Am I a failure? Four years ago, when I was lecturing at the Gallup Leadership Institute, we commissioned a poll that asked, Which will help you achieve greater success: Building your strengths or fixing your weaknesses? Only 41% of people believed that focusing on their strengths was the key to success. Given the pressures of today's economy, where anything short of peak performance makes you ripe for outsourcing, where slimmed down, "lean thinking" teams demand the greatest capacity possible from each member, that number shocked me. Focusing on our strengths is surely our only chance to distinguish ourselves and excel. Emboldened by the opportunity to turn the world on to this, I hoped I could lead a strengths revolution.
I wrote a book about this, put out a follow-up, and then struck out on my own. I've been lucky that people have actually bought my books and liked my ideas, and the thought of some 2 million readers getting excited about exploiting their strengths gave me a warm feeling of satisfaction: This strengths revolution was gaining some serious momentum. Before I put out my latest book, I thought I'd check in and see how far we'd come. So I commissioned a poll that asked that same question about the key to success. To my chagrin, the data came back exactly the same: 41% said strengths; 59% said weaknesses.
What does this mean, besides the unfortunate acknowledgment that I'm having rather less impact than I imagined? It means that companies may say, "Our people are our greatest asset," but they mean it about as much as when they say, "The customer is always right." The truth is, most people are less interested in deploying their assets than in lessening their liabilities.
The signs of this stalled revolution are many. For example, only 25% of working people say their managers actively coach them in how to use their strengths at work. Even worse, only 17% of working people say that they spend most of their day doing things they really like. I know work is supposed to be "work," and that only a naive idealist would expect 70% or 80% of people to say they spend most of their time at work doing things they really like. But, still, 17%? What a waste of human potential, not to mention productivity.
So am I a failure? I don't think so. It's time to kick-start this strengths revolution. Can't we pick people with a keener sense of how their strengths match the demands of the role? Can't we change our performance appraisals so they aren't so unremittingly remedial? Can't we redesign our compensation and recognition systems so they don't lure everybody to scramble blindly up the corporate ladder with little regard for whether the next rung truly plays to their strengths? Can't we change our own perspective so that we're fascinated by the potential of our strengths, rather than fixated on our flaws?
None of these things are going to happen by themselves. We're going to have to change our ways. The way we communicate, for example. The language of weakness fixing is still pervasive. In most companies today, a weakness isn't a "weakness"; it's an "area of opportunity," with the implication that our greatest areas for development can be found in our weaknesses, not our strengths. Similarly, when we're coached, we're often told to focus on our "skill gaps" as though a) plugging our gaps is the secret to career success and b) all skills can be learned if we just work at them long enough.
Perhaps most important, we must change the everyday rituals of working life that distract us from the real challenges of exploiting our strengths. The performance appraisal is the most obvious one, but there are others: the job interview, the resume, the org chart, even the business card. We'll have to revamp them all to get this revolution moving.
To measure our progress, three times a year I'll be asking a representative sample of the working population about whether they're using their strengths at work. I'll post the results at www.fastcompany.com and at www.marcusbuckingham.com. We'll know the strengths revolution is well under way when 60% of people, not 41%, say the secret to their success lies in building on their strengths, and when 34%, not 17%, like what they're doing.
You may be reading this and thinking, "What's the fuss? I use my strengths every day." Congratulations. We need to hear from you. The data say you're a rare bird, privy to discoveries and experiences from which the rest could surely benefit. Tell me your success stories. After all, if there's one thing all revolutions need, it's heroes.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.