Author and business consultant Marcus Buckingham has made a career of urging leaders to focus on people’s strengths. Last week, I read an article (“What Great Managers Do”) that Buckingham published in the Harvard Business Review about 10 years ago. As with most of his work, this article encourages leaders to identify and develop their people’s strengths, and then get each of their people in the right spot in the organization so they can best use those strengths. The article contained two thoughts in particular that I’d like to share with you: first, the “triggers” that activate each person’s strengths, and second, how each person learns best.
First, Buckingham argues that sometimes a person’s strengths haven’t effectively been activated, and that a leader needs to “trigger” those strengths to turn them on. Learning to squeeze the precise trigger that turns on a person’s strengths is a key skill for a leader to develop. A “trigger” might be the time of day that a person works best (night owl vs morning person), it might be substantial time with the boss (you), or it might be just the opposite, the ability to work independently without contact with or interference from the boss. There are a multitude of triggers, but according to Buckingham the most powerful trigger by far is recognition. But recognition is a bit more nuanced than it may seem at first. The specific skill that managers and leaders need to master is identifying precisely what type of recognition each person prefers. For one person it might be praise in front of their peers, for another praise from the boss one-on-one, and for a third some type of professional or technical award. It doesn’t matter what it is, but what does matter is that a leader knows which “recognition trigger” each person prefers, and which recognition trigger draws out the best in him. So know each person’s trigger, and use it with integrity to draw out her strengths.
My second helpful insight from the article was the notion that people have different learning styles. I’m a reader and I absorb information easily from books and magazines, so I tend to assume everyone learns that way. Bad assumption. Buckingham identifies three primary learning styles. First, some people learn best through analyzing. These people love information, love data, and best understand a task by taking it apart, analyzing its elements, and reconstructing it piece by piece. The best way to work with an analyzer is to give them time to prepare, and then to role play with them. Help them fully analyze and understand the task. These people hate making mistakes, so giving them time to see the component parts of a task and master them sets them up for success.
The second learning style is the “doer”. Unlike the analyzer, this person learns best by jumping in and trying something, learning by trial and error. They could care less about failure or mistakes. After all, that’s how you learn, isn’t it? This person will laugh about the mistakes they make on their way to learning by doing. The sooner they can start doing the better.
The final learning style is watching. These people don’t want to analyze or role play, and they don’t want to “do” in order to learn either. They learn best when they can watch the total performance in action. This person best learns how to sell by watching the star salesman perform for two days. He can watch the total task being performed, and internalize it just by observing. So, in other words, get this person out of the classroom and let them ride shotgun!
Consistent with all of Buckingham’s material, learning a person’s triggers and identifying their learning style are not about changing people, but about recognizing people’s strengths, learning how they naturally perform best, and tailoring their environment to those strengths. Each person has certain strengths, and they probably won’t change very much, so it’s our job as leaders and managers to identify those strengths, get the person in the right role and in the right environment, and then let them use their strengths to the fullest extent. It sounds like a full time job, and in fact it is.