From the Publisher
Q&A with author Tom Rath
(From the Gallup Management Journal; interviewed by Jennifer Robison)
Last month, StrengthsFinder 2.0 hit the bookstores. Book browsers, no doubt, had many questions, and among them was probably "Didn't I already read a book about this?"
Well, actually, yes. But the topic was worth revisiting for two reasons. In the six years since the release of Now, Discover Your Strengths, more than 2 million people have taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, which means billions of people have not yet had the opportunity. The second reason is that Gallup researchers just haven't been able to let the topic rest. Over the past decade, they've done more surveys, more interviews, and more studies; they've prodded and poked and analyzed. And they realized that there's a lot more to understanding human talent than most people know. Those who are familiar with the StrengthsFinder assessment know that it is designed to uncover certain key talents -- patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that can be productively applied. These patterns are categorized into 34 broad themes -- such as Achiever, Ideation, and Relator -- and those themes indicate and predict one's innate and unique talents. Those talents, when multiplied by the investment of time spent practicing, developing skills, and building knowledge, can become strengths. Some of this is just common sense; it seems intuitive that your performance will be better if you're doing what you naturally do well. But some of it seems counterintuitive and runs directly against conventional wisdom: No amount of training will help you excel in your areas of weakness. You can't do anything you want to do -- or be anything you want to be -- because you're just not going to be good at everything. But if you work with your talents, you can be extraordinary. StrengthsFinder has resonated with the business community because there's a direct link between talent development and performance. In this interview, Tom Rath, author of StrengthsFinder 2.0, discusses what Gallup scientists have learned since the publication of the first book, what more there is to discover about your talents, and why it's bad to focus on your employees' weaknesses, but simply cruel to ignore them completely. GMJ: Why the new book?
Tom Rath: StrengthsFinder 2.0 is an effort to get the core message and language out to a much broader audience. We had no idea how well received the first strengths book would be by general readers -- it was oriented more toward managers -- or that the energy and excitement would continue to grow. More than two million people have taken the StrengthsFinder assessment, and each month, the number of people learning about their talents goes up. But readers keep asking us: "Now that I know about my strengths, what do I do next?" So we went back and surveyed hundreds of them and asked them how they apply their talents. Then we whittled their suggestions down to the ten best ideas for each theme. We also added more than five thousand Strengths Insights to version 2.0 that allow us to offer more individualized theme descriptions than we could before. So, instead of general descriptions of your top five talent themes, in 2.0, you get a talent profile so unique that you're unlikely to share even a sentence with someone else. And as I said, the first book was really written for a business audience. People have had trouble retrofitting the theme descriptions if they are in non-management roles, but they've tried. This book helps readers apply strengths theory to any type of role and gives them ideas to help them apply their talents in their daily life. GMJ: It's been six years since the first book was published, and Gallup has done hundreds of thousands more interviews. Have you discovered anything new about talents and strengths? Have you altered your original premise?
Rath: No, but we've seen more and more evidence that demonstrates that focusing on your talents is important. We did a survey in 2004 that examined what happens when your manager ignores you, focuses on your strengths, or focuses on your weaknesses. We found that if your manager focuses on your strengths, your chances of being actively disengaged go down to one in one hundred. However, if your manager primarily focuses on your weaknesses, your chances of being actively disengaged are 22%, and if your manager ignores you, that percentage rises to 40%. GMJ: Why such a high rate of disengagement among those who are ignored?
Rath: It basically mirrors the psychology of raising kids -- being completely ignored is the worst possible psychological state. You would actually feel better if your manager went from ignoring you to focusing on what you do wrong all the time, because then at least she's paying attention to you. GMJ: Did your new research turn up anything that surprised you?
Rath: We've talked a lot about how strengths can help you be more of who you are, and you get more out of your best players, and all of that. But in the last ten years, we've also found that it's a good strategy just to wipe out the extreme negativity in the workplace. I get this question almost every time I talk to a group: "What do I do about that one person who just drags everyone down every day?" My glib answer was to get rid of the person. I always thought there were some people who were just destined to be disengaged in their jobs because that was their personality, and no matter how hard managers tried, there wasn't much they could do with some of those people. But the data from the last five years would suggest that much of that epidemic of disengagement is fixable. More than I ever would have guessed, it helps tremendously if a manager starts by focusing on someone's strengths. You may not take someone who's actively disengaged and make him into your most engaged employee, but it will help get him out of that mindset where he's scaring off colleagues and customers. GMJ: So is that the business case to be made for putting people in roles that play to their strengths? Rath: I think it's the secondary business case. The main business case is that people have a lot more fun and get a lot more done if they're able to spend time in areas where they have some natural talent. I think that's a fundamental principle that hasn't changed much at all. The one thing that we were clear about in StrengthsFinder 2.0 is that the American dream ideal that "You can be anything you want if you just try hard enough" is detrimental. This is especially true when people buy into it hook, line, and sinker. You may not be able to be anything you want to be, but you can be a lot more of who you already are. [Taking] StrengthsFinder is just a starting point; it's step one of a hundred in figuring out the areas where you have the most potential for growth. GMJ: What is the most challenging aspect of your ongoing strengths research?
Rath: While hundreds of people in our organization continue to research this topic each year, our greatest challenge might be incorporating the new research while making the message even more succinct and applicable to a wider audience. So while we have hundreds of new case studies and meta-analyses about strengths -- and about employee engagement and business outcomes -- we tried to stay as close as we could to the basics. GMJ: The Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment has always categorized talents into thirty-four themes. Have you ever considered adding or subtracting any, or refining them further?
Rath: Yes, we looked at that extensively as we started to review our plan for the updated version of the assessment. We found that so far, the thirty-four themes have done a good job of describing much of what we've learned since releasing the first version of the assessment. If enough people had made a case about a specific theme that didn't exist, we were open to adding that theme. I think we probably will continue to investigate whether there are themes that emerge that we haven't yet picked up on. But there wasn't a real strong case for any additions at this time. GMJ: What would you most like to accomplish with StrengthsFinder 2.0?
Rath: Our big goal and mission as a company is to help people do more of what they do well. We've topped two million completed StrengthsFinder assessments, and it's not too hard to imagine that number getting to twenty million soon. An organization that exists to help people has a responsibility to get better and better. By reaching beyond our initial audience, we help people get the latest and greatest research. But we also hope it helps people live better lives.
From the Inside Flap
In 1998, the Father of Strengths Psychology, Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D. (1924-2003), along with Tom Rath and a team of scientists at The Gallup Organization, created the online StrengthsFinder assessment. In 2001, they included the first edition of StrengthsFinder with the bestseller Now, Discover Your Strengths. In 2004, the assessment's name was formally changed to "Clifton StrengthsFinder" in honor of its chief designer.
In 2007, building on the initial assessment and language from StrengthsFinder 1.0, Rath and Gallup scientists released a new edition of the assessment, program, and website, dubbed "StrengthsFinder 2.0." Rooted in more than 40 years of research, this assessment has helped millions discover and develop their natural talents.
About the Author
Tom's new book, EAT MOVE SLEEP: WHY SMALL CHOICES MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE is already receiving critical acclaim as his next "blockbuster book," a "transformative work," and being described as the new "operating code for human health." To learn more, read an exclusive preview of Eat Move Sleep, or request and Advance Copy, visit: tomrath.org
Tom serves as a Senior Scientist and Advisor to Gallup, where he previously spent 13 years leading the organization's work on employee engagement, strengths, and wellbeing. Tom also served as Vice Chairman of the VHL cancer research organization. He earned degrees from the University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania, where he is now a guest lecturer. Tom and his wife, Ashley, and their two children live in Arlington, Virginia.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Overcoming deficits is an essential part of the fabric of our culture. Our books, movies, and folklore are filled with stories of the underdog who beats one-in-a-million odds. And this leads us to celebrate those who triumph over their lack of natural ability even more than we recognize those who capitalize on their innate talents. As a result, millions of people see these heroes as being the epitome of the American Dream and set their sights on conquering major challenges. Unfortunately, this is taking the path of most resistance.
A misguided maxim?
"You can be anything you want to be, if you just try hard enough." Like most people, I embraced this maxim at a young age. Along with thousands of other kids, I spent a good chunk of my childhood trying to be the next Michael Jordan. Every day, I practiced shooting hoops for three to four hours. I went to basketball camps each summer and tried in every way possible to be a great player. No matter how hard I worked at it, though, becoming an NBA star simply wasn't in the cards for me. After giving 100% of my effort for more than five years, I couldn't even make the junior varsity team.
Embracing the "You-can-be-anything-you-want to-be" maxim isn't something we outgrow. Similar scenarios play out in the workplace every day. A star salesperson thinks she can be a great sales manager with enough effort. She interviews other managers to gain insight, reads every book on management she can find, and stays late every night trying to get the job done -- at the expense of her family and even her health. Then, a few years into the job, she realizes that she doesn't have the natural talent to develop other people. Not only is this a waste of her time, but chances are, she could have increased her contribution even more if she had stayed in the sales role -- a role in which she naturally excelled. Yet if we want additional income, status, or responsibility, most organizational hierarchies force us into a very different role -- instead of allowing for an entire career of progression within a specific role that fits our talents. What's even more disheartening is the way our fixation on deficits affects young people in the home and classroom. In every culture we have studied, the overwhelming majority of parents (77% in the United States) think that a student's lowest grades deserve the most time and attention. Parents and teachers reward excellence with apathy instead of investing more time in the areas where a child has the most potential for greatness.
The reality is that a person who has always struggled with numbers is unlikely to be a great accountant or statistician. And the person without much natural empathy will never be able to comfort an agitated customer in the warm and sincere way that the great empathizers can. Even the legendary Michael Jordan, who embodied the power of raw talent on a basketball court, could not become, well, the "Michael Jordan" of golf or baseball, no matter how hard he tried.
This might sound like a heretical point of view, especially for those of us who grew up believing the essential American myth that we could become anything we wanted. Yet it's clear from Gallup's research that each person has greater potential for success in specific areas, and the key to human development is building on who you already are.
The following real-life example from Gallup's economic development work in Puebla, Mexico, provides a basic yet powerful illustration of what can happen when people focus on their natural talents.
Hector had always been known as a great shoemaker. In fact, customers from such far-off places as France claimed that Hector made the best shoes in the world. Yet for years, he had been frustrated with his small shoemaking business. Although Hector knew he was capable of making hundreds of shoes per week, he was averaging just 30 pairs. When a friend asked him why, Hector explained that while he was great at producing shoes, he was a poor salesman -- and terrible when it came to collecting payments. Yet he spent most of his time working in these areas of weakness.
So, Hector's friend introduced him to Sergio, a natural salesman and marketer. Just as Hector was known for his craftsmanship, Sergio could close deals and sell. Given the way their strengths complemented one another, Hector and Sergio decided to work together. A year later, this strengths-based duo was producing, selling, and collecting payment for more than 100 pairs of shoes per week -- a more than threefold increase.
While this story may seem simplistic, in many cases, aligning yourself with the right task can be this easy. When we're able to put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists. So, a revision to the "You-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be" maxim might be more accurate:
You cannot be anything you want to be -- but you can be a lot more of who you already are.