Managing To People’s Strengths, A Simple Path To Better Performance
This topic opens a series of interviews featuring Lead Through Strengths facilitator Joseph Dworak. Now this particular episode looks at the value of workplace conversations, especially when the team is remote.
People have never been more hungry for human connection than today. In response to this challenge, Joseph models how a keen and intentional manager ensures that team meetings seamlessly incorporate business updates with open-ended questions about work or life — the answers to which become a goldmine not only for human connection but also for deeper insights into people’s strengths.
Pick up some great ideas, such as examples of these open-ended questions, and see if you can apply them in your teams as well.
Here's a full transcript of Lisa's conversation with Joseph:
Lisa: You're listening to Lead Through Strengths, where you'll learn to apply your greatest strengths at work. I'm your host Lisa Cummings, and today we have another host here with you, Joseph Dworak.
Joseph: Hello, how are you?
Lisa: Wonderful! And we are so stoked to have you here because in this series of having other facilitators come in and do strengths interviews, our customers are really loving this extra perspective from our CliftonStrengths facilitators so that it is not only my voice on the show.
We've been talking a lot lately about remote work, and how all of our spaces are combining work and life. Some of us miss workplaces and some of us love working from home. Some of us get in these awkward situations...you pointed out the fact that if somebody is looking at the video version, they see a U-Haul box in there. Because we're alive. Sometimes you move to a new house the day you have an interview.
So how has it been for you as a leader hiring people remotely, not meeting people that you work with? Talk to us about strengths and how you even try to incorporate that into a workplace when you don't see each other. I know you value the idea of managing to people's strengths, yet it's tougher to do when you don't have any "incidental strengths sightings" around the office.
Joseph: Yeah, trying to find that connection piece between teammates who are completely remote and virtual. So the team that I lead, we have people all across North America and some of those folks have never met. Some haven't seen each other since last January in person.
And so when we do have precious time together, we're trying to find ways to make a human connection. And you know what doesn't do the greatest job of trying to find a human connection: just going through bullet points of announcements and things like that. It's fine, but to get people really to share and open up, I try to do something a bit different.
So yeah, back in a management leadership role in 2020, I did not know that COVID would hit, but then I took that job and so... I remember one of my coworkers saying, “Well, now you're going to see how it really is to be back in management leadership with this kind of challenge.” And we didn't even know what it would look like. That was like in March. And I had this sense that we need to stay connected throughout this time.
And so we've been asking those kinds of open-ended questions to start meetings. You know, simply like, “What have been shaping events in your life?” And I always go first with my team to try to like, say, “I can do this so hopefully you can do this as far as you're comfortable.”
But then as they do it, other people will share and whatnot. And then as you mentioned earlier, like adding people to our team throughout the year, I think by the early January, we'll have hired 6 people to the team, so the team almost doubled in size or a little over doubled in size. And trying to incorporate those folks and making them feel part, and some of them have never met everyone else.
And so they're coming on and they're totally new. And they're trying to figure out their teammates and the system and doing it a virtual way. It's been challenging but really fun.
Lisa: It's a great way to make the best of it. Okay, I have heard our customers ask questions a few times when you talk about holding these meetings that feel a little different. Many of our listeners are already on board with using natural talents. They want to manage to people's strengths, rather than obsessing over weaknesses.
They also want to do more. They don't simply want to have people listing off natural talents. To focus on people's strengths - it sounds like a simple concept, but when it comes to implementation, leaders start to feel dorky and awkward about how to incorporate these conversations. They meetings that aren't boring, that aren't just a bunch of updates.
But then, when you're trying to lead a meeting and say, “Oh alright I'm going to incorporate strengths into the meetings and we're going to learn about each other,” how do you go about introducing that? Because it has to be this thing that makes team members almost feel disjointed or like, “What's going on here?” Or do they raise up one eyebrow and say, “Who is this guy?" Or, “What's he talking about? Did he put something funny in his coffee this morning? Is he for real?”
So, obviously, there's a process of normalizing people to these kinds of conversations because that's going to be a different kind of meeting. But how did you set it up for the first time and get this thing going?
Joseph: That's a really good question. I think I had some credibility with the team because I was a member of the team before I became their manager leader, so that helped. There was some trust there to be able to say, “Let me try something. Let me take you somewhere that we really haven't been before.”
And then I did kind of go over, “Hey, there's this thing I've done for over 20 years. It's a tool called StrengthsFinder to help understand how people are wired and for what purpose, and how they can work better. "
I've used it in lots of different settings and one of the things I would always talk about is, I want to manage to who you are, not just manage to just a general expectation, but really like, how are you going to get there and how can you thrive in your strengths.
So I tried to tee it up with all of them to say this isn't just a random personality thing. This is something that's really part of who I am, and kind of what you get whether you like it or not as your manager leader. And so we did an initial session, StrengthsFinder overview, which you and I have done a lot of over the years, and then to try to use it in bite-sized ways over time where we'd just ask a strengths question at a meeting.
Now what's happened is the team has grown. It'll soon be 13 people. And so, it typically means I can't ask everyone to share StrengthsFinder nuggets in every meeting. It would take up a lot of meetings. So I'm having like three or four people in each meeting share different things on different topics, and it's not always strengths-based.
So then I think they actually look forward to our bi-weekly meeting. And certainly we do update stuff and we do like, “Hey, here's the sales plan for the year” and things like that.
But I actually told them, today in a meeting before I got on with you, "I really value the fact that you all play ball and you ask these questions.”
And now new people are getting assimilated in. They just kind of go, “Oh, this is normal.” And they haven't really said much, and I think they just go along a bit to get along probably, but they're also like, obviously different. We're not just talking about quarters and targets.
We're actually talking about who we are and how we work. We're actually managing to people's strengths so we can hit our targets better.
For Open-Ended Strengths Questions, Go First As A Manager
Lisa: Right. I bet it feels really enriching after that. And then the way that you set it up, I'm imagining myself in their shoes, and if you're telling me as my manager, “Hey, I really care about managing to you, and who you are," I'm thinking, “Ooh, there's something in it for me to go here and see what this thing is all about.”
As a way to give people a practical application for this episode, I know I'm putting you on the spot a little bit to ask for example questions, but could you give us an example of the kinds of questions that you might ask in a meeting? I think it will get the creative juices sparked for our audience.
Joseph: Wow. That's a really good question as well. One that we used in consulting when I was doing StrengthsFinder consulting full time was, “What's a person that has shaped you along the way, and why?” Or like, today at our team we actually asked people to share like, “What's a place that has shaped you?”
And so, the team that I used to work with, we would use that as a way to get people to go a little bit deeper. And one of the things we always did was to go first. And so today I said, “A place that shaped me is growing up in the Chicagoland area. What you'll experience from me is really straightforward. I say what I mean, I mean what I say.
And that isn't the same way across the United States. There are different cultural differences in how people act and operate. And I use an example of when I moved to Minnesota. People are very Nordic up there and they are very polite and they don't always say exactly what they think. And so that took me years to understand."
So that was a question we have today, is like, “What's a place that shaped you and why?” And I think for the leaders who are listening to your podcast, I think it's important for them to go first before asking employees on the spot to do that.
And I think you'll get a depth of answer depending on how comfortable people are. But then once they start doing it then, the next person will go a little bit deeper and so on and so on. Whenever we ask questions like that person or place or just share your story, I always learn things that.. I've only known some of these folks for three-plus years, now I'm still learning new things about them and how our teammates are.
And so that's one really easy way to do it, Lisa. It's really not rocket science but it works.
Lisa: That's wonderful. And one thing I've been trying to incorporate in personal life that sounds sort of similar to what you're doing with the team is Becky Hammond from Isogo Strong. She's made these conversation cards, and I've been using one of the questions from the conversation cards with my family. And since everything has been remote, it's been a way to stay connected, and we answer one of these questions, and for workplace purposes, you can filter in or out the ones that are a little more personal.
But that would be a nice way for someone to have like a cheat deck to get started with as well. It helps you manage to people's strengths without it feeling like a big mountain to climb. You're already busy as a manager, so no need to create the friction of learning how to be a StrengthsFinder trainer on top of your day job.
And your point about leaders going first to model an answer — I think it's big. I think as a trainer or facilitator, if you can share with someone what an answer might sound like, they understand the direction because these questions — although they're simple and clear — they're just not normal meeting. They are not normal workplace conversations, although I hope it can become normal.
Joseph: They really aren't, and I think that's why sometimes people will give you that eyebrow raise or they'll kind of go, “What's going on here?” Because I think other questions that we've asked in different meetings are only focused on quarterly targets. I've asked like bucket list questions like, “talk to me about 2 or 3 things that are on your bucket list that you still want to do in life.”
We've had things where people have said, “There's this island in Russia that's very remote, and it's almost like Russia's Alaska. It's just very remote, I forgot the name of it. But the streams are overflowing with trout and there's kodiak bears and all this stuff going on. And one of the members on a team talked for about 5 or 7 minutes on why he wanted to get there. And it's like a multiple-day journey to fly to Russia and then charter a plane to get there. Everyone's riveted by the story. They're leaning forward to hear it.
I'm always looking to see, are people doing email while someone else is talking? Are they actually paying attention? Are they locked in? And when someone starts talking about going to a remote island in Alaska someday, people listen. You know, like this is different. So it's fun to do. It's really fun.
There’s Power In Blending The Language Of Strengths With The Stories You Share
Lisa: Yeah, it sounds excellent. And I can imagine the nuance that you learn about a person when you get 5 to 7 full minutes. This is a really cool insight for me as well. I'm learning from you as a facilitator because I'm thinking about... My tendency is to get people on the chatbox, have 100 people ask the question and then see the chat go brrrt with all of these short answers but they're more surface-level answers.
And then your approach here, if you're doing it with a tighter-knit team, you're really going to get some depth that helps you learn about what makes that person tick. And of course, the magic is that you pick out nuances that help you manage to people's strengths and motivations.
Joseph: Well, there's that piece certainly and then, what we always try to do in the past was that when we started talking about strengths, often you could hear strengths in their answers, right? And so you're like, “Well when you talk about that, I could really hear your Achiever saying, ‘I have 20 things on my bucket list that I want to check off’, or, ‘How are you doing Woo in this virtual format when you're not meeting people?'"
And I even said to my team earlier today, one of the things that I promised them was that I would help them with networking referrals, and I don't know that I've done great with networking referrals virtually this year. I really relied on face to face, and that wherever I go, whatever city, I would say, and if I was in the Boston area I'd be like, “We should hang out.”
You and I did that virtually at one point, as a phone call, but it's just better if you can be in person. But you definitely will hear their strengths in some of those open-ended questions, and they don't really know what you're doing at that point. But if you're a trained facilitator, or if you're a manager who has a lot of experience in strengths, you can start hearing strengths in people’s answers.
Lisa: Right. I think that's just the perfect way to end the episode because it's not just the question itself but what the answers and what the listening and tuning into each other allows to happen in the future. Because now you can spot their strengths. Now you can begin to manage to people's strengths and assign clients based on their natural talents.
Now you can notice what works about them. Now you can mix the language of strengths that you have with the stories that they tell, and it makes it concrete for them so that they want to unleash that more in the workplace. Beautiful.
Well, as a listener, if this prompted your interest and you're like, “Man, I need to get that Joseph Dworak into my organization to do a team builder. I want to get this going,” then be sure in our Contact Us page, when you're filling out that form, make sure to do a specific request for Joseph.
And with that, we wish you the best as you unleash these questions and help people claim their talents and share them with the world. Bye for now.
More Resources About Bringing Out And Managing To People’s Strengths
If you are high in Connectedness, Communication and/or Relator, chances are you’ll crave for workplace meetings where you can maximize certain conversations for relationship-building and human connection. You are most likely a great storyteller and an active listener.
Especially if you are a manager who is trained on strengths, you’ll easily pick up a team member’s strengths through planned and random interactions with them. For example, in the episode Engage Employees Through Strengths, marketing consultant Grace Laconte immediately identified an Achiever from a team member who shared a morning process that goes, “Every morning at 8:32 I do this. Every day I have to do these things in order.”
But managing to someone’s strengths doesn’t stop at spotting who they truly are or how they work. In another previous episode, Lisa explains how to Prevent Conflict By Knowing Your Talent’s Needs, Expectations, and Assumptions — a great guide to help the team get along better at work.
Carmie is a professional writer and editor at Lead Through Strengths. Having spent 8 happy years with a nonprofit child organization as a storyteller and sponsorship relations team manager, she continues collaborating with others across the globe for the joy of human development and connection. Her days are powered by coffee, curiosities, cameras (film and digital), music, notebooks, and a cat. Where books are home, she’s home. She calls her Top 5 StrengthsFinder Talents “CLIPS” (Connectedness, Learner, Intellection, Positivity, and Strategic)–you know, those tiny objects that hold connected things together. She’d like to think she’s one.