nailed me. The StrengthsFinder program that Buckingham developed with the late Donald Clifton, when the two were colleagues at Gallup, was dead-on about my five “dominant themes of talent.”
It found that I’m an Achiever, or someone constantly driven to reach “the next accomplishment;” a Learner who is “energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence;” a goal-setter who maintains a relentless Focus; a lover of Context, who looks back to history to find answers; and a strong Strategic thinker.
Believe me, I’d love to excel in many of the 29 other areas that Buckingham and Clifton defined—Empathy, Fairness, and Positivity, among them—but if I’m honest about it, most of these are not my true strengths.
Now Buckingham is back with a new effort, a book called StandOut, which Thomas Nelson Inc. will publish next week. It promises to help people not only figure out where their talents lie but also leverage them in the workplace. “Where StrengthsFinder was descriptive and affirming,” Buckingham says, StandOut is designed “to be prescriptive and innovating.”
StandOut delineates nine “strength roles:” Advisor, Connector, Creator, Equalizer, Influencer, Pioneer, Provider, Stimulator, and Teacher. A refined Internet-based assessment—for which Buckingham charges $15 at standout.tmbc.com (or readers can access via a special code they receive when they buy the book)—then pinpoints a person’s two leading roles. It is the combination of these, according to Buckingham, that provides your “comparative advantage.”
For instance, I was pegged as an Influencer-Teacher—a blend that boils down to my being “the benevolent challenger.” None of my employees, I’m quite certain, would take issue with that label.
StandOut doesn’t stop there. The 25-page report that the computer spit out also gave me a dose of career advice and a bunch of tips on how to be effective as a leader and manager, as well as how to make a mark in client service and sales. Some of this counsel isn’t relevant for my work, and not every point in the analysis feels right to me. Still, as with StrengthsFinder, StandOut does seem to have captured in a matter of minutes the heart of what I do especially well. And in that way, it’s a useful reminder to do more of it every day. (“Lead with your questions,” “Set high expectations,” “Make yourself available … for guidance or insight.”)
In a sense, the direction that Buckingham takes in StandOut traces the path that Drucker thought was essential for “managing oneself.” Alongside “What Are My Strengths?” Drucker said that one must also ask: “How do I perform?” “What are my values?” “Where do I belong?” “What should I contribute?”
Some 250,000 people have gone through the alpha and beta versions of the StandOut test, while the roles themselves reflect data sets derived from 500,000 interviews conducted during the hiring of employees at various companies.
Drucker, for his part, favored a far more rudimentary methodology. Borrowing a practice first used centuries ago by Jesuit and Calvinist theologians, Drucker would write down what he expected to happen whenever he did something significant (such as making a key decision). Nine months later, he would check to see if the actual results matched his expectations. Through this feedback, he learned his strengths, how to improve them, and what he couldn’t (and therefore shouldn’t) do.
In either case, whether using Buckingham’s software or Drucker’s pen-and-paper approach, the takeaway is the same: There is no one right formula to be successful.
“We have studied the country’s best high school principals, the best affiliate leaders of Habitat for Humanity, the best emergency room nurses, the best pharmaceutical reps, and whenever we interview excellent performers in the same role,” Buckingham writes, “we find this same phenomenon—extraordinary results achieved in radically different ways.”
What your organization wants, then, is “not the few innovations that can be scaled to the many” as Buckingham puts it. Rather, you want to nurture a wide variety of avenues for tackling problems that can be steered, as appropriate, to the particular people whose talents naturally comport with that way of working.
Of course, as a manager, this requires you to understand what makes each of your people special. (Buckingham offers a “Manager’s Team Report” to help with the process.)
It’s important “to accept the fact that other people are as much individuals as you yourself are,” Drucker wrote. “They perversely insist on behaving like human beings. This means that they too have their strengths; they too have their ways of getting things done; they too have their values. … Each works his or her way, not your way. And each is entitled to work his or her way.”
The aim, after all, isn’t to have one or two people perform at their peak. It’s to have the entire enterprise overflowing with standouts.