by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton., New York: Free Press, 2001. 245 pages.

Reviewed by Diane Byington, Ph.D.

One of my favorite things about coaching people on their 360 feedback results is talking to them about their strengths. Invariably, when managers have studied their reports before talking with me, they are very clear about what they see as their weaknesses. They almost never notice or take stock of their strengths, which are just as obvious to me as their weaknesses are to them. So we spend some time identifying their strengths and talking about how these can be leveraged to manage weaker areas that might be impacting their performance and slowing their careers. People are usually grateful for these insights, which they might not have gotten on their own.

I was interested in reading this book because I hoped it would be one I could recommend to people when they receive their feedback reports or who are learning to lead and manage others. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my hopes, even though it has some useful information. Let me address the book’s strengths first.

Eight out of ten people answer this question negatively: “At work do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?”. This means that most people feel they are miscast in their roles at work. Yet those employees who answer “strongly agree” to the question tend to work in business units with lower employee turnover, more productive business units, and business units with higher customer satisfaction scores. Over time those business units that increased the number of employees who strongly agreed saw comparable increases in productivity, customer loyalty, and employee retention. Clearly, giving people the opportunity to use their strengths is good for business.

The definition of a strength the authors use is: consistent near perfect performance in an activity. An ability is a strength if you can fathom yourself doing it repeatedly, happily, and successfully. A strength is comprised of a talent (e.g., naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior), combined with knowledge and skills. If you have no natural talent for doing something, you may still acquire the relevant knowledge and skills where you are able to get by, but you will never be able to have consistent near perfect performance. So it is important to know your strengths and capitalize on them.

For example, if you have a talent for public speaking, you will be able to give outstanding presentations on a particular new product after you have learned about the product and polished your speech. On the other hand, if you have no talent for public speaking, no matter how much you learn about the product and polish your presentation, your speech will only be average.

It’s important, according to the authors, to know your talents. These come so naturally that you might not even think of them as talents. They cite an example of an excellent teacher who was great at empathy, and this allowed him to know when his students were excited or bored and change his teaching style accordingly. When the authors presented these results to him he was confused, asking, “Doesn’t everybody do that?” Well, no. Not everybody has the ability to do that, which is why he was excellent and other teachers weren’t.

This brings us to what didn’t work about the book for me. Included in the cost of the book is an online tool called “StrengthsFinder”, which spits out your top five talents, or themes, after you take a 180 item test. I did it and received my top five themes. The book describes each of the 34 possible themes, gives a few examples of what people with those themes are like, and offers suggestions for managers who supervise employees with any of the themes. The information was interesting, but not particularly useful. It didn’t help me understand what roles I might be good at or how I could capitalize on my particular talents. To get that you have to spend a lot more money for coaching.

The authors are Gallup researchers who deal in large numbers. I love the idea of capitalizing on strengths, but trying to understand 34 possible strengths in many combinations makes me want to give up before I start. More simplification and relating the strengths to real life would have made the book more useful for me.

— Diane Byington is a writer and coach who consults with The Booth Company.