Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the authors of “Now, Discover Your Strengths.” This version has been corrected.
We have been exceptionally well trained to work on “fixing” ourselves, starting with that classic question many of us face during the beloved annual performance review process.
“What are your key weaknesses and what are you going to do to improve them during the coming year?”
It is always a good idea to identify your potential trouble spots and work to improve them. But during the past 20 years, a growing body of knowledge from the field of positive psychology tells us that — while weaknesses cannot be ignored — we should devote much more of our time and attention to leveraging what we naturally do well: our strengths.
A key leader in this field is Martin Seligman, who is now director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. His ground-breaking book, “Learned Optimism,” demonstrates the benefits of focusing on the positive in our lives – both professionally and personally.
The Gallup Organization has seized this concept and applied it directly to the workplace. Its books, “Now, Discover Your Strengths” (by Donald Clifton and Marcus Buckingham) and “StrengthsFinder 2.0” (by Tom Rath), highlight the value of focusing on one’s natural talents. They provide an online tool in these books, the Clifton StrengthsFinder, for individuals to identify those natural talents.
So what do you do once you have “discovered your strengths?” I suggest three simple things:
First, try to spend more of your work time on projects and activities where you realize that you are able to use your natural talents and a little less time on activities which require you to use what you think are your more limited talents. This will make your work more fulfilling and successful.
Next, when you create plans for your professional development, include ideas about how you can get even better at what you do well. You only have limited time and resources for professional development. Maybe you have to spend some time correcting a weakness, but your road to ultimate professional success will require you to be excellent at a few certain things. Nurture those talents so you can become excellent at something you are already very good at naturally.
Finally, as you plan your next career moves, make sure to select jobs and work environments that fit your natural talents. Are you naturally creative and entrepreneurial? Make sure your next workplace values that. Are you naturally introverted? There is nothing wrong with that. Just make sure your next job does not require lots of schmoozing to be successful.
I tell our executive MBAs that I think of them as high-powered locomotives. We want them to understand their “derailers” so they don’t jump the track. But once they can stay on track, then it is time to supercharge their performance by leveraging and developing their natural talents for excellence.
As former Gallup chief executive Don Clifton loved to say, “Develop your strengths and soar!”
Robert M. Sheehan, Jr., Ph.D., is the academic director of the executive MBA program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He provides consulting services in strategic planning, board development, and leadership and teamwork development for nonprofits. He has more than 30 years of executive management experience, including 18 years at the CEO of two different national nonprofits.