Buckingham: It’s All About Strengths

By Rita Zeidner Jul 1, 2010
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Marcus Buckingham.Photo by Steven Purcell.

SAN DIEGO—Marcus Buckingham wants you to get the best work from your employees. But that might mean trashing everything you thought you knew about managing them.

A leadership expert and best-selling author of several books, including First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999) Buckingham urged his audience to quit obsessing about their employees’ weaknesses, as well as their own. Instead, he implored, shift the focus toward strengths.

“We misunderstand where the opportunity lies,” he lamented June 30, 2010, during the closing general session of the Society for Human Resource Management’s 62nd Annual Conference & Exposition. “We’re living in a remedial society [but] you have the greatest opportunity to grow and develop with your strengths.”

Buckingham dissed the conventional wisdom—particularly prevalent in HR circles—that weaknesses are opportunities.

“Call a weakness what it is. It’s an activity that weakens you, even if you’re good at it.”

A pioneer of so-called “strength-based management,” he urged managers to apply the same rule to themselves. But first, he said, you must be honest about what makes you weak and apply “strategies for managing around it.”

His recommended strategy for “managing around” weakness conveniently forms the acronym “STOP”:

  • Stop doing what makes you weak and see if anyone cares.
  • Team up with someone who likes doing it.
  • Offer up your strengths and steer your job in that direction.
  • Perceive your weaknesses from a different perspective and use a strength to neutralize weaknesses.

“The moment you start focusing on strengths, you immediately focus on performance,” he said.

Of course everyone has some duties they can’t get out of. And for those, he adds a final “S-word” to his neat little acronym. “Suck it up,” he advised.

Buckingham shared how he follows his own counsel. A former Gallup researcher, he knows he enjoys and is good at interviewing people. On the other hand, he loathes mingling with strangers at cocktail parties, even though it’s part of his job and helps boost book sales. To make the task more enjoyable, he pretends his brief cocktail party chats are interviews.

The affable Brit devoted a portion of his 45-minute presentation to distinguishing management from leadership. While it’s the manager’s job to figure out what makes people unique and capitalize on that, leaders are charged with bringing people together.

“Leaders find what we all have in common,” he said.

The best leaders, he said, will address the commonly held fear of the unknown, providing clear and specific answers to such leading questions as:

  • Who do we serve?
  • What is our core strength?
  • How do we know if we’ve won?

Rita Zeidner is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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