Sound like a pretty obvious statement, doesn’t it? ‘To see the potential, you only need to look!’ But it does strike me as curious that some managers we are working with initially do not see the potential in their people.  And they certainly haven’t gone looking recently!

I’ve been reflecting on this since a workshop that I conducted recently. The workshop was on ‘strengths-based coaching’ and we were talking about identifying the strengths of people on your team and then leveraging those strengths to achieve high performance and to unlock potential.

As the conversation was ensuing one of the managers raised his hand to draw my attention and said simply ‘yeah I hear everything you are saying Natalie, but what do you do if your team member has no strengths?’, to which I responded ‘well I wonder how you can look for them?’ and he responded ‘well it’s all very well saying look for them but what if they have no potential?’

I was actually a little stunned by the words ‘what if they have no strengths?’ and ‘what if they have no potential?’.  And I paused for a moment or two to think about my response.

I simply said ‘I wonder what it’s like to work for a manager who thinks that I’ve got no strengths and I’ve got no potential?’ and let the question linger.

Then, thinking about it more, I have worked in the past for a manager who didn’t think that I was ‘general management’ potential back in my early banking days.  And I’ve coached several executives who have been told ‘your job is not to come up with new ideas, your job is to do your job’.

It really strikes a deep chord with me because I believe it’s one of our fundamental role leaders and coaches to be focused on bringing out the best in our people and to play to their strengths and draw out their potential. And we’ve all worked for managers who didn’t do this…and we all probably moved on too!

Focussing on a person’s strengths is not just focusing on what they are good at or their job competency – whether they do their job well or not.  It is about focusing on what energises them most.  We take this definition from the work of Brewton and Brook (2006) who said ‘strengths are the underlying qualities that energise us, contribute to our personal growth and lead to peak performance’.

And as depicted in the diagram below, it is the intersect between strengths, competency and organisational goals where we achieve high performance.


When we are focused on our strengths in the workplace, it’s like having the ‘wind in our sails’ – everything is humming along and time seems to go so quickly.

Ideally we want our job to match or leverage our strengths.  When our job allows us to play to our strengths, and we are good at our jobs (competent) and meet the organisational goals, then this is the realm of high performance.  And I loved the discussion we had in a workshop where one leader offered ‘our role as leaders is to grow the intersect between the three elements’.  Every time I look at this diagram now I see it as a moving diagram, rather than static.

I have a great example from another workshop that I facilitated recently.  A talented manager leads the area of ‘complex complaints’ for his department and we talked about how he was good at doing that type of work (very competent at his job), responding to customer complaints that were particularly complex and took a significant amount of effort to work through.

I asked him ‘what energises you most about this work?’ and his answer was fantastic!  He said ‘I love to solve problems.  And I love the opportunity to rebuild relationship with our clients, that have been broken for whatever reason.’

His strengths as you can hear them are: problem solving and building relationships.  One of the reasons that he is so successful in his role is that he is playing to his strengths.  He is a perfect example where the intersect above is really in play.

So rather than just focusing on the job that our team members are doing, or not doing, the critical question that we are asking is ‘what energises you most about your work?’. And then it is our roles as leaders to really listen to the answer and to the best of our ability enable the team member to bring out those strengths and to leverage those strengths.

To his credit, the manager that I was referring to at the beginning of this article went away and did just that!  He asked his two direct reports, ‘what they liked most about their work?’ and the answers surprised him.  He went on to ask ‘and what ideas do you have about how to improve the business?’ and other great questions.

‘What do you do if you don’t see their potential or strengths?’ – he answered the questions for himself.

He shared his coaching questions and his conversations and I was so pleased to hear that by doing this, he had not only unlocked the potential in the people he is working for, but unlocked a real ability in himself.

We are running a free webinar on seeing the potential in your people using a strengths based leadership approach, and we’d love you to be there!
More information and registration by clicking here.