Unleashing your hidden strengths

If you’ve ever taken a personality test you know it can be a strange experience. Personality assessments are a snapshot of a moment — reflecting how you feel about yourself, and the world, at a particular point in time. They are a bit like catching a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, or stumbling across a random photo. Some bits you immediately recognize, others don’t look like you at all — for whatever reason you’ve been caught in an odd light or with a strange expression on your face.

So why do them? Aside from the fact that there is something intrinsically interesting about seeing your personality reflected back at you, there are two main benefits. First, they can help inform job or learning choices — either in your current role, or for the next. And second, they can help you better understand your strengths and weaknesses.

In over 20 years of corporate life I have been subjected to many of these tests and, to be honest, my experience has been pretty mixed. I always enjoyed the dramatic reveal, but they didn’t tell me anything new (I’m a bit ‘jazz hands’ and maybe not the best person to proof-read the annual report).

Worse still, when taken as part of a team, they seemed to emphasize a fixed mindset. Teams would be sorted into personality types (introvert, extrovert, group worker, lone-wolf etc). Profiles were then shared so we all knew to indulge the extroverts and give the introverts the time and processing space they needed. If there were gaps in the team then we needed to change how we recruited, rather than attempt to coach people out of their comfort zones. We would spend half a day discussing them and then the reports would go back in the draw until the next time. All in all, not very enlightening.

Since certifying as a coach I have been on the look-out for something different. A tool that identifies strengths and opportunities, but can also be used to plot changes over time and encourage growth in particular areas. So I was pleased to be introduced to Strengths Profile (until recently known as the R2 Strengthfinder). Here’s what I like about it:

First, it is primarily a coaching tool rather than a one-off intervention. I use it with people over many coaching sessions, rather than going into an organization, conducting the survey, then leaving. It becomes a living piece of data to support or challenge hypothesis and insights that emerge during a coaching engagement.

Second, the focus leans more towards improving, rather than ‘knowing’. It divides personality attributes into ‘realized’ and ‘unrealized’ strengths. Realized strengths are things you do often, are good at, and enjoy. Unrealized strengths are things you like, are good at, but don’t get to use so much. It has growth potential baked into the structure as the final part of the debrief focusses on how you can better use your unrealized strengths — to grow and unleash your hidden talents. Clients love this part — and it is great to coach around.

Third, you are encouraged to redo the survey every 6 to 12 months (it only takes around 20 minutes to fill in). This way you can see progress on specific goals and the impact of coaching on the distribution of your strengths. The whole point is that we grow and change.

We are all ‘fixed’ in some ways, but we are able to dial our strengths up and down at different times in our lives. And we can offset the negative impact of weaknesses and ‘learned behaviors’ by drawing on other strengths. For example — I love playing the piano. But also I don’t really like being told what to play. In fact I hate reading from music (according to the Strengths Profile ‘adherence’ is my number one weakness). So having a jazz piano teacher last year who forced me to go back to the basics of musical theory, was both painful and tiring. But it was ultimately one of the most rewarding musical experiences I have ever had. I used my strengths of ‘creativity’, ‘persistence’ and ‘listener’ to get through it.

Combined with good coaching, I see Strengths Profile as a growth mindset tool. It’s also an optimistic tool (full disclosure, ‘optimism’ is also one of my top 7). It assumes that anyone, however stuck, or ground down by aspects of their work or family life, has hidden strengths they can draw on. It assumes that we all have the capacity to grow and change. And what could be better than that.