Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.
Go Put Your Strengths To Work is the third in a series of personal development books (the first two being First, Break All The Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths) that, from book to book, have moved from being guidance for managers to guidance for any professional.
This entrant in the series focuses on taking your actual strengths (not just what you’re good at) and applying them at work. While the previous book in the series (Now, Discover Your Strengths) focused on actually figuring out your true strengths, this book includes the core of that earlier one, meaning that it’s not really necessary for digging into the meat here.
I’ll say it right now: this book is pretty good, but it’s slathered in Buckingham’s attempts to leverage other elements of his “program” along with it, mostly his website SimplyStrengths.com, and a series of short films entitled Trombone Player Wanted. Basically, if you just start skimming for a bit whenever either one of these is mentioned until he goes away from these, you’ll be fine. They might be useful to you, but it’s really hard to make up your mind about them until after you’re done reading and they have additional costs, too. Ignore this attempt at “leveraging synergy” and focus on the points in the book, which are quite good.
So what’s good?
What’s Inside Go Put Your Strengths To Work?
The book is built around a six step plan (each step should take a week of thought and working through the exercises) that reveals your actual personality strengths and shows how you can use them to achieve greater results in what you’re doing. The six steps make a lot of sense and build on each other, but they also seem really simple. I found that when I first read through this book about two months ago, I thought it wasn’t worth even writing a review about it, but little pieces of it kept floating into my mind and eventually I tackled it again with a more open mind and really gave the exercises an earnest shot.
What did I find? Interestingly, I found that the two areas of my life where I really put my strengths to work were working on The Simple Dollar and being a parent. I guess on some level that this didn’t surprise me, but it was fascinating to see how this really worked on a lot of different levels.
Step 1: Bust The Myths
This first section of Go Put Your Strengths To Work is devoted to knocking down three common workplace myths – let’s peek at each one. For each one, ask yourself if you believe in the myth (and why), what it would cost you to abandon the myth, and how would it benefit you to believe in the alternative idea instead.
As you grow, your personality changes The book argues that, instead, as you grow, you become more of who you already are. It believes that your true personality takes a long time – and a lot of experiences – to blossom, and people that are truly effective are those that are able to find their true personality earlier on. This is a rather controversial point, but I find it to be quite often true – older, more experienced people tend to be far more in tune with who they are than younger, inexperienced people.
You will grow most in your areas of greatest weakness. This bromide pops up over and over again in life – for me, it’s the underlying philosophy of why many liberal arts schools push people into an education that is “well rounded” rather than devoting more time to teasing out the specific strengths of the students in their major. Go Put Your Strengths To Work is all about the opposite of this statement, that you will grow most in your areas of greatest strength.
A good team member does whatever it takes to help the team. This is probably the hardest of the three to overcome mostly because of the whole “There is no I in team” mentality. Here, though, an alternate truth is proposed: a good team member deliberately volunteers his strengths to the team most of the time. In other words, a good team is composed of people who play to their individual strengths, and thus a good team is assembled from people with different strengths.
Step 2: Get Clear
So how do you find and define these strengths? Go Put Your Strengths To Work offers four signs of a strength: success (you find success whenever you use this trait), instinct (you’re drawn over and over again to certain activities), growth (activities where you use the trait feel easy and leave you happy), and needs (doing these things seems to fulfill a need in your life). Basically, your strengths are those activities that make you feel strong when you do them – and also are things that others see as being good in you (the ones that don’t inspire others are hobbies).
The book proposes that whenever you do something that makes you feel strong and empowered, you write it down in detail. For example, I feel strong and empowered whenever I write something really well and I know it will help people. Similarly, when you feel the opposite of strong, you should write down whatever activity it is that makes you feel weak. Then, when you have a collection of these, look for the things that they have in common. I generally feel strong when I’m writing something good or I’m being a parent; I feel weak when I deal with people or things that are largely out of my control.
Step 3: Free Your Strengths
Now that you’ve identified the things you’re good at, Go Put Your Strengths To Work encourages you to spend one week focusing on the activities that truly make you feel strong and see what the result of that week is. At the same time, try as hard as you can to simply avoid the aspects of your job that make you feel weak. This shouldn’t be a permanent switch, especially if you’re worried that avoiding those things that make you feel weak will get you in trouble.
More specifically, the book encourages you to focus in on two of the strengths during the week using a four step plan for each one. First, identify how the strength really helps you in your current job. My strength as a writer with conversational tone helps me with this blog because it produces articles people want to read. Next, find the missed opportunities in your current role. I usually miss out on using this because my best time for writing is in the early morning and I tend to sleep through it about half the time. Next, learn new skills and techniques you need to build this strength. I usually do this by reading about persuasive writing, copywriting, and marketing. Finally, look for ways to expand this strength and share it with others. I do this by occasionally writing articles about how to blog effectively, like my Building a Better Blog series.
Step 4: Stop Your Weaknesses
At this point, the book turns to the identified weaknesses from step two and uses an approach parallel to the one from step three to minimize weaknesses. It actually turns out to be quite complementary to the previous step, as it seeks to reduce the space that weaknesses take up in your psyche and your life – this frees up room to maximize your strengths.
First of all, just stop doing the things that make you feel weak – if you can’t completely stop, cut out as much of the activity as you possibly can. Then, identify and team up with people who are strengthened by the things that weaken you. Next, offer up your strengths regularly so you’re seen as someone who can offer these skills to others rather than being represented by your weaknesses. Finally, for those weakness-based activities that remain, work on changing your perspective so that you can perhaps apply your strengths to these tasks.
Step 5: Speak Up
The first four steps are all rather introspective, but they’re only useful to a certain degree if you’re in an environment where you’re supervised by and interact with others. This section focuses on talking to others about your self-identified strengths and weaknesses, particularly your supervisor.
The biggest part of this chapter is about scripting conversations in advance. Why? When you have a conversation where you have a specific piece of information or a specific idea to convey and you want to lead from there to a conclusion, scripting and planning a conversation in advance can help you really keep on the topic that you want and get to the conclusion that you want.
Step 6: Build Strong Habits
Obviously, once you reach a change in your life where you’re better able to use your strengths and are less reliant on your weaknesses, you’re in a better place. But how can you stay there? Go Put Your Strengths To Work suggests adopting five regular habits in your life:
Every day, look over your strength statements and your three weakness statements. This keeps them fresh in your mind.
Every week, complete a “strong week” plan. Basically, identify two ways you’ll maximize your strengths in the coming week – at the same time, identify two ways to minimize your weaknesses in the coming week.
Every quarter, close the book on your strengths. Schedule a meeting with your boss and go over ways you maximized your strengths in the previous three months.
Every six months, go over your strengths in detail. Make sure you understand what they really mean and how you’re applying them.
Every year, toss out your strengths and start over. You can use your old ones as a starting point, but there will likely be some clarifications as your understanding of your strengths and your weaknesses grow.
Buy or Don’t Buy?
As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t particularly impressed with this book on the first read through – I actually didn’t think it was very good at all, to tell the truth. However, a few of the pieces (mostly the self-evaluation parts in sections two and three) kept popping up in my mind and I gave them a tentative shot. Eventually, this led me back to the book again and I found it quite a bit more powerful the second time around.
If you’re willing to take the exercises in earnest, this book is well worth a read. It’s quite good for self-discovery and identifying the pieces of your life that work and those that don’t. My biggest complaint is that it is bookended with a lot of psuedo-advertisement for Buckingham’s other multimedia activities, but if you ignore those (and a few mentions within), there’s a lot of interesting material in between.