Play to Your Strengths

Play to Your Strengths

In Are You Strong Enough?, we discuss hiring for strengths as a growth strategy for your agency. But you also need to develop employee strengths. That calls for an effective review process built around assessing and encouraging employee skills and talents.

Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton’s bestseller, Now, Discover Your Strengths, notes a disturbing truth about life in the modern workplace: only about 20 percent of people are, or feel that they are, using their strengths and talents in their current job. That means untold millions of people spend valuable chunks of their lives just going through the motions and wondering why they are unhappy. And their employers wonder why their businesses are not growing.

Does your agency focus on weaknesses or strengths?

Performance reviews are universally disliked. Companies spend painful hours administering them, improving them, then trying to tie them to rewards (and punishments). Department heads agonize over how to parcel out their ”grades”; after all, somebody in the group has to be labeled the low performer. The employees just wait and watch, trying to guess what “areas for improvement” will be fingered this time, depending upon the whim of this year’s supervisor. To most employees, eighty percent of their performance reviews are subjective (i.e., not valid and to be immediately disregarded). What a horror.

It does not have to be that way. Buckingham, Clifton, and others before them ask one innocent question: What if we got rid of the old “areas for improvement” and instead worked on building up “areas of strength”?

Wouldn’t it be better if employees focused their efforts on what they are really good at, instead of trying to meet a list of vaguely defined standards that someone thinks “need improvement”? When we focus on forcing a creative round peg into our performance review square hole, we end up with, as Headrush blogger Kathy Sierra puts it, “A crappy, rounded off peg who meets the minimum thresholds at the expense of their most kick-ass attributes.”

Focus on Development, Not Correction

This may seem to be a radical approach, but it makes big-time sense. Think about it, all of you agency managers and owners. Most people go into the advertising and design industry because they have some sort of affinity for advertising, and especially the creative process that drives this business. Why not design reviews to develop individuals instead of homogenizing the individuality out of them—and your agency? Individuality is key to differentiating your agency brand from all the other agencies, design firms and desktop layout specialists you have to compete with daily.

This is especially important for those of you who deal with the creative mindset each day. The antique performance review process is stifling at best, and absolutely destructive at worst when it comes time for agency “annuals.” Grade-based performance reviews mostly make employees feel unappreciated and angry for being denied advancement because of some arbitrary grading system that gives more weight to their weaknesses than what they do well. How much better it would be to leave a performance review feeling inspired to press onward and upward?

Here are some suggestions for making your review process strength-based, so it works better for you, your people and your agency’s future growth.

1. Start by hiring people whose strengths match the requirements of the open position, and support or add to agency services or capabilities. Build interviews to identify individual’s demonstrated and potential areas of strength.

2. Rewrite job descriptions and reviews to focus on the strengths needed for each position, or desirable according to the agency’s strategic plan. Look closely at how well your current review process helps match the needs of your agency with the right personnel. Strength reviews are by nature more organic processes that get “closer” to the individual than traditional reviews. Strength reviews are ongoing “how’re you doing?” dialogues with feedback and guidance, not “report cards” you tuck away in a file each year.

3. Rank your ranking system. Are you currently using a forced ranking system? If you are, proceed with caution. Harvard professor James Heskett says, “Much of this season's debate has centered around whether a forced ranking system works…” *

Make sure that your rankings work for you (by helping your people to grow and improve), rather than against you (by sowing resentment and rebellion among the troops). If you are not an expert in this area, think twice about using rankings.

4. Relate strengths to agency objectives. Instead of merely “grading” employees, set agency objectives, then help employees focus their strong points to help meet those objectives. Remember that objectives-based goals should be concrete and are most effective when tied to a completion date. Ask what you can do to help employees achieve their goals. Asking an employee to achieve a goal that they lack the technology, training or staff to accomplish is hardly likely to inspire.

5. Use continual feedback to build employee strengths, rather than relying on a single, annual review as your main feedback. Once (or even three or four times) per year is not enough. If your people are your agency’s main assets (and believe me, they are), you had better be giving them monthly or weekly amounts of your time to “weed, feed and seed” the kinds of work and behavior that your organization needs.

6. No Surprises! The worst thing you can do to a person is spring a review-time surprise on them. If you communicate so infrequently that the employee does not know how you feel about his/her work, you should not even be reviewing the person… period.
Also, if discipline or improvement is really necessary, you should address it as it happens, not after it has become an ingrained habit.

You’ll know your continuous strength review process works by the results. 

Your people will grow and thrive in their positions, and their work will be better than the norm. The converse is also true. When the individual is not working to his or her strengths, you’ll certainly see the signs.

As Buckingham and Clifton state:

The great organization must not only accommodate the fact that each employee is different, it must capitalize on these differences.


* “What’s to Be Done about Performance Reviews?” published Nov. 27, 2006 in the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge newsletter.

See also: Stop Hunting for “Unicorn” Designers

To Enhance Creativity, Promote Excellence, Not Mediocrity

I Love When a Plan Comes Together… Helping Employees Set Performance Goals

The Training Gap: Solving the Agency Employee Training Dilemma


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