Interview #5 with a strengths based leader: Philanthropist Kristin Pass


Philanthropist, Kristin Pass

Kristin is an active member of the community I work in as the Executive Director of the United Way. Her latest venture, GenNext, is an important one; it helps young professionals bring their unique strengths into the world of philanthropy and governance.  Imagine if young adults in every industrialized nation gave of their time to an agency where they could make a difference? Now, that would be something…

Here’s what she had to say about GenNext and how it relates to strengths-based leadership.

1. How does a program like GenNext help young professional learn about and tap into their strengths?

GenNext is a team of young people in their 20’s and 30’s who are committed to giving back to their community in new and diverse ways. Our GenNext supports the Brant United Way and our funded agencies through volunteering, giving and action. GenNext is learning about the issues in our community, and exploring and participating in different to volunteer opportunities.

In April, GenNext is hosting a session with a goal to inform and inspire young professionals to volunteer at the leadership level as a board member on a local non-profit board of directors.  There will be a panel discussion and facilitated networking event.  We hope this will help young professionals identify their strengths they have to offer and further explore volunteering in a more senior role.

2. How can sitting on a board of directors support leaders’ growth?
Sitting on a Board can strengthen the professional skills you have (e.g., accounting, human resources, legal, finance, social service) and develop others (working as a team, risk management, communication, knowledge of issues and the community).  It helps you to develop your critical thinking and exposes you to other volunteer leaders in our community.

4. When you think about leaders that have been mentors and role models to you, what were some of their most notable strengths?

They were caring leaders, whose kindness was paramount.  They were passionate and lead with great conviction.  They lead by example.

5. If you had to recommend one or two books on governance or non-profit sector, what would you suggest?

Two great ones are:


Thanks Kristen! Looking forward to joining you at the GenNext event!

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Interview #4 with a strengths-based leader: Entrepreneur Mark Fernandes

In your experience, what separates truly strengths-based leaders from their peers?



Entrepreneur, Mark Fernandes

Strengths-based leaders understand themselves from the inside out giving them a high awareness of their personal core values, principles, beliefs and purpose. When these are well aligned with those of the organization, the leader is better able to live, lead and work from a place of authenticity, their best self. It also allows the leaders to surround themselves with people who fill the gaps in the areas where they may not possess the needed strengths to achieve the mission, vision, strategies, goals and objectives of the enterprise.

How does understanding your values allow you to leverage your strengths as a leader?

Our values represent our most cherished beliefs about what is right and good. They guide our thoughts, emotions, actions, behaviors and decision; and serve as the filters through which we view the world. In the book Primal Leadership, authors Goleman, Boyatzis and Mckee wrote;

“What people value most deeply will move them most powerfully in their work.”

When we understand our values and make conscious choices that align with them, we feel good about our work and are best positioned to help others do the same. Our emotional resonance is at a premium.

How do leaders balance the values of their organization with their personal values?

Leaders balance personal core and organizational values best by understanding and embracing their freedom and power to choose in that moment between stimulus and response. And the need to pause between the two (stimulus and response) just long enough to ensure they respond consciously around what values to best align their response (action, behavior, decision) to.

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?

Strengths that are grounded in our values, principles, beliefs and purpose are at a premium when a situation calls for character and courage. Working from a place of strength (alignment) raises our competency, commitment and conviction to stay “True North” during the toughest of times.

Can you think of a time in your career where your strengths and values were not honoured and what did you learn from this experience?

In most any instance when I am working counter to my strengths and values I am not the best version of myself and subsequently struggle to lead others. We believe deeply in the idea of finding your voice first before you can help others find theirs.

If you had to give advice to a new leader, what would you share?

To begin by gaining a deep understanding of who they are from the inside out and spend their time with people, in places and inside organizations that celebrate their authentic self. To invest in themselves by attending to their own mind, body, spirit and emotions. And ultimately to live, lead and work in alignment with their personal core values, principles, beliefs and purpose which will best position them to ignite the extraordinary potential in those around them.

Visit Mark’s website, connect him on  Image@MarkSFernandes or via his blog.

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Using the Kata method to engage people and teams

Using the Kata method to engage people and teams

In the last post, we explored if it’s a leader’s role to solve the problems presented to them or to empower staff to trial solutions to the problems they identify. For many of you, I suspect you try to do the latter, resisting the temptation to tell people what to think or do. After all, you’ve realized it’s how you get sustained results or a motivated team.

Now, despite best intentions, we may not stick to this 100% of the time. How can we be more consistent? Making it a habit.

Here’s a way of asking questions that not only empowers people but encourages disciplined problem solving, It’s called Kata. Where I work, it’s becoming the automatic structure for discussions, from small problems to strategic issues.

The Kata framework is as powerful as it is simple:

The 5 Kata questions:

  1. What is your target condition?
  2. What is your actual condition?
  3. What obstacles are stopping you from reaching your target condition?
  4. What is ONE thing you want to try next?
  5. When can we GO AND SEE this one next step? (that’s right, leaders have got to get out of our office!!!)

If you try this approach, I’ll share with you some additional questions we’ve learned help with further exploring actual condition:

  1. What was the last step taken? 
  2. What did you expect?
  3. What actually happened?
  4. What did you learn?

I am so glad I was introduced to this approach. It’s forever changed me and the leaders and teams I work with everyday. The Toyota Kata book is one of the best LEAN books I’ve ever read, but it’s applicability to everything from running a meeting to everyday problem solving to strategic planning makes it valuable for any organization or leader. Enjoy!

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Is our job as leaders to fight the fires or to build an army of curious problem solvers?

Building capacity in individuals and empowered teams is accomplished in part by supporting people to identify, understand and trial solutions to the problems they uncover. Taking away the opportunity for people to grow from these moments is often a result of a mistaken interpretation of our value as leaders.

If you’re honest with yourself, how would you answer these questions:

  • Do you believe it is your job to fix the problems people bring to you, using the experience you have garnered over the years (after all, you were hired for your experience, weren’t you?)
  • Do you sometimes catch yourself jumping in because it’s faster than teaching someone how?
  • Do you reflect on missed opportunities to explore with people how they could fix a problem or trial a solution because you felt so rushed?

We’ve all been there. It’s not easy to take a step back. Especially when we see our value is in fighting the fires (and if we’re honest, isn’t it a pretty good rush?!) Image

I’d still suggest that as leaders, we need to pause in that moment we’re about to do for rather than understand with. We need to become more versed in the art of asking questions rather than giving the answers or fixing the problem. That’s why another book on my reading list is the newest book by a great author, Edger Schein, called Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Rather than Telling.

What do you think? Is our job as leaders to fight the fires or to build an army of curious problem solvers?

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Choice Map

Originally posted on The Strengths-Based Leader's Toolkit:

I am reposting the Choice Map post as I have just discovered this video of Marilee Adams explaining the Choice Map – check it out here and enjoy!

Choice Map

From the book I just recommended, the Choice Map. Google it and check it out yourself! Check out Marilee Adams’ blog:

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10 Essential Books for Any Leader (and Organizational Development or consulting professionals who support them!)

1. Go Put Your Strengths to Work

Why? To be your best self and leverage the best of others, you need to focus on strengths (but you know that already…you’ve visited this blog after all!)

2. The First 90 Days

Why? Provides framework to determine what to focus on right away, and essential tips and tools to expedite new leaders’ transition. Trust me, it works!

3. Difficult Conversations

Why? It outlines three (completely accurate) stages of difficult conversations. Drives home why it’s essential to ensure you’re having the deepest level conversation necessary for the situation.

4. Getting to Yes

Why? It’s negotiation and mediation 101 – who doesn’t need to know how to do this quickly and easily?

5. The Mediator’s Handbook

Why? A fabulous step-by-step guide on how to facilitate a successful mediation (and believe me, it’s so good, you don’t want to skip ANY steps!)

6. Change Your Questions, Change Your Life

Why? Reinforces the power of mindset, and the Choice Map is a concrete tool to help with mindset shift (yours, staff, peers, customers…)

7. Do More Great Work

Why? Through exercises, helps you to determine what is your bad, good and great work (and why doing mainly good work isn’t good enough!)

8. Crucial Confrontations

Why? When conversations are really, really tough, this book provides additional strategies on how to work through them.

9. Influencer

Why? Concrete and powerful examples of how changes (that seem nearly impossible) can happen, but need to influence people’s ability and motivation differently depending on which of the three levels you are at – individual, team/group, organization/system

10. Co-Active Coaching

Why? Best coaching book I’ve read – some theory, some exercises, and a lot of wisdom…the CD of examples of actual coaching conversations was fabulous.


Oh and one more….for the consultants out there

11. Flawless Consulting

Why? It’s the consultant’s bible. Absolutely essential. Nonnegotiable. End of story.

Marilyn Laiken’s favourite authors

In our strengths-based leader interview, Marilyn Laiken recommended a number of great authors. Here is a selection of titles from these influential authors from the field of organizational development, change management, leadership and beyond! Enjoy!

1. Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey

2. Chris Argyris

3. Margaret Wheatley

4. Fritjof Capra

5. Peter Senge  et al

6. Kouzes and Posner

7. Barry Johnson

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Great Quote: “The truth is t…

“The truth is that our finest moments are likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfilled, for it is only in such moments, propelled by discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” Quote by Scott Peck, shared by yogi Martha Atkins

At the end of a recent yoga class, one of my favourite teachers shared this quote. It really resonated with me. I have spent some time reflecting as to why.

It reminds me of a concept from LEAN called the “knowledge threshold“…if we knew how to do something or improve, we would just do it. Often we don’t, and that’s okay, however we often chose to stay with what we know, even if it’s not working or getting the results we want.

Becoming more comfortable with not knowing is a skill to practice, often channeled through the strength of Curiosity, and staying in that uncomfortable place is and example of Courage. The learnings from these experiences builds our Wisdom, and stretches our Gratitude muscles.

What other strengths do you see?

Interview #3 with a strengths-based leader: Marilyn Laiken


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!

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