The first time I coached someone using their strengths was with a student leader when I was working at Rutgers. She was working for me in orientation and struggling to illustrate those typical leadership traits we normally see, like gravitas, confidence, and presence. She watched some of her fellow leaders do it so easily, and wondered if there was something wrong with her. I remember this conversation keenly because I advocated to put her on the leadership team. I knew she had potential to lead, even if it looked different than the others. And now, she was questioning whether this was the right move. I looked at her top 5 Clifton StrengthsFinder strengths and started to help her understand what each of them meant. I specifically remember talking about Ideation (which was in her top 5), and talking with her about how she could use Ideation to connect the dots for her team while demonstrating leadership through her ideas and connections. It started to resonate, and over time she applied her strengths to her role in many ways.
Fast forward 5 years…
After a bit of a break from my days in higher ed using StrengthsFinder, I found my way back to it now as the Director of Global Learning and Development at APCO Worldwide. I dusted off my books and built out a 3 hour Strengths Based Development training. I first delivered it to our office in Raleigh in early 2017. They loved it, and word got out to other offices about the ability to apply the learning for this workshop to so many aspects of the work my colleagues were doing. Over the course of 2017 I had the great pleasure of delivering the workshop in Singapore, London, Seattle, and to multiple groups in our Washington D.C. headquarters. Each time it was delivered, I was met with overwhelming enthusiasm and excitement from colleagues. People were amazed as they read through their Insight Guide (a customized report outlining one’s top 5 strengths), sometimes highlighting full paragraphs from the report because every word resonated with them. They had language and concepts that they could now connect to natural talents. They left knowing how to leverage their talents in a more meaningful way, and they appreciated their team in new ways. By August, I had an itch to learn more and use my passion for this in different ways beyond simply delivering workshops. At the end of September I participated in a full week of Gallup’s Accelerated Coaching Certificate program.
As part of my certification process, I had to pass a 100 question exam and complete at least 6 coaching sessions. I am happy to say that yesterday afternoon I officially passed all requirements, and became a Certified Strengths Performance Coach. The following was the most enlightening experience I had over this journey to become certified, and it will guide the way I teach and coach with the strengths framework for many years to come.
Turning a Disability Into A Superpower
I have spent much of the last decade reflecting on my experience as a child (and now an adult) with ADHD. I want to share with you how something that happened in my certification course has framed the way I think about this, as well as generally how I think about the growing and development of others. Look below at two pages from my coaching workbook. Funny enough, these are my two top strengths, Activator and Futuristic. Now, let me explain what you are looking at in this picture…
In this particular lesson, we were learning that all strengths have a balcony and a basement. The balcony is represented by the descriptive words on top, and the basement characterized by the words on the bottom. Without getting too in the weeds, your balcony is the best version of your strength and how it plays out in normal life. So, someone that is Futuristic spends most of their time in the ‘balcony’ helping people think ahead, or seeing future trends, etc. When there is stress put on a person that forces them to over-rely on that strength it puts them in the ‘basement’. Meaning, if I am in the basement of Futuristic I may come off as having my head in the clouds or not paying attention to the present. If you look at the the basement of these two strengths, my top 2 strengths, that is pretty much how someone might describe a person with ADHD. They say we’re impulsive, have our head in the clouds, distracted, and so on. When I flipped to this page during the course and saw this, it immediately took my breath away. What if someone told me that I had strengths instead of a disability? What if instead of saying all these traits like being impulsive or distracted were bad behaviors, they were framed to be the ‘basement’ of my strengths? If someone explained to me that in fact I was an Activator and could easily get things started, or I was Futuristic which meant I could be a visionary, it would be incredibly empowering. That empowering message could be coupled with a caution that on the flip side of these strengths were some not so great behaviors. At least then, I could have spent my time trying to harness these strengths and being more mindful of the other unwanted behaviors.
I’ve told a few people that have experience with a friend or family member with a learning disability about these two pages in my workbook and they all have the same reaction. They are blown away just looking at what is conveyed on these two pages, and immediately connect the dots as I have with how these strengths show up for people with ADHD. I would guess this phenomenon isn’t limited to ADHD either. It may show up in other strength combinations, but I would assume a similar model occurs.
I can tell you one thing for sure. This has shaped the way I look at my work as a strengths coach, and the way I teach this approach to others in workshops. I have a greater appreciation for helping others find authenticity and empowering them to be the best version of themselves. If you compare my original story about the student leader that felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole to my own story of feeling similarly through much of my years in school, you find that there are many things at work that force people to act a certain way. A strengths based approach helps us to appreciate what makes us unique, and empowers us to focus only on being the best version of ourselves. This is what excites me most about the work ahead in this arena.