Review: Now, Discover Your Strengths

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

buckAfter reading Buckingham’s most recent book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work, and quite liking it (with one big caveat), I decided to step back and read Buckingham’s previous book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, to see if I could learn anything useful from it.

In the process, I had many of the same mixed feelings that I had about Go Put Your Strengths to Work: Buckingham has a nice handful of interesting insights, but he couples them underneath an overwhelming desire to promote other elements of his program, particularly his website. I found that, as with the other book, if you just skim over parts that talk about these additional programs, this book is quite insightful and interesting, but those pieces all over the place get rather annoying.

Memo to Marcus Buckingham: in future books, stop shilling for your seminars and web sites and short films. Your content is good enough to stand alone and you’re much more likely to get me interested in your other materials if you’d just include a few pages at the end talking about them instead of annoying me as a reader with these pieces thrown in all over the place.

That being said, there is quite a bit of interesting material in Now, Discover Your Strengths. The book focuses mostly on self-evaluation – how do you figure out those things that you best bring to the table? Figuring those out is a key step, because those are the aspects that you should try to maximize in the workplace. Let’s dig in and take a look.

Looking Into Now, Discover Your Strengths

Chapter 1: Strong Lives
Now, Discover Your Strengths opens with a handful of compelling cases concerning people that we clearly identify as successes, pointing out that these people, too, are just a mix of strengths and weaknesses – they’ve just learned to maximize their successes and focus on them. The two examples that stood out to me were Warren Buffett and Tiger Woods. Buffett’s strengths lie in identifying bargains, so he rode that horse to being one of the richest men in the world – he’s actually pretty poor at other investing concepts. Tiger Woods is not the master of the golf course – he is very, very good at driving and putting, but merely average (among PGA Tour level players) out of a bunker. Thus, he has designed his game to maximize the value of his drives and his putts, often taking risks that lesser players with better sand skills wouldn’t even attempt.

Buckingham argues that this is a completely natural phenomenon – we all have strengths and weaknesses. The big question is what useful things can come from this revelation. Buckingham argues that there are three very valuable tools that can come from this: the ability to distinguish natural talents from learned skills, the ability to single out and identify those talents, and the ability to unambiguously and distinctly describe those talents. Taken as a whole, these would enable anyone to easily identify a group of people that would work well together, no matter what their background, because you could clearly identify people with complementary skill sets.

Chapter 2: Strength Building
Here, Buckingham addresses the idea that when you observe a great strength in someone (like a great public speaker), you’re actually witnessing a mix of that person’s skills and talents, and a strength is just a confluence of these two elements.

A skill is something that can be learned. For example, a person can take a course in Java programming and gain the basic skill of programing in Java. That does not imply that they will be a great Java programmer, just that they have the basic skill of programming in Java.

A talent is something that can’t be learned. For example, an individual may have the gift of being able to quickly break complex tasks down into bite-sized pieces. On its own, it’s not all that useful – where it becomes useful is in combination with skills. Think of the Java programming skill – if you also have the talent of quickly breaking down complex tasks, you have the beginnings of a very strong programmer.

Chapter 3: StrengthsFinder
This chapter is mostly an encouragement to use Buckingham’s online StrengthsFinder exam which seeks to identify and clarify your top five strengths. You can take the test online using a code provided with the book, but you can usually figure out your strengths if you spend the time to really read through the big list of strengths in chapter four and ask yourself a few honest questions.

The real key to identifying your strengths is to focus in on your immediate near-instinctual reactions to various situations. Thus, the best way to really reveal your strengths is to look at a wide array of situations, take your gut reactionary solution to these situations, and tabulate as many of these as you can. Eventually, some patterns will emerge, and those patterns are directly indicative of your strengths.

Of course, serious self-analysis can do a very good job of revealing these strengths without the need to take a standardized test.

Chapter 4: The Thirty-Four Themes of StrengthsFinder
Here, Now, Discover Your Strengths lists a set of thirty-four strengths, identifying and describing one per page. The individual descriptions of each strength are detailed enough that, with some honest self-evaluation, you can pretty quickly figure out which strengths you have and which ones you do not have.

What good is that, though? For me, the real power of this came with the self-evaluation, not with the actual naming of the strengths. It’s tough to admit to ourselves that we aren’t strong in every category, but it’s often a major key to our personal success. I found that I learned as much from reading and thinking about the strengths that I clearly don’t have than the ones that I do. It matches up well with the things that I seem to find success with (this blog, for instance – I think I have a great set of strengths for a blogger) and the things that I don’t.

Chapter 5: The Questions You’re Asking
A question and answer session follows, addressing a number of issues with strength identification. Most of the questions were pretty mundane, but I found a pair of them quite interesting.

The first interesting question was about weaknesses. Is it useful to use these strength descriptions to identify our personal weaknesses, and if so, how can that information be used? Buckingham and I have the same conclusion: identifying and understanding our weakest traits is similar in importance to identifying and understanding our strengths. Knowing our weaknesses can help us clearly identify areas we need to work on as well as give us a good framework for identifying tasks that we should delegate to others that match our strengths. Even better, it can give us a good framework for finding partners to work with – partners should be strong in our weak areas so that we can complement each other.

The other question that piqued my interest concerned overfocusing. Once you’ve figured out what your strengths are, is it dangerous to focus too intensely on those strengths? Buckingham argues that it isn’t – by focusing on your strengths, you’re maximizing the gifts that you have, using your true gifts to benefit the world, instead of miring yourself down in things that force you to grind with your weaknesses.

Chapter 6: Managing Strengths
It makes a lot of sense in the workplace for everyone to have a good grasp on their individual strengths and weaknesses, but what goes into managing a workplace with such identified strengths in your workers? Buckingham offers a ton of advice, from the obvious (matching people with complementary strengths and weaknesses) to the detailed (overviews of how to manage persons who exhibit each strength).

This section can be a powerful guide for any manager even if they don’t go through the formality of actually testing each employee for their strengths and weaknesses. Careful attention can reveal what strengths your people have, and then this guide can show you how to translate those strengths into greater output in the workplace.

Chapter 7: Building a Strengths-Based Organization
The book closes with a far-reaching discussion of how to actually organize a workplace based on the individual strengths of workers in the organization.

The biggest key is to identify the strengths that will make each role in the organization as strong as can be, then put people who have those strengths in those positions. This takes significant work and advance planning, but once implemented, you can put people in the right job for their individual personality, the job that gives that person the biggest opportunity to succeed possible. Although I’m not a manager, this plan makes a lot of intuitive sense to me.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

Knowing what your strengths are will make you a better and more productive worker. It can help you to identify the tasks (and jobs) that are particularly good matches for your strengths, meaning you have a much greater chance to excel in that role.

If you can’t clearly identify and describe your top strengths, this book is worth reading. Once you get past Buckingham’s self-promotion, this book provides some interesting (and useful) food for thought on specifically teasing out your strengths and understanding what that really means for you and the people you work with.

It may be most useful to check this book out from the library, however, or to buy a copy with a group of people who pass it around unless you plan on taking the online tests yourself. Reading through it once, with a serious eye towards self-analysis, is very useful, but it perhaps isn’t one you’ll turn to as a reference book. It’s worth reading, but not nearly as strong as Go Put Your Strengths to Work – if nothing in this review jumped out at you as compelling, then this book is probably not worth your time investment.

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