Recently I had the privilege of delivering a lecture about strengths based development and leveraging unique talents, to a group of final year undergraduates at a leading Australian University. Like many students, they will enter the workforce in the coming months, and unsurprisingly, many find themselves unsure of the path ahead.

Following the lecture, I was surprised to receive an email from one student who wrote “I have never attended a lecture that has resonated with me so deeply”….“I feel more prepared than ever to understand myself in a way that will see me find success”. The student went on to describe the concept of strengths development as “revolutionary, yet so simple and making complete sense”. But why is the idea of strengths development coming across as innovative?

We live in a society that is often more intent on fixing what we aren’t good at rather than celebrating the things we excel at. So in contrast to the natural inclination to maintain what we’re good at and try to develop our weaknesses, the strengths approach specifically focuses on developing what an individual can naturally do well, whilst putting strategies in place to manage weaknesses.

Strengths development is based on three assumptions:

  1. Only some behaviours can be learned
  2. The best in role deliver the same outcomes using different behaviours
  3. Weakness fixing prevents failure, whilst strengths building leads to success

But why do strengths matter, and does a strengths development approach really work? The Gallup Organisation has been studying what makes people successful for over 70 years, and have found:

  • People who use their strengths are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs.
  • Those who learn to use their strengths every day have 7.8% greater productivity
  • Teams who focus on their strengths daily have 12.5% greater productivity
  • Companies where employees receive strengths feedback have 14.9% lower turnover

So all the evidence supports a strengths approach to development, and yet many of us are either not fully aware of our potential areas of strength, or don’t have the opportunity to use them regularly in our jobs.

Over the last decade a Gallup survey asked over 10 million people if they agree with the following statement: “At work I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day”. Surprisingly, only 1 in 4 people strongly agreed with that statement*.

As organisations begin to recognise the benefits to productivity, engagement and wellbeing that a focus on strengths can bring, this positive development approach is gaining momentum. Global organisations like Facebook, Rackspace, and Deloitte are just some of the players who have already adopted a ‘play to strengths’ strategy. Smart organisations know that to get the best out of their people and retain talent for the future, helping employees to discover, develop and use what they do best is the most effective way forward. But shouldn’t strengths awareness and development start earlier in life and learning, through schools and universities?

With so many students at a career crossroads unsure of the next step, incorporating strengths awareness into career preparation not only helps to demystify the dilemma of which path to choose, but can help students articulate to prospective employers their motivators and where they can make the biggest contribution. Helping students gain insights into their areas of greatest potential builds confidence, self-awareness, and provides valuable clues to the type of work environment in which they are most likely to flourish.

Building strengths awareness has the added benefits of helping individuals better understand others, leading to deeper levels of trust and more effective team working – all great preparation for the real world. So, revolutionary idea or common sense? You choose.

Sources: *: Gallup’s Q12 Client Database, 2009-2011, 7.5 million respondents