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A strengths based approach to leadership

Strong and stable?

In this crazy, crazy world we live in, are we asking too much for a leader to adapt their leadership style to suit every situation? Does this require simply too much self-awareness and flexibility when the pace of change is so quick? (Something Theresa May might have done well to realise before committing to the ‘strong and stable’ refrain during the recent election campaign, perhaps?!)

In short, does a competent all-rounder provide the leadership we need these days?

Or, would it be better to have a leader whose particular leadership style suits the particular needs of our business?

This is the argument put forward by proponents of a new approach called ‘spiky leadership’. It’s the idea that if leaders play to their true strengths – and these are in line with what your business demands – this yields far better results than expecting a leader to be all things to all people.

Read on for my analysis of strengths-based leadership and my tips on how to recruit a leader using a strengths-based approach.

The benefits of a strengths based approach to leadership

Traditional ‘situational’ leadership models are all about adaptability. About leaders being able to flex their approach, their style, according to the demands of any situation.

But, is there a better way to lead? One that’s more appropriate for our modern world?

One alternative approach that has developed over the last few years is called ‘spiky leadership’.

Research shows that if you play to your strengths (your ‘spikes’) rather than attempt to be an ‘all rounder’ you are more likely to be a great performer. This is true from operational to board level.

As a leader you will be more engaged and committed, more confident and stretched in your work (in a positive way). Those who work for you will be too if encouraged to play to their strengths.

A strengths-based approach also helps the board and senior levels of an organisation become more diverse as different styles and approaches are welcomed. Making them more responsive to change as different leaders bring different ideas about how to tackle the challenges ahead.

For example, in a boardroom discussion about a dip in sales, a leader with thinking strengths will be focusing on the figures while a leader with more relational strengths will be focusing on people and motivation – both perspectives are useful, bringing a wider breadth of insight to the problem.

It also helps the organisation recruit people from different backgrounds or minority groups, as differences are naturally embraced in this approach. And there is very strong research to show that those organisations who fail to survive have much less diverse boards.

Things to consider when taking a strengths based approach to leadership

While there are some very good reasons to use strengths when recruiting a leader, there are a couple of things you need to consider:

  • Who’s doing all the other stuff that needs doing while your leader focuses on what they’re energised by? Who are the team supporting the leader and working with the leader? If you have a team of leaders who are all playing to their thinking and execution (delivery) strengths, who is looking after the people strategy or the relational side of the business?
  • A focus on strengths could lead to someone having a ‘like it, or lump it’ style e.g. ‘I’m argumentative, that’s just me – you’ll just have to live with it’? So there still needs to be clear ground rules around acceptable behaviour and what great performance looks like in terms of outcomes.

How to recruit a leader using a strengths-based approach

The recruitment process itself is similar to the approach I described here. But with a strengths-based approach you focus on different things when evaluating what sort of leader your business needs. And you use different tools to assess your candidates.

 1. Job analysis

When you look at the role and what’s required in your leader, pay particular attention to the future. Simply considering the current context of the business is not enough.

Consider:

  • What does the next 5-10 years look like for our organisation? Where do we want to be in 10 years’ time?
  • What do we need to focus on to get us there? Do we need more of a focus on finance or customers or process or workforce?
  • What leadership style and strengths will enable us to drive that focus? For example, is the organisation becoming flatter and less hierarchical, needing decisions by a committee of stakeholders and leaders to be more collaborative than authoritative?
  • What are the strengths of the other members of our leadership team? Are they energised by delivery, results, customers, innovation? Are there gaps? How do those gaps impact on the delivery of our strategy? What strengths does our leader need to fill those gaps? For instance, the leadership team might be very consultative but struggle with decision-making. Perhaps then the best leader would be someone energised by taking action.

This mapping exercise will help you to understand what type of activity your leader needs to be energised by in order to deliver the outcomes you need.

2. Where will you find your new leader?

Many organisations rely on past experience as evidence of future performance.

But this means that all too often, they simply look for someone with experience of working in the same industry as their business.

In our fast-paced world though, this isn’t going to cut it. Things move on, businesses change, new challenges present themselves. Time to think less about what someone has done in the past and more about what they have been exposed to.

Consider carefully what type of experience is useful for your business. Perhaps you’re looking to move your business more online. But you lack the experience inhouse to do this. What might your new leader have been exposed to, then, that would help you deliver this goal? What new perspective might they be able to offer?

You can’t predict what decisions your leader will need to make in the future but if they’ve got an insight and understanding into the areas that are useful to you, they’ll be in a better position to make the right decisions for your business.

3. Assessing your candidates

You’ll need to consider what psychometric tools you’re going to use to evaluate whether your candidates have the right strengths for what your business needs to achieve.

It’s best to use a suite of tools to provide a rounded picture of your candidates. For example, here’s my favourite combination for a truly in-depth look at someone:

  • a broad personality questionnaire to provide a sense of how they will behave in role such as WAVE or the Occupational Personality Questionnaire
  • a strengths tool such as Strengthscope™ to discover what they’re motivated by at work
  • and (if you think you can ask candidates to do three questionnaires!) the Hogan Development Survey – to uncover the dark side of their leadership style. What could derail them when things get tough?

You would use the results of these psychometric questionnaires to inform the questions you ask at interview. Can the candidate provide evidence of when and how they use their strengths, whether they use them effectively and whether they recognise when those strengths might go into overdrive? 

4. Making the right decision

When deciding between candidates, evaluate them against the future business strategy once more.

Which of your candidates has the strengths that will take you in the right direction? Which strengths will complement the existing team and the strengths they have? Is there an opportunity for the person to use their significant strengths in the role? Will they find it energising and engaging to work in the organisation?

All these factors have a part to play if you’re going to embrace a strengths based approach to leadership.

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