Strengths-based Work

Today’s guest blog is from Charlotte Whitehead and explains why the strengths-based approach in work is gaining more and more traction and recognition. This approach is not just applicable in the corporate world, but also in entrepreneurial endeavors and your personal life.

The key to success – strengths-based work

What is ‘strengths development’?

The strengths-based approach to development is increasingly being adopted by businesses and organisations around the world because of the positive impact it has on employee engagement and productivity.

But what makes it so effective?

The primary reason is that instead of identifying and fixing weaknesses, the strengths-based approach focusses on recognizing and developing strengths while managing weaknesses. The aim is to help people do more of what they do best and in so doing, to make the most of our human capacities.

What are ‘strengths’?

Professor Donald Clifton, the educational psychologist who developed the CliftonStrengths assessment, spent decades studying the talents that make people good at what they do. His career was guided by the question: “What would happen if we studied what is right with people?” He defined talents as ‘naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behaviour that can be productively applied’, and he believed that talents are trait-like ‘raw materials’ that help shape our personality. According to him ‘strengths’ are an extension of talent and innate talent only becomes strength when practised and combined with acquired knowledge and skills. Therefore, he defined ‘strength’ as ‘the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific task’. Although labeled CliftonStrengths, the psychometric assessment that arose from Clifton’s research actually measures themes (or categories) of talent. And it’s these talents that serve as the foundation for the development of strengths.

Why working from your strengths is easier?

Working from your strengths involves doing what comes naturally. Let’s take math as an example: you may be naturally good at working with numbers, or naturally bad at it. For me, anything that involves numerical problem-solving makes my brain freeze. In contrast, working with language, aka verbal reasoning, comes easily. That’s what working from our strengths is about. Our talents come easily to us because that’s how we’re wired. If, however, we’re asked to do something that doesn’t draw on our talents, we can feel out of our depth.

Here is a story that illustrates how a client applied her strengths in a not so obvious way:

Sarah, an introvert who hated public speaking, was asked to give a talk at a conference. Initially she was panicked by the idea. She felt she was being asked to do something that wasn’t aligned with her strengths profile. Her strengths included several strategic thinking themes and relationship building themes, but, on the face of it, no influencing themes that might be connected with public speaking. Given that her audience was going to be a group of academics, we discussed how she might use the strengths that she did have to communicate with them in the sort of thoughtful, informed and objective way they’d value, and at the same time draw on her relationship building strengths to tune in and connect with. By reflecting on and applying her strengths, Sarah was able to ground herself. She felt better prepared and more confident which in turn boosted her performance on the day. She reflected afterwards that, surprisingly (to her at least), her talk was one of the best during the event. And yet all she had done was to focus on using her strengths.

How you know if you’re working from your strengths?

Even if you don’t yet know what your talents/strengths are, you will for sure have been using them and will be able to identify times when you’ve performed at your best. These are likely to be occasions when you feel you’ve accomplished something you’re proud of and you found the experience satisfying. Whatever it was, it probably felt meaningful to you in some way, and other people may have shown their appreciation and admiration for what you achieved.

Here are five clues that tell you whether you’re using your strengths:

  • Yearning: being naturally drawn to an activity
  • Rapid learning: being able to pick up something new both quickly and easily
  • Flow: losing track of time and instinctively knowing what to do next
  • Glimpse of excellence: recognising you’ve managed to do something really well and thinking to yourself “How did I do that?!”
  • Satisfaction: enjoying certain activities so much that you want to do them again

How can you find out about your strengths?

There are a number of psychometric tools that measure talents and strengths, but the most well-known one is CliftonStrengths®.

Before taking any strengths assessment, it’s worth taking some time to identify a few examples of when you’ve accomplished something and reflect on commonalities you see across these activities, for example: organising, listening to people’s problems in a caring and sensitive way, taking charge in challenging situations, seeing patterns, having the confidence to do something that others avoided, etc. What words or phrases can you come up with to describe yourself?

This is a useful first step in discovering and articulating your strengths in your own words. You might then choose to take a strengths assessment in order to gain a more objective insight into what your strengths are.

The CliftonStrengths assessment is reasonably priced and easy to do. You can access it here.  The report you get will tell you what your top five strengths are. If you get the Full 34 Theme Sequence report, you’ll receive personalized theme insights, notes on what makes you stand out, ideas for action you can take to start developing your strengths, as well as a wealth of additional information.

Who can help you apply your strengths?

As with all psychometric assessments, you’ll get a lot more out of the report with someone certified in the tool who can help you make sense of it. This is likely to be a coach of some sort, e.g. a business, career, leadership/executive, life, relationship coach, who will guide through a three stage process of Naming, Claiming and Aiming your strengths. You should find a coach who has expertise in the area that you’re seeking to develop. I would recommend checking out the Directory of the Gallup Certified Strengths Coaches. They have all undergone in depth training in this particular tool.

The key thing to keep in mind is that discovering your strengths is not a one-off event. It’s a process that unfolds indefinitely and offers rich insights in all areas of your life. Once you’ve started on that journey and begun to see the benefits, it’s likely you won’t want to stop.

About Charlotte Whitehead

Charlotte lives in the UK and is a Gallup Certified Strengths® coach. In addition, she’s certified in the BP10® assessment (short for: Business Profile 10 assessment). BP10 measures and ranks what one does in an entrepreneurial business builder role. Furthermore, she’s a UK Registered Career Development Professional (aka Career Coach) who specialises in mid-career transition and development. If you would like to discuss your strengths with her, you can arrange a free initial chat to find out more.

A Valuable Lesson

I have written about the difference between urgent, important and busy work in December. What I hadn’t thought of then is this wonderful brief story by Steven Covey titled ”Big Rock”. It’s about the important things in life, not just in our business.

Meir Kalmanson was inspired by the story and made it into a short film. Have a look and enjoy. It takes only three minutes, but these three minutes are well worth it.

The Next Step

Sometimes we are faced with problems that seem insurmountable and far too big for us to tackle. We feel overwhelmed and we don’t have the slightest notion of what to do. Unfortunately, we have to deal with these problems or challenges if we want to or not.

It doesn’t really matter if these problems or challenges are business related or stem from your personal life. The way to cope with them remains the same. Here it is:

What is the single next thing you can do or action you can take?

Don’t think of the big picture for a moment, think only of the very next step that will give you more information, a clearer picture of what you are looking for, or any other kind of help. If you have taken this step, repeat.

The beauty of this approach is that since you are busy with finding answers to your next step you don’t have time to feel overwhelmed or to worry. With each step or action you take, you gain more information that will help you decide what your next step will be. And with each step taken, you get a little closer to your answer or solution or, in our case, our own home.

Here an example:

We bought our first house a couple of months ago. I found this to be a daunting undertaking, at least in the beginning. I had no clue about the process and felt quite overwhelmed thinking of the financial aspect and implications of it.

Here is how I climbed the mountain of questions:

My first step: I started talking with friends about purchasing a house. Whatever information I got, I collected in a folder. For example: tips when house hunting, terminology, questions to ask, things to keep in mind, contact information of people they worked with, you name it.

My next first step: I divided these pieces of information into categories: Financial, insurance, contacts, house criteria, and so on.

My next first step: scheduling a meeting with a mortgage provider to learn if we would get approval for a mortgage and the amount we would get approval for. There is no point in searching for a house if you don’t have the money to buy it, right?

My next first step: scheduling a meeting with our financial advisor to discuss various scenarios and ask questions about the long-term implications. This was one of the most important aspects for me considering that we are relatively “old” for buying our first home. This meant we had to dig up a lot of information and fill out forms. By doing so, we learned a lot but also added new questions to our list.

I’m sure you get my point.

Focus on the very next step, take it, and decide what your next step will be.

F.A.I.L. – E.N.D. – N.O.

As solopreneurs, entrepreneurs, small business owners, or…, we have to accept the fact that not all we do will go as planned and be successful. Especially if it is our first attempt in entrepreneurship or running a business. We navigate uncharted territory and it is more than likely that we will make mistakes, fail, get a “no” to a proposal. Everybody will agree with this statement. It only turns into a problem when it happens. Mistakes happen to others, not to us. Wouldn’t that be nice. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. In fact, I know it is crucial that we make mistakes, fail once in a while, hear a “no” to our brilliant idea or proposal. What’s even more important is how we deal with these situations.  

I’m definitely not a master in always seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I need time to digest what has happened, turn it around in my head until I find the silver lining. Throwing a pity-party is so much easier. Blaming the world for what went wrong. I can do that too and admit I have done it in the past. The sad part about it is, it doesn’t change a thing. It doesn’t make the situation any better or go away quicker. Quite the opposite is the case.

It’s far better to get back on your feet, dust yourself off, and think about what to do to get out of this pickle, fix the problem. Think of the very next step you can take. It’s the best medicine you can take.

Yes, you do want to take a moment and figure out what went wrong and why it went wrong. This way you learn and won’t repeat the mistake. I know, it’s never fun digging through a mess or unpleasant situation. Allow me to be blunt, it sucks, but it’s soooo important. Think of it as growing pains, business growing pains. When you come out on the other side you’ve trained one of the most valuable and important character muscles: resilience. By the way, it’s also extremely useful outside of the business world.

This is why I find the three “acronyms” FAIL – END – NO so inspiring.

Acronyms by Dr. A.P.J. Kalam, past President of India

I hope you’ll find the meaning also encouraging and inspiring. Don’t let a roadblock stop you. Think of a way how to either circumvent or get over it.

In case you had a less than brilliant day and need a little pep talk, keep the meaning of these three words in your heart. If you know someone who could use a little encouragement, share them. They reminded me more than once that giving up is not an option.

See you in two weeks,

Make Working from Home Work for You – Part 3: Habits that help you succeed

We made it to part 3 (here are part 1 and part 2), the part that is in fact a constant work in progress: developing and cultivating good (work) habits. Especially during very busy times or at times when motivation is a little low in supply, they can be a lifesaver.

According to the Oxford Dictionary a habit is “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”

Since we’re focusing on good work habits, that’s exactly what we’d like to achieve. We aim for minimal effort to get something going or help us getting over a hump. Yes, I do realize that habits also have a dark side, but for the purpose of this blog let’s focus on the positive ones.

How do you go about cultivating good work habits? As the word “cultivating” implies, it takes time, effort and experimentation. You start off with a strategy or idea and over time you learn if it’s working for you or not. You may get tips from others, observe others how they do something or deal with a situation, or you read about it. In some cases, you’ll know right away what won’t work for you. Perfect. This saves you time, so don’t even bother. In other cases, you have to try to find out if this suggestion suits you, and tweak it a bit to make it yours.

What it actually comes down to is that you really have to get to know yourself, the flow of your day, situations that may throw you off, and all the other little sneaky things that keep you from doing what you should or need to do.

Cultivating good work habits isn’t a skill, it’s a practice.

Planning Your Day

One of my most crucial habits is planning my day. My preferred way is to plan the next day the night before. Sometimes that doesn’t work, so I do it before I start my day in the office. I noticed, however, that when I do it the night before I get up in the morning and already have a plan. It just feels good to visualize the day ahead, know where I have to be when, and what I would like to have done by the end of it.

Insights & Actions

In one of my previous blogs I mentioned that at the end of most days I take a moment to check in and see what worked and what didn’t. I call it “Insights & Actions.” By doing so I discovered what my most productive environment looks like, when I’m getting things done, but also when I struggled to finish or do my work. I include these insights in my planning.

The Most Difficult Task

If I have something that I find difficult to do, I try to get it out of the way as early as possible in the day. Good-bye procrastination. By getting it done right away I feel good about having tackled a difficult task, but, maybe even more importantly, I also avoided allowing it to become a “bigger” problem, at least in my head. A win-win!

Calendar Miracle

I have also started using my calendar in a better way. Why do I mention this? Stay with me, I’ll explain. To keep track of my tasks I use Microsoft To Do. Each morning I go through “My Day” and check the things I plan on doing. That includes quick things like calling someone or checking on the status of something, but it also includes all my projects such as redesigning my website, doing research for and writing my next blog. What it doesn’t show is the amount of time I may need for the individual tasks. That was a BIG problem for me. The number of tasks I wanted to tackle per day was simply unrealistic. After I started blocking chunks of time in my calendar for the bigger projects, I got much better at estimating what I can accomplish each day. A tiny change with a huge impact.

Dressed for the Occasion

Be Ready

In order to be able to focus on your work, it is helpful to have everything ready before you start. Like a chef who prepares his workstation and has all ingredients handy before he starts cooking, putting everything in place for the work you intend to do avoids distractions. I’m talking about files, documents, notepaper, pen, something to drink, you name it. It’ll cost you precious time, for example, if you have to search for a specific document in the middle of your work. The same idea can be applied when you are finished with something. I still remember that I was turning my office upside down in search of a document I hadn’t filed away after a conference call. I had buried it under a pile of paper totally unrelated and it took me quite some time to dig it up again.

The Myth of Multitasking

Multitasking is an interesting concept, at least when used in connection with humans. Women are supposedly much better at it than men. Unfortunately, this is a myth. Multitasking is a concept from the computer world and should stay there. We, as humans, usually do a lousy job if we try. We either sacrifice our attention or the quality of our work if we attempt it. What does this have to do with good work habits? It’s simple. If you work on a complex task or need to focus on something a good work habit is to eliminate distractions.

Lack of Motivation

What can you do if you lack motivation? Do you need a break? Would calling a friend help you? You most likely know other solopreneurs or “home workers.” Go ahead, call someone and ask for a little pep-talk. If you can afford the time, do something else on your To Do list. I’m sure there is something on it that’ll kick you into gear again. Move your body, exercise, take a walk around the block, do your laundry, turn on music, do some jumping jacks.

A friend of mine rewards herself with a good book, a coffee, a movie, something fun after she has finished a specific task.

And sometimes you have no other choice but bite the bullet and do it, whether you feel like it or not. Sounds familiar? Then you may know Steven Pressfield’s book “The War of Art.” If you don’t know it, it is “A vital gem… a kick in the ass,” according to Esquire.


Before I come to the end, there is one more habit I’d like to mention: batching. Batch similar tasks. It’s much easier for the brain and needs less energy. As an example, don’t pay invoices or enter a payment each time you receive one. Wait until you have a couple, and do them all at once. If you have to make a bunch of calls, schedule a time to do them all. If you need to find images for your blog and/or newsletter… you get the idea.

Now let’s wrap this up for today. I mentioned a couple of habits you may consider trying out. If you do, be consistent. Give it some time (I’m not talking about days, I’m talking about weeks!). Ask yourself along the way, what works and why and what doesn’t and why. These answers will hold the information you’ll need to find and cultivate your own best habits.

A good time to look at your habits and routines is when you or your business undergo change. The questions to ask are: Do these routines or habits still serve and support me? Is there a better or easier way to do it?

And with this, I am turning this over to you. Do you have proven habits or routines you swear by? Please let us know.

Until next time,

Make Working from Home Work for You – Part 2

In part 1 of this two-part series “Make Working from Home Work for You” I talked about

  • The importance of your workspace and work environment,
  • Suggestions on how to combat loneliness while working from home
  • And some essential tools and/or technologies for your home office

This week I’ll cover the more subtle problems of working from home. The ones that we face every day, that are easily overlooked, and that may cost us dearly, even if we don’t want to admit it. Here they are:

  • Knowing your goals and planning your days
  • Taking breaks
  • Building your own good work habits

Knowing Your Goals and Planning Your Days

Choosing the right path is only possible you know your goal(s).
Kid at a fork of a path.

It sounds simple enough and straight forward: know your goals. But more often than not that is exactly what many, especially solopreneurs and creative people, tend to lose sight of in the course of their everyday work. There are so many ideas, so many things to do. We better roll up our sleeves and get started. Or should we?

Getting caught up in the everyday happens fast. It’s the little things that sneak in and eat our time. Think of your email inbox. You may be expecting an important email. You look for it and you respond, but that’s not where you stop, or do you? I at least didn’t.  Without even thinking I continued with the remaining emails and, two hours later, am surprised that the morning is gone despite the fact that I wanted to do something else.

Whatever your little sneaky time thieves are, stop them. The only way to do so is to know what your goal(s) are. If you don’t know, you won’t make the time. Write your goals down, vet them and make sure they align with your business and values. Break them down into projects, break the projects down into manageable tasks. It’s your roadmap to bringing your ideas and goals to life. Keep this list close and check it daily to make sure you’re staying on track.

That brings me to part two: planning your days. My daily planning is divided into two parts: part one is meetings, conference calls, etc.; part two are the “non-negotiables.” I don’t think I have to explain how meetings and calls end up in my calendar. But I’d like to spend a couple of words on the “non-negotiables.”

Non-negotiables are appointments I make with myself. These are time blocks I dedicate to projects I’m working on. Every day I pick at least one of my major projects and dedicate a certain amount of my time to work at it. I choose a time that allows me to bring the most energy and best circumstances to this work. That could mean picking a time of day when I’m usually undisturbed and which is quiet, or I arrange it that way (thanks flight mode). I set a timer that reminds me when “my time is up.” This way it’s up to me to continue or just finish what I’m working on.

Another equally important non-negotiable, for example, is my daily Yoga practice and meditation and my martial arts training twice a week.  

Lastly, if possible, I reserve Fridays for “housekeeping” stuff that I didn’t get to during the week, planning the week ahead, bookkeeping… you get the idea.

What I found by putting everything in my calendar is that I get a more realistic picture of the use of my time. If I need much longer for a particular task, I adjust my calendar entry and keep it in mind for future time approximation. Very helpful.

Having said that, I don’t plan 100% of my day. I always leave generous blocks of time empty. Don’t be a miser here. You’ll thank yourself when life throws unexpected stuff at you. If it does, at least you have the flexibility to deal with it without feeling stressed out and overwhelmed. Or, as a best-case scenario, you have some additional time on your hands. I’m sure you have no problem coming up with something to do. There’s already enough stress and “catching up” in our lives; don’t add to it.

This is the perfect segway into the next topic:

Taking Breaks

Alarm clock and coffee beans reminding you to take breaks.
Red alarm clock and coffee beans.

I know it from own experience, heard it from peers, and read quite often about the fact that we as entrepreneurs or solopreneurs tend to forget to take breaks. The moment we have a free minute we start thinking what we can do to get another action item off of our To Do list.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with working hard to build or grow your business. Working hard only turns into a problem when you forget to take care of yourself, your family and your friends.

Like a battery needs time to recharge, your body and brain need time to recharge as well. Without rest you can’t expect to be at your best. You need enough sleep, food that energizes you, exercise that keeps you in shape. I know, you’ve heard it before, it’s old news. But especially in difficult and demanding times, when we actually need it the most, we readily throw these basics out the window.

We scarify time with our partner or with our kids for our business. We don’t take the time to be with friends. For a little while that’s not a problem. But it may turn into one if you stretch this time out too long. Your relationships suffer and so do you.

Step away from your desk and have a coffee or lunch with a friend or your partner. Play with your kids for a while. Call your mom and have a quick chat. It’ll take your mind off work, you give yourself a break, you reconnected with a friend, or it’ll make you feel good for having spent time with your kid(s). The result will be to return afterwards with more energy and often new ideas.

What is even more worrisome is sacrificing ourselves, or more precisely, not taking care of ourselves for the benefit of spending more time in and on our business. We tend to forget that self-care is the fuel for our body and our mind which in turn impacts our performance. It’s the little things during the day that you could do.  

A no-brainer for me is not to have your lunch or any other meal at your computer or desk. It’ll ensure that you know what and how much you’re eating, a plus for those amongst us who watch their weight, and you can “check out” for a little while. You may want to leave your phone at your desk to resist the temptation to check for emails, text messages, social media and the like. Enjoy your food instead and take a break.

Exercise. Whatever you enjoy doing, the operative word here is enjoy, do it. No excuses. Go to the gym, go for a walk, work in your yard, dance, practice yoga, whatever rocks your boat. I love my Taekwondo classes and Yoga. There is no better way for me to clear my head or work out any frustration (pun intended). Especially when I’m struggling with a difficult problem stepping away from it, doing something totally unrelated, gets my creative juices flowing. Have you ever had a conversation with someone and in the middle of that conversation, for no reason whatsoever, an idea strikes you that’s unrelated to the conversation but the solution to a problem you’ve struggled with? Has that ever happened to you?

Even if you can’t take or afford a vacation, there are so many things you can do without spending a lot of money that provide a change of scenery or a new experience that’ll help you recharge, feel more energized, and get your creative juices flowing. Your work and business will thank you for it.

Let’s take a break here. I thoroughly underestimated how much I would write about “knowing your goals and planning” and “taking a break.” I’ll move “building good work habits” to my next blog. I hope you don’t mind.

If you have any experience or suggestions to the above, please share it. I’d love to learn more and I’m sure others appreciate a reminder, a suggestion or word of wisdom as well.

See you in two weeks,