CliftonStrengths coaching and performance stem from a revolutionary question Don Clifton asked: "What would happen if we studied what is right with people instead of focusing on what is wrong with them?" For many coaches, this question sets the tone for the Positive Psychology movement. For Don, it wasn't just a campaign slogan; asking this was actually a practice.
About 18 years ago, I transitioned from the role of Gallup manager to Gallup workplace consultant. In this role, I am a Strengths coach and am on our Selection team. We use research-based predictive analytics to help organizations identify individuals with the talent to be top performers in a role. We then give advice to hiring managers and organizational leaders to help them make the best hiring decisions.
A few months into my new position, I was asked to work on a project with Don. He was selecting interns to work with him during the summer. He needed someone to interview the candidates, analyze their data, and then give feedback to him about the candidates' talents, strengths, opportunities and, ultimately, who was the best talent fit for the internship.
Can I just tell you how nervous I was? Working on a project with Don Clifton! Before that, I had already worked at Gallup about 10 years. But I had never worked with Don on anything. Here I was, some young, dumb kid, having to give feedback to the man who invented our selection science. These responsibilities elicited one response from me: "Gulp!" No, make that "Double gulp!"
I interviewed the candidates and took copious notes on each one. Based on the analytical research, I ended up with four candidates to present to Don. The day for our meeting approached. My nervousness increased.
To prepare, I wrote everything I could think of on each person. I read and reread my information. I studied my notes. I asked other Gallup consultants what to expect in my meeting. I heard things like, "Oh, you'll be fine!" and "You're going to learn so much from him. He is an excellent teacher." I also heard things like, "You'd better be prepared!" and "He's going to ask you tough questions." It was because of these latter kinds of comments that I walked into my meeting with about four pages of notes per candidate. Looking back, I can see that was a tad bit too much. Just a tad! At the time, though, I was worried I didn't know enough.
I can still remember the conference room and the round table. I walked in and sat down. Folder for each candidate? Check. Notes and information in order? Check. Two pens in case I needed one extra? Check. Check. Nervous, anxious, wanting to make a good impression? Check! Check! And check! I was as ready as I was ever going to be.
Don walked in, smiled slightly and sat down across from me. I don't remember much small talk. I do remember him saying something like, "What do you have for me on these internship candidates?"
I asked him who he would like to start reviewing first. He told me: The one who has the most talent.
So I opened my folder, got out my notes, and began to talk about the person who scored the highest on the assessment. I started to talk about his motivations, what he wanted in his career and why he applied to work at Gallup. After I said only a few things, Don interrupted me. He asked me, "What does he do well?" I stopped for a moment and thought. Then I continued to talk about his work style and how he likes to be busy, is president of his fraternity, and likes to work hard and get good grades.
Don interrupted me a second time. "What does he do well?" he asked again. I stopped talking and reconsidered his question. I looked into his blue eyes. He was staring intensely back at me. "Uh-oh," I thought. "I am blowing this." I considered the question and began again. I started talking about how the intern was nice to speak with on the phone, and he liked working on teams in his classes at school. Don interrupted me a third time. He picked up the pile of papers I was reading from and turned them upside down on the table. He looked me square in the eye and asked, "What does he do well?"
I sat there, a bit dazed. Yep, I just blew this big time. I had failed to give Don the answer he wanted the first two times -- would the third time be the charm? Then he smiled again. Can a smile be simultaneously encouraging and demanding? This one was. So I thought about my candidate. I thought about all the information I had gathered on him. I thought about everything he had told me. Then I thought about what he did well.
I don't mean to say that all of a sudden the clouds parted, the sun shone in and I suddenly waxed poetic about the candidates. I am pretty sure I stammered along. I am pretty sure I made an impression that day, and probably not the one I wanted to. But something did shift in my thinking. It is so important to consider what a person does well. Not good or above average, but well. What do they do with excellence?
As I continued my feedback session with Don, I looked at this person through that lens. He was a successful president and student. He leads others well and he studies well. I thought about his strong ability to keep himself on task and present until he completes his projects and work for the day. He focuses on goals well. I thought about his ability to stay up late to tutor his friends, to go out of his way to help others and how he brought little tokens of thanks to people who have helped him. He builds relationships well and can be relied on. These are some of the things we talked about in answer to the question, "What does he do well?"
We proceeded to review all four candidates and I never again looked at my notes. I saw their names and remembered their stories, but instead of giving Don a copious amount of information about each candidate, I just answered that single question: "What does this person do well?" When you look for it, you see it!
That question is at the heart of Gallup's Strengths science and Selection science. It resonates with me. It is something I try to be mindful of in my coaching and analytics work. What does a person do well? How can they do that as much as possible? How can they use what they do well to help mitigate what they struggle with?
What if every manager and leader looked at each employee and asked, "What do they do well?" and then put that person in a role that best suited their unique contributions? What if they coached and mentored that person to do more of what they do well? What if they created teams full of people with complementary talents? How would that transform organizations?
This very transformation is where our obligation lies as CliftonStrengths coaches. Remember, Don's reaction to a simple meeting was to begin with the most talented candidate. A focus on what is strong isn't just nice and engaging, it's efficient. There is too much untapped potential in our world for us to spend our time fixing problems and filling gaps. The power of talent is too promising for us not to focus our energy on learning more about it, making the most of it and putting it to immediate use.
When you're asking people what they do well, that very question brings both an energy and an urgency. You're expecting greatness, not just completion. You're accelerating the time it takes to reach full potential, because you're investing in areas that are already full of talent.
What if every parent looked at their child and asked, "What do they do well?" and tried to develop that as much as possible? How many children would go into the world knowing their talents and strengths and feeling secure in what they have to offer?What if every teacher looked at each student and asked, "What do they do well?" and then individualized to that student? How would learning and educational outcomes improve?
What if every significant other looked at their loved one and asked, "What do they do well?" instead of dwelling on that person's shortcomings or failings? How would that question serve as the antidote to the poisonous thoughts that can take hold of and kill a relationship?
What if you looked in the mirror and asked yourself, "What do I do well?" and then went out and did just that?
That my friends, is the power of a question. One question. The power to transform. Ask it today.