Nearly 1,000 leaders from across the state of Rhode Island recently attended an event billed as "the first statewide strengths-based event ever," the next step in Leadership Rhode Island's strategy to improve life for Rhode Islanders by building on individual, community and statewide strengths.
The event, titled "The Greatest Lil' State on Earth," served as a reflecting point during what Leadership Rhode Island (LRI) considers a long-term effort to help Rhode Islanders discover and use their strengths to create better communities.
"What if we look at what's right about Rhode Island instead of what's wrong," Mike Ritz, executive director of LRI said, using a quote inspired by the late Donald O. Clifton, creator of the CliftonStrengths assessment. "In Rhode Island, that's a really significant thing to say, because it's not really how we tend to approach things here."
Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, was the keynote speaker at the event. In his opening remarks, he said that he has seen strengths change the "very fabric" of organizations and universities, but never an entire state.
"I don't think Washington can fix America. We've got to do it ourselves," Clifton said. "If you make a difference here, it changes America."
Gallup tracks employee engagement levels in all 50 states, and a Gallup poll in 2012 revealed that Rhode Island ranks at or near the bottom. In another poll from 2013, Rhode Island residents were the least likely to praise their state, ranking it among the worst places to live.
"It's very fixable," Clifton said. "If you go to work on it, you can change it."
Developing the Strengths of the "Ocean State"
LRI plans to aid in the improvement of engagement levels from actively disengaged to engaged by making strengths-based development and coaching a cornerstone of its statewide "Make Rhode Island Stronger" initiative. LRI has already provided the assessment for around 2,000 Rhode Islanders; the next milestone is set at 10,000, a significant number given the state's smaller population of around 1 million residents.
LRI is documenting the entire process. The organization hosted 33 community events in the first five months of 2015, in an effort to discover the positives of Rhode Island at the local level and who are the leaders doing the work in each community -- according to Rhode Islanders themselves. The meetings resulted in a trove of qualitative data detailing what makes the state great, including more than 1,200 positive attributes and 900 people who were "champions" in those communities.
"We were thinking there's great work happening at the hyper-local level, and they're just doing the work," Ritz said of the community leaders. "They don't seek attention."
But LRI sought these leaders out. The organization invited each community champion to the event and provided each with the CliftonStrengths assessment. Those champions, along with the other leaders who registered to attend, brought their Top 5 CliftonStrengths, also known as Signature Themes, to the conference. The goal? Encourage people to recognize and celebrate their individual strengths and motivate them to look at each other's strengths and the positive aspects they bring to the table, Ritz said.
He meant that literally, too. Event attendees initially sat at tables according to their individual talents. Furthering what they had done in the 33 meetings across the state, organizers then arranged tables into neighborhoods and communities to emphasize that most people don't necessarily know their neighbors, stressing the importance of getting to know people who are in the community -- to challenge ideas and create new ones -- a "township model of interactions."
Later, organizers orchestrated the combination of two different topics of interest -- for example, elderly affairs and animal care -- and invited attendees to switch tables according to their interests. Organizers challenged attendees to come up with how the two topics do or could work together, with the purpose of generating new ideas.
Reinforcing the idea of using your strengths every day and recognizing natural talent within yourself and others permeated the conference. At the end, attendees were encouraged to continue to meet with neighbors, groups and to be the living strengths of Rhode Island.
Adding to the information gleaned during the 33 community meetings, designated "scribes" took notes during the table activities at the conference. LRI has a plethora of qualitative data to sift through as they move forward with the initiative to employ a strengths-based development approach throughout the state -- whether it is with companies, nonprofits or groups of varying configurations.
"When we found StrengthsFinder a few years ago, it was extremely compelling because now there's a language that you can put behind this. It's simple in one way that everyone can understand it, but also has this incredible depth to it," Ritz said.
Ritz hopes that others will follow Rhode Island's lead to "move the needle to have more actively engaged residents."
"I like the idea that we can get people to really change their mindset and behavior, and it could come out of this little place … and do it with a little spark from Rhode Island," he said.
Becky McCarville's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Learner, Achiever, Responsibility, Maximizer and Input.