The Power in Our Strengths

Assessing the best that teams and individuals have to offer—in hockey and HR

By Lindsay Northon, M.A., SHRM-SCP Apr 6, 2017
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​I am a big hockey fan. With playoff season upon us and the Washington Capitals in the running for the Stanley Cup, I have been thinking about the competition my team will be up against. The NHL as a whole is made up of remarkable athletes. The teams that continue beyond the regular season are no exception. But there is one quality they have in common that allows them to excel: They utilize the strengths of their players every minute they are on the ice.

Coaches, defenseman, goaltenders, forwards, etc., know each other's strengths. This information is what guides the decision on when it is most advantageous for each member to be in the game. The entire team is cognizant of who can win the puck in the face-off and who can handle a one-on-one match-up in overtime. They also keep in mind the long view, strategizing not just about one game or a specific period in the game, but about the season as a whole.

The strengths-based approach works well both in individual development and in a team environment—on and off the ice. Let's take these concepts and consider their application to HR.

The Individual Dynamic

Say an HR department, after evaluating an organization's business challenges (a key component of the Consultation competency), determines that there is a need for a change initiative that will involve an update to the human capital strategy. HR can provide the assist by identifying the strengths of individuals throughout the organization.

When we consider our own development, be it professional or personal, we often think about our weaknesses and how we might fill any gaps. But sometimes we unfairly set impossible standards for ourselves by making unreasonable comparisons to others. Measuring yourself against, for example, Steve Jobs or the creators of Google (especially if they aren't even part of your peer group) sets you up for failure.

The strengths-based approach, however, highlights each person's own unique strengths. This approach is about being your best self, not about how you compare to or compete against others. You set goals that make sense for you and shift your focus to what you are good at. By doing so, you remove self-defeating thoughts and create positive energy.

The Team Dynamic

A successful coach approaches a game with a systems-thinking perspective, rotating players according to the strengths of each. All-stars are rarely in for the duration of the game, because by taking on too much, they wouldn't perform as well when needed to make a huge play. In football, fourth-down backs are put in when the ball is in the red zone (the last 20 yards before scoring). In baseball, the relief pitcher (also known as the closer) is put in when the starting pitcher is injured or fatigued—and it's an extremely valuable and specialized position.

In the context of an organization, the identification of strengths can help determine which developmental opportunities apply to which individuals and job families. Targeted training and development efforts can help an employee who is identified as strong in a certain task to become an expert in the field. More importantly, such efforts can help the organization by preventing the misallocation of resources: the organization invests in the employees it identifies as best suited to certain jobs and responsibilities.

Consider a business that spends time and money training every member of a team on such tasks as writing reports, presenting to clients and balancing the budget. The company would probably be better off assessing team members' strengths, then assigning them to do what they are likely to do or already do well. The team member found to be strong in face-to-face customer interaction can present to clients, the team member found to be strong in budgeting can take charge of that, and so on. The company is assured that the team and the business will excel, while training costs can be reallocated or cut altogether.

Every person on a team is valuable; discover where that value lies and utilize it. Such a strategy may not be innovative, but it is a good one that is often overlooked and undervalued. In this area and others, moving to a more specialized model can produce measurable, lucrative business results that give an organization a competitive advantage.

Numerous resources describe the benefits of the strengths-based approach to human capital management. Here are a few to get the ball rolling:

Lindsay Northon, M.A., SHRM-SCP (@SHRMLindsay), is HR competencies specialist at SHRM.

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