Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Purpose-Filled Life–Applying Your Strengths

Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses. - Marilyn vos Savant

Figure out what you really love doing and use your strengths on a daily basis. - Tom Rath

I spend a lot of my day helping people and organizations figure out how to do things better, whether it is in the area of strategy definition and application, extremely large-scale IT architecture, team collaboration or whatever other need serves those who interact with me.

When establishing or attempting to understand the foundation for the project, I always ask the people I am interacting with questions such as “What do you do well?  What are your strengths?” and even in the 21st century, I continue to be amazed by the people and organizations who cannot answer the question at all.

For those who can answer the question by parading their Myers-Briggs test, Strengths Finder 2.0 result, Teamability report or any other test, most can’t answer my obvious follow-up questions – “What do they mean to you?  How are you applying them?”

They seem to have taken the test (or tests) and having ascertained that they are an INTJ, a crouching tiger, a blend of red and blue, a squirrel or whatever other result their specific test told them, they move on without applying the important information that was just handed to them.

Information without application is mere entertainment but when one applies information, it becomes knowledge, which when applied produces results, which when learned from produces wisdom.

When people or organizations apply the information provided to them, they discover a number of things, including but not limited to what make a person most / least productive, what makes a person a better or worse contributor / collaborator, what turns them on / off, etc.  Since the net of these attributes, the good and the bad, roll up to produce a strong or poorly performing organization, knowledge of these attributes is essential to creating a healthy, strong organization.

Awareness of this information also provides individuals with a filter by which they can evaluate the cacophony of information, requests and demands flowing in their direction, thus allowing them to choose what they allow to enter their spheres of influence and to decide what is worthy / necessary for them to respond to - for their betterment and for the betterment of those who interact with them personally or professionally.

A Personal Illustration

My Myers-Briggs profile is INTJ (the Mastermind profile).  Specifically, the four letters mean the following:

  • Introversion – I prefer to be quiet and reserved in interaction.  Quiet observation allows me to learn more than walking in with a swagger that suggests I know it all already.
  • Intuition – I prefer abstraction and big picture thinking (i.e. “where is this project / intention going?”).
  • Thinking – I prefer data over emotion / rhetoric to make decisions and to measure results.
  • Judgmental – I prefer plans and predictability over “winging it”.

Meanwhile, my Strengths Finder 2.0 strengths are:

  • Futuristic – I am focused on long term outcomes – yours, mine, your organization, etc.  I never stop thinking about this.
  • Strategic – I prefer focusing on strategic planning around measurable outcomes and goals over tactical execution or setting out without a measurable destination in mind.
  • Connectedness – I believe everyone has a role to play if we can ascertain what their strengths are commensurate with what we need and we can find a way to leverage their strengths.  Too often we don’t do this and end up with “problem children” on our project, blaming them for something that they can’t prevent because they are hardwired to do what they are doing.
  • Achiever – results are everything.  If we can’t measure them, we don’t know if we have achieved them.
  • Learner – the constant acquiring, application and sharing of knowledge is essential to my well-being.

My Teamability report suggest that I am a Founder, binding vision and action together and acting as a “conductor / orchestrator” to produce results that improve the lives of people, organizations and the world at large.

Most people, having acquired their “official list” as noted above nod and smile and then move on with their Life, not applying what they have just discovered.

They also miss the importance of understanding the relationship between their strengths and to see how they support / feed each other.  Observe how my strengths support each other in the following diagram (click on the diagram for a larger version).

Maximizing Strengths

In the diagram above, ideas feed my futuristic strength (where my brain casts a vision), the vision flows to my strategic strength (where measurable outcomes, goals and plans are defined), the measurable outcomes are sent to my achiever / connectedness strengths where collaboration with others becomes critical to achieving the desired result and the strength of learner is used to measure progress and adjust where necessary.

Meanwhile, my INTJ attributes tell myself and others how I will apply these strengths and my Teamability role drives my need to inspire others and to orchestrate the desired result.

The impact of my strengths on my behavior and results is easily observed.  For example, one can see that if I am given gory details to accomplish, I will not like doing it and I am unlikely to produce a useful result.  While I am an empathic person, if you give me a role where I need to be empathic all the time, my need for data application (on their side and mine) will eventually overrule my sense of empathy, which may not be desired.  While I am considered a strong communicator, if you make communication my primary role, I may get frustrated if I don’t have a role in casting the future, designing strategic plans, etc.  If you give me a role where I am an order taker, my Teamability role as Founder will cause me to resist.  I can follow direction – just not day in and day out.  If you invite me to an agenda-less meeting, I always say no since a predictable, effective use of my time and contribution cannot be defined.

The list goes on and on but if one understands my strengths, how I react to the request of another in fact becomes quite predictable!

And so, if I am asked to participate in something where I cannot see a way to leverage and apply my strengths and attributes, then I will usually decline the opportunity since I will likely not be happy with the project, those around me will likely be unhappy with me and what I / we produce will likely be less than ideal as a result.

Some people think this makes me aloof.

I think it optimizes my result (and theirs).

Applying the Illustration

A senior executive of an organization reached out to me the other day because he wanted to speak to me about something I had written on my blog.

The request was somewhat vague, where he indicated that he wanted to discuss “general stuff” with me.

Think of how this request gets processed by my strengths (which are hard-wired inside me and are non-malleable and non-negotiable).

  • Futuristic – I don’t know what vision he has and he is not asking me to cast one so I can’t apply this strength.
  • Strategic – I am not being asked to evaluate or create a plan with measurable outcomes and goals so I can’t apply this strength.
  • Achiever – I am not being asked to produce a result nor evaluate one so I can’t apply this strength.
  • Connectedness – There is no sense of collaboration present as I am not being invited to collaborate or leverage my network to collaborate so I can’t apply this strength.
  • Learner – I may learn a few things in the interaction but I am not being asked to apply or share that learning, thus the knowledge nuggets are more for entertainment purposes than anything and don’t really serve the need of this strength.

Then consider how my Myers-Briggs attributes evaluate the request:

  • Introversion – I prefer to be quiet and reserved in interaction.  He has attempted to condescendingly “talk down to me” in the past and while I never back down from a fight if required, his past performance suggests that his future intention will be much the same, something I have no interest in.
  • Intuition – I prefer abstraction and big picture thinking (“where is this going?”) but he doesn’t want to tell me in advance, so likely my thoughts on “the big picture” aren’t desired.
  • Thinking – I prefer data over emotion / rhetoric to make decisions and to measure results while his intention is to “talk down to me” or influence / intimidate me with nothing other than emotion so my desire to apply data usefully will not be satisfied.
  • Judgmental – I prefer plans and predictability over “winging it” but he prefers a meeting with no agenda (which could produce anything but most likely nothing of value).

Meanwhile, my Teamability role of Founder calls me to orchestrate results that positively impact people around me, something I will not be provided the opportunity to accomplish here.

Now a yes-person, a person who has no understanding of their strengths and attributes makeup or a person who doesn’t value their own time would likely have said yes, either feeling intimated to attend, feeling a need to feed their ego with “I’m in demand / I’m important” or hoping to produce “a result” (any result) but instead they produce a meeting with little results of any value but potentially a lot of frustration (or worse) amongst the participants in the room.

I on the other hand, understanding how the request feeds into my strengths (or not) decline the request since I see myself as offering no value in regards to the things that “turn me on” or serve others.

Some people get indignant when their requests (or demands) are turned down.

I prefer to honor who I am, what I bring to the table and what value I bring.  If I don’t bring value, I don’t show up.  If you don’t bring value, I don’t invite you.

Again, some people think that this attitude is aloof or “stuck-up”.

I disagree – I think I am honoring and respecting one of the most important gifts that exists – your time and mine.

Where it really bends people’s brains is when I obtain their strengths profile in advance of a meeting (which I often do).  I use to maximize collaboration and results but more devious people use it to manipulate participants who don’t know how to honor their own strengths.  Knowing your strengths, defending how they are used and knowing how to apply them can protect you from such miscreants.

The Bottom Line

Most people I interact with cannot identify their strengths and even if they have done so, have no idea how to apply them, how to use them as a filter for information coming their way or how to use them as a lens by which others can see how to interact with them effectively and appropriately.

When we learn to honor, apply and communicate our strengths, we find that our results improve, our interactions improve and our future (as well as the future of those around us) improves both personally and professionally.

Are you aware of your strengths?

Do you understand how they work together?

Do you know how to apply them?

Do you apply them?

Do you honor and respect them (especially their hard-wired nature)?

Do you communicate them to others to enhance interaction with you?

Are you sure?

How do you know?

In service and servanthood,


PS I am not overlooking the importance of values, ethics, morals and faith since knowledge and application of these are essential components of a healthy, purpose-filled Life.  However, because I consider these to be essential, foundational components that underlie everything we think, say and do and because we all define these a little differently, I didn’t get into a detailed analysis of them here.

Also note that many self-improvement programs fly in the face of our natural, hardwired strengths, making a one-size-fits-all approach very difficult to apply successfully.  For example, people who say you should end your day with your inbox empty and your desk cleared may have something that works for them but it doesn’t work for me.  That is why awareness of one’s strengths is essential if one is shopping for such programs to make sure they work together effectively.

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