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Playing to Your Staff's Strengths

Strong Last week I did a training/planning session with one of my Job Corps clients. This group is responsible for attracting applicants to Job Corps and then helping them through the admissions process.

These two aspects of the job require very different skill sets. The outreach piece is essentially sales--staff must be able to go out to a variety of applicants and organizations and "sell" Job Corps. The admissions component of the job is more about counseling and preparing young people for the demands of a Job Corps education.

In the course of our planning, we got into a discussion about these two disparate job responsibilities. I asked how many in the group enjoyed the admissions/counseling piece. Two thirds of the group raised their hands. Then I asked who enjoyed the Outreach piece. One third raised their hands. And there was basically no overlap between the groups. They either liked outreach or they enjoyed admissions. Only one or two liked both.

"How many of you," I asked, "spend more time on the piece you enjoy and find that you do a better job at it?" They all raised their hands.

Later I was speaking to the manager of the department. He reported that he wasn't surprised at the results. The people who enjoyed counseling applicants were the ones who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing outreach. The outreach people, on the other hand, tended to not do as well with the applicants and their families.

"Why," I asked him, "do you then split the job this way. If you know you have a group of people who love and are good at doing outreach, why not have them doing that full-time, while the others are doing what they love and do well?"

It was like a lightening bolt had hit him. Like most organizations, his has defined jobs according to organizational needs, rather than the skills and talents of the workers. But as we talked, he began to realize that he would be able to better meet the needs of his organization if he worked WITH the strengths of his staff, rather than fighting their "weaknesses."

This is a common mistake at most organizations. Even those nonprofits that specialize in helping clients with career and job search plans do nothing to ensure that their own staff have a career plan that clearly identifies their strengths. Further, even if they do, little is done to actually capitalize on those strengths.

I've come to believe, though, that if we tap into staff passions and strong points we can actually boost our organizational performance in ways we never imagined. When people love what they do and feel like they're doing what they are good at, they will naturally become your top performers. In many cases this can happen by accident, but why not be more deliberate about it?

Resources for Managing to Staff Strengths
If you're going to explore how to manage to staff strengths, your education should begin with First Break All the Rules (if you don't have time for the book, then at least try this summary). Then follow it up with Now Discover Your Strengths, which includes a free code for taking the online Strengths Finder to discover your own personal strengths.

These two books by Marcus Buckingham describe in easy-to-read terms how successful, high performing managers help their staff identify key strengths and then structure the employee's job responsibilities to capitalize on these strengths and minimize weaknesses. They give explicit step-by-step instructions that can be used by any organization to get the most out of their staff, something I think is key for many nonprofits.


Tomorrow, I'm going to talk in some more detail on how to use a career planning process to engage staff and management in talking about strengths and engaging them in what their areas of passion. This is another way to approach the strengths process that I think is also very in line with some key themes of the 2.0 revolution.



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