Building (and growing) a Strengths-Based Team

By | 2014-04-23T12:00:49+00:00 April 23rd, 2014|Application Lifecycle Management (ALM)|4 Comments

For as long as I can remember, I have been passionate about team dynamics and positive team culture. Team environment impacts everyone involved: the customers on one end, the employee’s families on the other end, and the employees in the middle. It can also make or break a business. As a leader, I believe it is my responsibility to keep a keen focus on culture, particularly because of the personal impact that it has on so many people. Our culture at Northwest Cadence is certainly not perfect. It’s a work in progress and always will be. But with focus, care, and transparency, it will continue to improve (and I have to say, it’s already pretty darn great!).

The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant.– Peter Drucker

Over the years, we have spent a lot of time as a team learning about one another’s strengths and the impact our individual strengths have on our relationships, work styles, preferences, and communications. Inside our Northwest Cadence walls, it isn’t uncommon for us to talk about how to “play people to their strengths”. After all – when people are playing to their natural strengths, they are typically happier doing what they’re doing, and they will usually do a great job doing it. It’s a win-win.

Until recently, I have looked at strengths-based leadership through a lens of playing people to their strengths. Then something changed for me. I believe it changed because our team has reached a new level of maturity. It took some time to understand what had changed on our team, how we could foster that positive change, and what I might do to help articulate this path of change.

There is a strong distinction between using your strengths for what you’re doing and sharing your strengths with others. Generally speaking, individuals are maximized and happy when they are using their strengths. The significance in the distinction is this: when others around you begin proactively sharing their strengths with you while you continue to use your own strengths, the greatness of what you’re doing is hugely amplified. Others around you are being pro-active by knowing your strengths and their own, and choosing to actively share some of their strengths with you to further amplify the work that you’re doing. This transition from active to pro-active is extraordinary on team culture.

Vanity Team versus Strengths-Based Team

I think we’re all familiar with the term vanity metrics: those metrics that are designed to tell you want you want to know and help make you feel good about yourself. They aren’t often actionable metrics; and, if they are actionable, they often aren’t the right metrics to measure if you’re trying to get business results.

Building a vanity team is kind of like measuring vanity metrics. It is natural for us to feel comfortable with people like ourselves. People like us tend to appreciate us more than others do; they relate to the way we act, think, and do things; they give confirmation and affirmation that we’re doing things the right way; and they like us. They appreciate, relate, affirm, and like us because they’re like us. And this all feels really good.

Given this over-simplified reasoning on why we tend to feel conformable with people like ourselves, it is completely understandable that organizational leaders tend to hire people like themselves and team members tend to gravitate towards working more closely with people like themselves. It’s more comfortable. We actively try to do the opposite at Northwest Cadence, primarily because I believe that a well-rounded team means a better team, and a better team means a great culture.

A strengths-based team is a well-rounded team. A well-rounded team does not come to be by happenstance. The existence of a comprehensive collection of strengths represented across team individuals does not make a well-rounded team. Rather, a well-rounded team is created proactively. It’s one where a comprehensive collection of strengths exist and team individuals actively work to round out each other through the sharing of strengths.

Cheryl Hammond, Northwest Cadence ALM Consultant and Practices Team Lead, has spearheaded our efforts to bring Strengths-Based teaming discussions into our customer engagements. The results have been great and she continues to explore creative new ways to improve teaming through Strengths-Based leadership. The Technical and Sales/Marketing/Operations team domain summary below depicts the strengths inside our Northwest Cadence teams (thanks, Cheryl!). Not surprisingly, our company top themes sit dominantly in the Thinking category, and our team’s top strengths include Strategic, Responsibility, Achiever, Relator, Learner, Restorative, Activator, Adaptability, Arranger, Competition, Input, and Positivity. Almost all of the 34 Strengths are represented on our team.

graph 1

Northwest Cadence Strengths-Based Team domain summary (PowerPivot)

StrengthsFinder 2.0 Explained

To preface this strengths-based team hierarchy explanation, I must first highlight the context in which I’m coming from. By no means do I believe that any assessment or personality test can solve the challenges of creating a better team culture. They can, however, act as a tool to help lay a foundation for improvement.

There are dozens of various personality, work style, behavior, and strength assessments out there. Some of the more common assessments are Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Discovery Insights, and DiSC. These various assessments provide great insight and work well to overlay with Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment. I love the StrengthsFinder philosophy as the foundation, however. The theory behind StrengthsFinder is that we should all become familiar with our strengths and do more of what we’re strong at. This is good on a variety of levels, including happiness and performance.

Simply put, here’s how Tom Rath explains strengths:

graph 2

For more on Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0, see the comprehensive (39 pages!) technical report that discusses the purpose, development, theory, and validity of the Clifton StrenghtsFinder 2.0.

Strengths-Based Team Hierarchy

I have modeled the strengths-based team in a four-stage pyramid to help depict the growth stages of a strengths-based team.

graph 3


Pro-active – Actively seeks out opportunities to share personal strengths where they will round out the strengths of others around.

Active – Engaged in efforts to personally do more of what we’re good at.

Conscious – Aware of personal & peer strengths and the significance of this.

Unconscious – Unaware of personal or peer strengths.

Make the Decision to Go All In

A strengths-based team can start when you’re in a position to influence or empower the team, and you make the decision to do just that. The first step towards building a strengths-based team is making the step to go all in.

I’m one of those Go Big or Go Home kind of people. I suppose I’m this way partially because one of my Top 5 Strengths is Focus (and another is Competition). In a nutshell, the Focus strength means that it is second-nature for me set goals, and I’m able to keep moving towards my goals despite what’s going on around me. When I started Northwest Cadence, I had my mind set on building a company that was a great place to work. Over the years, there have been many distractions and tangents that could have pulled me away from this goal. At times, it has been tempting to wander down the unproductive or unhealthy paths of hiring too quickly, dispersing our team, letting our consultants travel too much, succumbing to reactive over proactive, diluting what we do best, and letting life happen rather than being deliberate about what we do. At Northwest Cadence, culture trumps everything else. While business needs arise, the economy changes, and life throws many curveballs, culture remains our true north.

Even if you aren’t a Go Big or Go Home person, you can make the deliberate choice to focus on culture. Let culture be your true north. It’s scary at first because you can’t lean on the comfort of what’s in black and white: marketing data, financial reports, and other various dials one can turn. You also can’t assume that healthy culture will happen organically. It takes ongoing nurturing and focus.

Get Started

Once you have made the decision that you’re ready for something different, you are bought in to the importance and value of strengths-based teams, and you’d like to go all in, it is simple to get started.

Peter Drucker once said “Most Americans do not know what their strengths are. When you ask them, they look at you with a blank stare, or they respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer”. I tend to agree with Peter on this one. Embrace your strengths and the strengths of those around you. Get to know who your team is; not what they do.

  1. Start by taking the StrengthsFinder 2.0 Assessment for yourself. There is an Assessment code in the back of each book, or you can purchase codes individually online. Once you have taken the Assessment, read the Strengths Finder 2.0 book. Become familiar with your Strengths and what they mean. This will give you some context.
  2. Next, ask those around you to take the StrengthsFinder 2.0 Assessment and give them copies of the book. I would suggest starting with your leadership team or one of your development teams.
  3. Read the Strengths Based Leadership book. It’s a great reference book, and will be more contextual once you have an understanding of the strengths around you.

Great! You’re now at the Conscious level on the strengths-based team hierarchy.

Employ the Right People

First, an organization must get, and keep, the right people on the bus.

Given that we all have existing teams, we can’t easily start from scratch. Nor would we want to. We can, however, become fluent in understanding our strengths and the strengths of those around us.

We can also be mindful to not build a Vanity Team. More of the same does not equal better. Instead of hiring people like you, hire people who have the right strengths for the role, and who will round out your team that is already in place.

Strengths are better when rounded out by complimenting strengths.

Our Operations Manager Amanda and I have wonderfully complimenting strengths. Amanda has great Arranger and Adaptability strengths. She has an incredible gift of being able to stay productive and calm while the demands of ever-changing logistics, schedules, and sudden requests are pulling her in different directions. Not only does she thrive in this environment, but she also enjoys the complexity and problem-solving that comes with it. I, on the other hand, have Strategic and Focus strengths. I tend to build long-term goals and have a vivid vision of what the end game could be, working backwards to put a broad strategy in place to reach the goals. Between Amanda and me, our Strengths complement one another, allowing us to successfully reach the end goals while carefully and quickly managing the complex strategy and moving pieces along the way.

Strengths are also better when sharpened by competing strengths.

Steven Borg, co-founder and Strategist of Northwest Cadence, has dominant Ideation, Activator, and Self-Assurance strengths. You can imagine the power behind this combination of Thinking and Striving strengths. While Steven is an exceptional ideas guy, he also tends to be eager to help get things moving forward and can energize people to activate. It is no wonder Shad is our Technical Lead and provides the perfect counterbalance to Steven. While Steven and Shad both share the Strategic strength, Shad brings natural good judgment with his Deliberative and Analytical perspective. Together they make many decisions, and the decisions they make are sound. Their competing strengths allow them to have the perfect harmony of calculated gusto.

Embrace the Journey

This is one of the hardest things for me to do. I have both Achiever and Competition in my Top 5. As a competitive achiever type, it is easy for me to brush off the significance of the journey and consider it only the necessary path to the end. The end is what really counts, right? Wrong! In the case of Strengths-Based leadership (and building a Strengths-Based team), the journey is what counts. Every day counts and can be the difference between being a “conscious” or “active” Strengths-Based team, and although some days seem to set the team back, it’s the lessons learned on those days that help the team skip forward when done right.

At Northwest Cadence, we are believers of The Lean Startup principles by Eric Ries. These principles apply to the Strengths-Based Team journey as well. Build-Measure-Learn. Know who your customers are and what’s important to them. In the case of Strength-Based Teams, the fundamental criteria for success is to know the Strengths of the team members and what is important to them. This will allow for ongoing focus and continuous improvement as you move towards becoming a strengths-based team.

The Quest for Team Utopia

We have our quarterly Team Day coming up in a couple of weeks. During our Team Day, we will be playing a Team Utopia game that highlights how we can continue to grow as a pro-active Strengths-Based team. And yes, given that it’s a Team Utopia game, there are unicorns, rainbows, and bubble gum treats involved. Pro-active Strengths-Based teaming is a continuous improvement journey. Just when all seems well in the world of teaming, something happens that pushes us down the hierarchy. With a keen focus on culture and a build-measure-learn philosophy, you’re bound to trend up towards a pro-active Strengths-Based team.

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  1. Henriet Schapelhouman April 25, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Great blog post, Lori! Northwest Cadence does an awesome job as a Strength-based company. You continue to champion Strengths-thinking and have increasingly grown into pro-active Strengths-based teaming.

  2. Peter Jetter October 3, 2014 at 12:56 am

    IME one needs to consider, that networks of relationships are complex and dynamic. Team strength is likely not equal to the sum of individual strengths (complex adaptive systems exhibit emergent behaviour). That doesn´t invalidate the approach of strength-based management, but trivialisation is seldom a good approach to cope with complex system behavior. Keep in mind, that a team as a whole is something different than the mere sum of it´s parts. It´s attributes and behaviours are different from the sum of attributes and behaviours of the team members.

  3. LoriBorg October 3, 2014 at 11:55 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful feedback, Peter! You are absolutely correct. The dynamics and capabilities of a high-functioning, strengths-based team are complex, fun, and fulfilling. At the most simplistic level, a collection of puzzle pieces put together merely makes a puzzle. When one stands back a bit to appreciate the connectedness, however, one can see the full picture unveiled.

  4. LoriBorg October 3, 2014 at 11:56 am

    Thank you for the wonderful compliment, Henriet. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to be a part of such a incredible team!

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