The Art of Strengths Coaching

S is for The Strengths Approach To Focusing On People’s Strengths, Successful Style And Success

There are many ways to help people. The strengths approach provides practical tools they can use to build on their strengths and follow their successful style to achieve success.

This is an approach that I have drawn upon since the early 1970s. At the time I was running programmes that helped people to build on their strengths and do satisfying work. Since then I have used it with many individuals, teams and organisations.

The starting point is always to clarify their picture of success. Different people will, of course, have different definitions of success.

Some people may simply aim to be happy. Some may aim to do satisfying work that pays a salary. Some may aim to achieve peak performance. Some may aim to encourage other people.

Some may aim to build a super team that pursues a clear story, strategy and road to success. Some may aim to build a pioneering business that becomes a pacesetter in its chosen field. Some may aim to build a superb organisation that continues to develop its profits, products and people.

Some may aim to regain a sense of control, overcome setbacks and refocus on their life goals. Some may aim to find creative solutions to challenges. Some may aim to leave a positive legacy.

Clarity is crucial. At the start of a session it can be useful to set the scene by clarifying the topics that an individual, for example, wants to explore. One approach is to say some of the following things. You will, of course, do this in your own way.

Imagine that a person has clarified their goals. One approach is to go straight into exploring strategies they can follow to achieve their aims. Another approach is to focus on how they can build on their strengths and follow their successful style to achieve success.

Here are some of the themes I cover when helping individuals to take these steps. These can be adapted when working with teams and organisations. You will, of course, have your own approach to helping people to achieve their goals.

Below is one example of how the strengths approach translates into action. There are, of course, many other types of scenarios and ways that can be used to take these steps.

Building On Strengths
To Deliver Success

Dave and I met three months after he had joined a company. He had been hired for his positive energy, business savvy and track record of delivering success.

During our session Dave outlined some of the challenges he faced when aiming to bring about change in the company. Here are some of the things he said.

The company needs to change quickly, but I am having difficulty in persuading people to accept this fact. People keep reverting to their old ways of doing things. This is not helped by the reality that:

a) We must, for a while, maintain the old way of doing business;

b) We must also develop the new way.

My Board agree we must change, but sometimes they give mixed messages. People at senior levels keep interfering.  

Some directors fly underneath my radar and go straight to my people. They put forward their individual demands and instruct people how to make the old system work better. Managing these interventions can be exhausting. 

Certainly we must maintain the present system for a while. This will manage the decline of older products that still appeal to some customers.

But hungry competitors are targeting our key markets, so we must develop the new ways of doing business. This is now a matter of urgency.

I spend my time trying to balance both the old and new approaches. But this is not delivering what is required to build a successful future. Have you any suggestions?

The Specific Challenge

Dave gave some more background about the situation. Three months previously the Board had asked him to lead a key part of the business.

The aim was to change the way the company sold to customers and provided on-going service. But there were several complicating factors.

First, the present way of doing business had to be maintained and made more efficient in the medium term. This was necessary to maintain cash flow and customers.

Second, the present employees had an entrenched way of working. This might be difficult to change.

Dave wanted to create the new business, but most of his time was spent firefighting. He described what he saw as the main challenges. These were:

How can I make sure the present model is run properly, but not get caught up in the daily problems? 

How can I get people to change and adopt the new way of doing business?

How can I get some of the Board members to stop interfering? 

How can I get the freedom and resources required to implement the change? 

How can I enjoy the job, rather than it feeling like it’s an uphill battle?

Clarifying Strengths
And Successful Style

Before going further I invited Dave to revisit his strengths. Looking back at the times when he had done satisfying work, we soon found his successful style. Dave often worked best when he was able:

To focus on something he felt passionately about and translate this into a specific project;

To do pioneering work that made the new rules for the game and showed people a better way;

To build on his strengths as a leader but also work with a good co-ordinator – often a strong matriarch – who could translate the ideas into action;

To build successful prototypes that produced better results or profits; 

To coach others to take over running the proven model and for him to move on to the next stimulating project.

How could Dave use these strengths to tackle the challenge? What other skills would he need to add? What were the key strategies he could follow to achieve success?

Before answering these questions, we needed to revisit the goals to achieve. This meant taking the next step. 

Clarifying The
Picture Of Success

Looking at Dave’s situation, it was easy to get caught in the company’s internal machinations. It was also tempting to focus on the wrong target.

People who are charged with shifting a culture, for example, often believe it is important to persuade employees to change, but is not the aim.

The real aim is to build a successful and sustainable business. There are many ways to achieve this picture of success.

Bearing this in mind, Dave and I began to clarify his goals. He listed these in order go priority.

The real results I want to achieve are:

To deliver a new business model that enables the company to achieve future success;

To ensure the existing business model is run effectively and enables its present customers to achieve success; 

To enjoy my work and get a feeling of success.

These were good starting points, but we needed to be more specific. Bearing this in mind, I invited Dave to look 9 months into future towards the end of the financial year. What would be happening then that would show he had reached the goals? Here are some of the things that would be delivered. 

The Picture of Success By
The End Of The Financial Year 

The new business model will be successful. Thirty customers will have signed up for the new approach and this will be helping them to achieve their goals.  

The new business will have produced five customer success stories that have been published in the Trade Press. The new approach will be on course to make more profit than the older model. 

The new business will have a different culture. People will be energetic, self-managing and spend 80%+ of their time focusing on customers.  

Meetings will revolve around customer issues and how we can help them to succeed. The office will have been designed in a way that gives people freedom and flexibility. People will enjoy coming to work each day. 

The older model will retain some customers, but we will be migrating these to the new approach. Ten percent of our employees will remain in the older part of the business.  

Looking to the future, some of these people will have new roles in our company, but others will move on. We will be helping them to make this transition. 

The Board will be happy with the profits and success stories. They will have signed-off the budget to expand the new business.  

I will have built a good leadership team in the department, including my potential successor. This will provides the platform for me eventually moving on to the next challenge.

The Potential Strategies

Looking at these goals, Dave and I began exploring the possible ways forwards. Some options could be ruled out straight away, but it was good to get them on the table. The routes were as follows.

a) To continue with the present work style of spending lots of time managing the old business, whilst also trying to build the new business.

The pluses would be:

It was hard to see any, except perhaps the old business getting lots of attention.

The minuses would be:

The new business being neglected, which would have negative consequences for the company. He would continue feel frustrated and probably fail to deliver the goods.

Attractiveness rating: 2/10

b) To re-contract with the Board about the goals, get the required backing and do our best to deliver success.

The pluses would be:

The new model would be delivered and help to build a successful future. There would be increased enthusiasm and energy from everybody involved in developing the new business. There would be increased customer satisfaction and profitability.

The minuses would be:

This would require the proper backing and resources. The company needed to invest money, so the Board might refuse and tell Dave: “You have to be more efficient.” Dave would be left with sorting out how to manage both the old and new businesses.

Attractiveness rating: 7/10

c) To get the required backing from the Board and also get a business manager to run the old business, which would release me to concentrate on building the new business. 

The pluses would be:

The new business would definitely be delivered. This would produce increased customer satisfaction and profitability. It would also provide a template for the future business.

The older business – and the employees within it – would get the required time and attention. Dave and other people would be able to focus their energies on the respective parts of the business.

The minuses would be:

The company would have to invest in hiring such a manager or move a key person from elsewhere in the business. This could have knock-on effects, but these could be anticipated and minimised.

Attractiveness rating: 9/10

Dave was obviously attracted to the third option. This approach would also help him to build on his strengths and successful style. Bearing this in mind, we focused on one approach that has often worked when creating a different culture.

Shifting A Culture By Building A
New House That Shows A New Way

Dave had been given the brief to rebuild parts of a struggling organisation. There were many ways to make this happen. Sometimes the different approaches can be likened to building a house.

Some people renovate an old house. Some build a new house that is connected to an old house. It is vital for a person to choose a route that matches their strengths. So let’s explore these ways of trying to deliver success.

Renovating an old house

Revitalising an existing house – or a team or organisation – can be challenging. Changing a system often meets resistance. Systems tend to revert to their old way of doing things.

It is possible to regenerate a system, such as a team or organisation. But it is necessary to implement the right strategy with the right people in the right way. This calls for making many tough decisions along the way.

Even if the house is renovated, there can be a personal price to pay. Too much time may be spent trying to persuade people rather than delivering the required results. This means the whole process can become exhausting.

Building a new house that is
connected to an old house

This is an approach used by many people who want to help an organisation to develop. They may aim to introduce a new way of doing business, delivering customer service or whatever.

They build a new house – a new way of doing things – that has a long connecting corridor to the existing organisation. The new method may differ radically from the previous approach, so they need distance from the old house.

The new approach may also a different culture with different people. There is no point in continually rushing back along the corridor, for example, to get permission for every decision.

The old system may react badly and try to crush the new approach. It is important to have the autonomy to deliver success.

Clear contracting is vital. So before signing up for the project, for example, a person may take the following steps to lay the foundations for success.

They make clear contracts with their employers about the ‘What’. They agree on the picture of success.

They make sure their employers understand and want to achieve the ‘Why’. They clarify and agree on the benefits of achieving the picture of success.  

They make clear contracts with their employers about the ‘How’. They agree on the key principles they will follow to achieve the picture of success.  

They have freedom to follow these principles their own way, providing they deliver the goods. They do not have bosses who interfere and micro manage every move.

They make clear contracts with their employers about the ‘When’. They agree on the specific date for achieving the picture of success.

Success provides its own arguments. So it is vital that the person then gets on with the work, builds the new house and delivers success.

This is often the most effective way of shaping the future. Once the new way is established, the existing house – the old way of doing things – is sometimes demolished.

Dave liked this approach. He was attracted to building a new house – a new way of doing business – with a long connecting corridor to the main business. But there was a challenge. He explained this in the following way.

At the moment I spend my life rushing up and down the corridor. This is exhausting. It also means neither job gets done properly.

Looking ahead, I need to have a business manager who manages the old business and makes sure it keeps working. This would enable me to develop the new model and make it profitable.  

I will also need to hire a good co-ordinator who helps me to translate the new approach into action. The person I would like to hire is Kate, who has worked with me many times before. She knows how to get things done and also knows how to manage me.

This is the most attractive route. It would stand an 8+/10 chance of success. 

Delivering Success

Dave settled on his action plan, which included re-contracting with the Board. Certainly he could deliver success, but he required backing.

It was, of course, up to the Board to decide the best way forward. If they did not back his chosen option, then he would have another decision to take.

Dave spent time crafting his script for the presentation. He aimed to be positive and show the possible ways forward. He also aimed to emphasise the benefits of achieving the picture of success. This was necessary in order to get commitment from the Board.

People often need to cross an emotional line before they buy something. They need to see, feel and, if possible, experience the benefits. They are then more ready to pay the price required to achieve success.

Some people, of course, may never cross that line. This may be because they get more rewards by retaining the status quo.

Dave needed to be careful in his presentation. He could be positive, professional but, paradoxically, not try to persuade. He could simply set out the strategic options for going forward.

Bearing this in mind, he aimed to cover the following themes when presenting to the Board.

To revisit the previously agreed goal – building the new business – and emphasise the benefits of achieving this picture of success;

To outline the options for going forward – together with the pluses and minuses of each option – and also invite their suggestions regarding any other possible options;

To, if appropriate, state his preferred option – the strategy most likely to achieve the goal – and the tangible results he would deliver on the road to achieving success; 

To describe the resources that would be required to guarantee the greatest chance of success;

To reassure the Board that, given their backing, he would proactively keep them informed, produce early wins and ensure the new business delivered success.

What would be the reaction? Providing he made a good business case, Dave believed the Board would probably back his preferred option. But he needed a back-up plan.

What if the Board chose another option, such as telling him to continue balancing the jobs? He would be totally professional and reassure them he would do his best.

Whilst continuing to do good work, he would buy time and consider his future. He would explore the best way forward – both for the company and for himself – and then get back to the Board.

He set aside time to practice his presentation, but also began exploring a back-up plan. Dave did not want to leave the company, but he needed an alternative professional way forward. This would boost his confidence when presenting the options for building the new business.

Dave settled on one final part of his action plan. Before making the presentation, he planned to run it past key members of the Board.

He was close to the Managing Director, who had originally asked him to build the new business. Dave would talk with him, outline the possible options and ask for advice. He would have similar chats with other Board members. This included some who had been interfering.

Dave would spend quality time with them, clarify their needs and show how these could be met. He aimed to cultivate the ground properly before making the actual presentation.


The presentation went well, much better than Dave expected, and the Board accepted his recommendations. He had follow-up meetings with several individuals, however, just to ensure their concerns were addressed.

Dave then went into action and hired Kate who ensured that things got done. They were able to take the following steps.

To appoint a business manager who ran the old business and kept it working properly; 

To build the new business, produce success stories and show healthy profits; 

To provide a template for how the company could do business in the future; 

To build a leadership team that could take over the new business should he want to move on to another position.

Dave did in fact move on, but within the company. He launched the new approach to running the business in several European countries. Paradoxically, this had a beneficial effect on his home life. He later explained this in the following way.

Interestingly, I spend more time at home in this role than I did when working full time in the UK. Previously I had gone into the office every day, frequently getting home late. 

Launching the European businesses, I spend Monday morning at home or in the London office, before flying out that night. This gives me three solid days working with colleagues and clients in specific countries.

Flying home on Thursday, I often work from home on Friday. This gives me more time with the family.

Dave continues to play a valuable part in helping to shape the company’s future. This involves him building successful prototypes – new houses – that show a better way.

There are many ways to help people to build on their strengths and follow their successful style. They can then aim to do superb work on the way towards achieve their picture of success.

This approach can help people to follow their passions, be professional and achieve peak performance. It can also help teams to build on their strengths, provide great service to customers and achieve ongoing success.

Looking at your own life and work, can you think of a situation where you may want to use some elements of this approach? This could be in your personal or professional life.

You may want to do a stimulating project, do satisfying work or tackle a specific challenge. You may want to encourage people, lead a team or pass on knowledge that can help others to achieve success.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to use elements of the strengths approach either in your own life or to encourage people. 

Describe the specific things you can do to focus on your own or other people’s strengths, successful style and the picture of success.

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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