Talents and Talent Themes

Ok. So, I opened the proverbial can of worms, yesterday. When I brought up all those words and their definitions, I will acknowledge that I may have introduced more confusion than I helped. Sorry about that. Let me back up just a little today and try to clear something up.

Yesterday I defined “talents” as “naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that can be productively applied.” This is essentially straight from Gallup. I didn’t make it up. It may not be exactly word perfect, but it’s pretty close.

I also defined “theme” as “a similar group of talents.” Again, that’s from Gallup, more or less.

But, so what? What am I really talking about?

Keep in mind that Gallup has spent almost 60 years studying people, their success, and how they can be effective in their chosen industry, walk of life, or experiences. Through the course of their research they identified thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of talents people possessed. They defined talent as that which came naturally to people. It was a way they just naturally thought about things. Or it was the way they just naturally felt about what was going on around them. It could even be their natural ability to do things.

The key was talent was what people naturally thought, felt, or did. They didn’t have to “work at it,” or “struggle,” or “dig deep” to think, feel, or do. It just happened. Now, the degree to which they were good, or effective, or successful at those things depended, according to Gallup, on how much they had invested in them. That is, how much they had acquired additional knowledge around those talents, or how much skill they had developed in relation to those talents. So, it was possible to have talent – a natural inclination to think, feel, or do something – without necessarily being masterful at it. Mastery came through additional knowledge and skill.

So, what about “themes?” Well, themes were nothing more than a way to group similar talents together. Remember I said that Gallup identified thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of talents? Well, when talking about them all, it’s really not very useful to talk about thousands of them. It’s much easier if we could categorize, or group them, under a fewer set of labels. Hence the term “theme,” or “themes.”

For example, it seems some people are natural-born storytellers. Others seem to be naturally gifted at speaking in front of hundred, even thousands, of people and inspiring and motivating them into action. Still others come across as tremendously capable of writing really, really well. Each of these are different talents. Yet, they are also easily recognized as different forms of communication. So, we could categorize them, or label them, under one similar theme, “communication.”

In Gallup’s research they took the thousands and thousands of talents they had identified and they grouped them into 34 different “themes.” Thus, we have the 34 themes of talent, sometimes referred to as 34 Strengths. But, if I say it that way, I would be misspeaking. (See yesterday’s blog post for more details about that.)

Correcting My Language

Gallup makes it easy to talk about Strengths. Once you get used to using that term, “strengths,” it rolls off the tongue without much effort. There’s only one problem: I find myself using the term incorrectly about 90% of the time.

It’s not because I don’t know any better. I’m just lazy. And, I follow the crowd pretty easily, too. Most people use the term wrong – at least most people who talk about the results of the CliftonStrengths assessment, engage people in coaching sessions to help them apply those results, and generally strive to apply the Strengths philosophy. We find it easy to just toss around the word “strengths” as if it were the right one in most cases. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Let me share some definitions and a couple of thoughts about this to try and explain. Based on Gallup’s research and the information they share about the CliftonStrengths assessment, the following definitions need to be kept in mind:

talent = naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that can be productively applied

theme – a group of similar talents

strength = consistent, near-perfect performance derived from applying talent that has been developed by the investment of knowledge and skill

weakness = anything that gets in the way of your success, or the success of others

Now, why does any of this matter? Well, most of the time when the word “strength,” or “strengths,” is used, what is actually meant is “talent theme.” For example, a week ago when I was writing about helping the JMU athletes strengthen their strengths, what i was really talking about was helping them strengthen their talent themes, or their talents. By definition, strengths are those talent themes which have already been developed through the acquisition and application of knowledge and skill such that performance becomes nearly perfect every single time.

I haven’t really done a great job explaining it all here, I know. It’s a bit tricky to grasp, actually. In part because Gallup named their assessment instrument, the “StrengthsFinder” when it first came out. They have since shifted to “CliftonStrengths” assessment, which is better, no doubt. Unfortunately, since I’ve been focused on it all for about a decade now, my old habits will be more difficult to break.

In truth, the name of my site, “Strengthen Your Strengths,” is misnamed. It should be more accurately presented as “Strengthen Your Talent Themes.” But, that’s far less alliterative and not nearly as memorable. So, I’ll probably stick with the name of my site and blog exactly as it is, though I will try to be more accurate in my writing and speaking.

Strengths-based Mentoring

Most of the time I am working with Strengths my focus is on how to help others recognize, identify, and accept their own Strengths. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s very rewarding work. I enjoy seeing new insights, new paths of success, and new opportunities open up as individuals learn about and focus on their strengths.

Recently, however, I have had the opportunity to focus my attention on helping those who help others. I’ve been targeting a group of individuals who will become mentors for others. So, when it comes to working with Strengths, what is the focus and emphasis then?

It probably won’t surprise you to hear me say that the focus is still on Strengths. It’s still no helping those who will be mentors to recognize, identify, and accept their own Strengths. But, I also get to help them take it a couple of steps further. I get to help them see how they can actually use their Strengths while they are mentoring others. If their strengths are positivity and relator, then I challenge them to think about how they can use those strengths as they interact with, and engage in conversations with, those they will be mentoring. On the other hand, if their strengths are intellection and learner then the challenge might be geared more toward inviting them to see how they can use those thinking and learning talents to prepare better questions, invite deeper thinking, and engage in richer dialogue.

Once they start seeing the application of their own strengths in their mentoring role, then we can shift towards helping them develop skills that will help them help those they mentor identify their own Strengths and discover ways to use them more effectively in their lives.

Leadership Strengths

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a number of different workshops, training sessions, and webinars hosted by Gallup. I’ve interacted with a number of different facilitators and experts from their organization so that I could better understand Strengths, the Strengths philosophy, and how I can use that to help others become better leaders.

On one particular occasion, during a Strengths workshop I was attending with a Gallup Strengths expert, I heard it said that part of Gallup’s original hope for their research was to figure out the perfect set of leadership strengths that were needed for individuals to become the absolute best leaders they could possibly become. If they could just dial in on the right strengths, teach people to maximize them, then we could have a dramatic impact on society through these perfectly tuned leaders.

There was only one problem: through all of the data gathered, the evidence examined, and the research conducted, Gallup found out there was no perfect set of leadership strengths. In spite of identifying thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of talents and strengths, Gallup’s research did not identify which of them were the right ones for leaders to possess. There just simply was not a perfect set of strengths themes for leaders.

Instead, what they found out was that the best leaders didn’t all share some secret set of similar strengths. Instead, the best leaders discovered their own unique set of strengths, worked hard at getting better at them, and then used them as often as they possibly could. That turned out to be the “secret formula” for leadership success.

Strengthening Athletes Strengths

I love my job!

I’ve said it before and I’m likely to say it again. There is so much about my job that I absolutely love. One aspect is the opportunity I have to work with so many fantastic people. The Dux Leadership Center has partnered with JMU Athletics to provide some leadership workshops to help the athletes in areas of their lives off the playing field. So, right now I’m preparing a workshop on Strengths for a group of 2nd-year athletes at JMU.

As I’ve thought about the materials and resources we might want to use during this workshop, I’ve really focused on how to customize this workshop to best help the athletes. As I’ve considered the messages they get from their coaches, their teammates, their parents, the fans, and so many others I couldn’t help but think about how often their hear nothing but the negative. They are constantly being told what they did wrong, how they should improve, and what they could be doing better.

I suspect that rarely, if ever, do they truly get to focus on what they are already doing well. I don’t see too many coaches, trainers, or teammates encouraging athletes to concentrate on their strengths and challenge them to get even better at them. Most are certain that real athletic excellence is found only by knowing all the weaknesses, fixing them, and thus improving overall performance. But, if history is much of a teacher, it’s easy to see that this is simply not true.

Take the Chinese Olympic Ping Pong team, for example. Their coach puts them through grueling, 8-hour long training routines where the focus is almost exclusively on improving the players’ respective strengths. Don’t get me wrong, weaknesses are not ignored. They simply aren’t the focus for achieving excellence. Weaknesses are fixed just enough to prevent failure. They don’t become the emphasis for success.

Instead, the players spend countless hours practicing and practicing and practicing their strengths. They learn to master and dominate those skills that are already strengths for them. As the coach says, “If you develop your strengths to the maximum, the strength becomes so great it overwhelms the weakness.”

You might be wondering if that approach can even work. Well, the Chinese team’s best player is known for having a poor backhand. The competition knows he doesn’t have an effective backhand. And yet, his forehand is so powerful, so dominant, that he cannot be beaten. And the same is true for the entire team. Over the years that the Olympics has included ping pong, the Chinese have won more than 50 medals, sometimes sweeping the bronze, silver, and gold in both the singles and the doubles competition in the same Olympiad. Their closest competitor, Korea, has a mere 17 medals.

I’m hoping to be able to convince the JMU athletes that fixing their weaknesses will only help them prevent failure. It won’t help them achieve excellence. The best path to achieving excellence is to strengthen their strengths.