Professor, author, coach and consultant, Marilyn Laiken
Somehow I had the good fortune of finding my way into the enriching and never boring field of organizational development early in my career. A fellow kindred spirit, Marilyn Laiken, has been a role model coach, consultant, professor, and author in our field. I’m so excited to share her interview with you. Please don’t forget to share your comments with us too!
1. In your experience, what separates leaders who use strengths-based approaches from their peers?
I believe that such an approach builds confidence in one’s strengths, and as you point out can result in greater creativity, satisfaction, engagement and ultimately, productivity. As Ken Blanchard, of “Situational Leadership” fame noted, it’s always better “to catch people doing something right”. That, said, I would add that I’m not at all opposed to skillfully offered, constructive feedback which targets areas for improvement, when necessary. Only building on strengths could result in missed opportunities for learning provided by a skillful manager/coach. So I think a good balance of both, used consistently and often (not just during performance appraisal periods) truly separates strengths-based leaders from their peers in terms of performance management.
2. In The Canadian Organization Development Institute (CODI) programs, how are strengths woven into the curriculum and experiential learning opportunities?
The intention in all of CODI’s programs is to uncover and then help to build on the strengths of our participants, for maximum learning. Adult Education theory teaches us “nothing succeeds like success”. So the intention is to create an environment for learning in which participants have opportunities to demonstrate/use their strengths; receive feedback (both positive and constructive) from their peers and teachers; and think about how they might use these strengths in working with their client groups, or as leaders in their organizations. Part of that process is to help participants examine the values they hold about working with people, as well as the reality of what they currently do. If there is a gap, the intention is to help them strategize about how that gap might be closed, so that their values and actions are congruent. In my mind, that’s one of the identifying features of a great leader – one that differentiates excellent leaders from their peers.
One of our approaches for achieving all of this is to administer several self-assessments of skills/strengths related to the content area. Participants are then encouraged to build on these skills/strengths as they proceed through the program. Where there are areas for development, they are encouraged to use these as learning opportunities as they focus on their learning goals in relation to the program content. This also provides a basis for soliciting constructive feedback from their colleagues as their skills develop and they build on their already existing strengths.
2. Where have you found a strengths-based approach to be essential? When does it create superior results?
I think that the approach I describe above is most useful in a learning environment, where people enter with all of their childhood fears of “failing” or not being “good enough”. Since I think these fears also follow us as adults into the workplace, the approach is useful there – especially, as I mentioned earlier in the area of performance management, where a leader/manager is attempting to get the best possible performance from an employee in their job. However, I would venture to say that it also has important relevance in raising children in a family, or in a therapeutic or coaching relationship for personal improvement. In other words, helping people build realistic confidence in their strengths in any environment can only contribute positively to that person’s efficacy in the world, as well as to their ability to become more effective leaders in this area themselves.
4. Where do you believe a strengths-based approach can be overused?
I think the approach can be misused if it is not built on a genuine belief in a person’s strengths, or if it is used as a way of avoiding honestly addressing any issues that the leader has with a person’s behavior or performance. This can lead to the “Peter Principle” of promoting people to the level of their incompetence – by establishing unrealistic beliefs in strengths that are not real, or avoidance of areas that are truly in need of development.
I also believe that if one only ever hears positive feedback from others, it can lead people to be suspicious of the genuineness of the information – after all, nobody’s perfect. Personally, I prefer a more balanced picture of myself reflected back to me by others, so that I can relish and build on my strengths, but also so that I continuously improve in areas where I need to develop. In my mind, the willingness to do the latter is a strength in itself. I call this being a “reflective practitioner” – which in my career has had the greatest impact on my learning and strength development.
5. When you think of one of the most significant moment in your career (a highlight or low point), what role did strengths play in it?
A recent point in my career was both a highlight and a low point. It occurred when I decided to move our SEEC/CODI Masters Certificate in Adult Training and Development from OISE to Schulich, about 3 years ago. I was concerned that the then 17-year-old program that I started with a colleague at OISE would suffer in the reorganization being proposed by the new Dean at the time (and indeed, it turns out it would have – long story!)
I think the strengths I needed to draw on in that event (which lasted a stressful year) were: my strong sense of ethics, my ability to be strategic, my strong communication and conflict management skills, my belief in myself and in my colleagues, my ability to be genuine and thus evoke trust in others and provide me with a strong support system, and my ability to foresee positive outcomes in situations that appear largely negative in the moment. Also, my ability to manage stress played a large part in my surviving intact what could have been at times a devastating situation, as I encountered much resistance and retaliatory behavior.
6. Can you think of a time in your career where there was a missed opportunity to use a strengths-based approach and what was the outcome?
I can think if a few instances where I was working with a client and things were clearly “going south”. Had I stopped the action at the time, and addressed the issues directly, I would have been using strengths that I did have in that area. However, my lack of experience and confidence at that time, led me to do the opposite – just keep on trucking, in the hopes that things would improve. Of course they didn’t, and in the end, the project was not as successful as I, or the client, would have liked. Over time, I learned to be more immediate in my responses to these situations, and where I hesitated, for whatever reason, I learned to go back to the client, admit my mistake and then I often was given the opportunity to correct it. So the outcome of these situations was that I developed strengths that I could use in the future, and now use all the time, when things are moving in a non-productive direction, in every aspect of my life/career.
7. What advice do you give students about the role of strengths in their careers?
I have not often been asked for this advice – but if I were …
I guess my most important advice is simply to become aware of your strengths, and then develop them in any way you can. I also suggest that you forgive yourself when you make a mistake, and use it as a learning opportunity to develop further strengths. Then be humble about those strengths, and curious about areas that are not strengths, but could be developed as part of your strength repertoire. Finally, try not to forget about how hard this all is, and be gentle with those around you as they attempt to follow the same strength-development journey. In the end, we’re all vulnerable, and being honest and open about that vulnerability, while not down-playing your strengths, is probably the most precious gift you can give to others, especially in a leadership role.
8. If you had to recommend a few essential books for strengths-based leaders, what would they be and why?
Some of the most influential books in my career come from the following authors (all of their writing):
- Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey
- Chris Argyris
- Margaret Wheatley
- Fritjof Capra
- Peter Senge et al
- Kouzes and Posener
- Barry Johnson
All of them hold the values embedded in what I have said above, and much of their work gives clear direction on how to live those principles. They, along with my students, have been some of my most treasured teachers, both in person and through their writing.
Thanks Marilyn for sharing your wisdom! We welcome your comments so post away!