Marcus Buckingham on Harnessing Your Strengths, True Genius

By Vistage Editor

Bestselling author and management consultant Marcus Buckingham sat down with us for a quick interview. The world’s foremost authority on helping people to engage the best of themselves in their work, Marcus shares the true definition of strength, what it takes to be an extraordinary manager, and his daughter’s special influential “genius.”

Q: Can you start by sharing one simple step or tool that Vistage members can use to help them stay open to opportunities and on a “strengths path”?

A: I would say that the most obvious thing to do is to realize that you are the person in charge of what your strengths are. Most people seem to think that a strength is what you’re good at, and a weakness is what you’re bad at. And if we think that, then, we are not the best judge of our strengths because somebody else probably is the best judge of what you’re good at and what you’re bad at.

But actually, that’s not a very good definition of a strength. A strength is an activity that makes you feel strong — it’s an activity that strengthens you. And of course, if that’s true, if strengths really are an antecedent to performance, there are activities that strengthen you, that invigorate you, that you have an appetite for, that cause you to practice more, that then drive your performance. If that’s what a strength is, then there are signs that you can see all around you, if you’ve got the eyes to see them and the ears to hear them. And I think that’s one of the most basic rituals that we can all do, to stay on our strengths path. To keep our eyes peeled for the most obvious signs of which activities strengthen us and which don’t.

There are a number of signs, but probably the two most obvious signs of a strength that you could pay attention to and really give your full attention to, is firstly, what do you find yourself positively anticipating, actively looking forward to? And then rapid learning: What do you pick up quickly? What do you find that you get so involved in, that you lose track of time?

So in terms of a ritual, I think obviously, keep your mind open to opportunities on your career path. Keep experimenting. But as you’re doing so, remember: You’re always looking for those activities that strengthen you. The two most obvious signs are positive anticipation and rapid learning. And when you see those two signs pop up, it’s a really good clue that you need to keep orienting yourself toward those activities and tilting your world toward them.

Q: You’ve written an entire book on “The One Thing That You Need To Know,” which addresses great managing and great leading, as well as sustained individual success. What’s the one imperative thing that everyone should know to be successful?

A: I think I would say that the thing we have to remember is that genius is precise. There are some areas in your job where you are probably better than 100,000 other people at those things. And you are wired to be invigorated by that set of activities. And it is non-transferable. So I move you even five percent in your job, and you go from A+ to B- so fast.

Like for me, I’m a good presenter. You put me in a room on a subject I know a lot about, where I’m prepared. And I know my subject. I’m a one-in-100,000 presenter.

You turn that into a teaching environment where I’ve got about the same number of people but now I’m not presenting. Now I’m listening to the learners in the room trying to figure out where they’re at with their learning. Trying to tweak what they’re picking up so that they can actually understand it better. Responding to their questions. Tailoring what I’m saying to accommodate that particular question. And I’m a B-, maybe a C+. To an outside observer, it looks just the same. It’s just a room full of students trying to learn. And there’s a guy at the top and he’s talking and it looks exactly the same. But it isn’t. I go from A to C+ really quickly.

Another example is with a salesperson. A person in sales might say, “I’m a good sales person.” No you’re not. You happen to be a genius at opening up new accounts. You can go into a raw territory that hasn’t had anybody in it forever and wake it up. You’re brilliant at, not just cold calling, you’ve got a way of getting people started, getting the momentum going. And you just get invigorated by that. To take something from zero to 10 miles an hour — you’re just on fire.

And then lo and behold, you get the territory running and you now have to build existing accounts. You’ve got to go into existing relationships that are already pretty sizable and turn them into something much bigger. And you’re average. It’s still the same job. It’s still the same job title. You’re a SALES person. Same company, maybe. Same product. You’re now average.

Your genius, whatever it is, is really precise.

Q: Is genius something that you can grow into? Or is that just all part of the exploration?

A: Yeah. I think that’s how genius works. You’re born with it. And then you grow into it.

You see a kid who’s born with genius. My daughter has genius in influence. So she’s brilliant at persuading people to do things for her. In first grade her teachers made her write her goals for next year.

Her first goal is: “Learn to read better,” which is fine. It was misspelled, but you know, it was fine.

The second goal is: “Stop fooling the teachers.” And I was like, what? I thought maybe ALL the kids are doing that. That it might be generational. But, no, my daughter is the only one. “Stop fooling the teachers. What does she mean by that?” They were like, “Well, she always tries to charm us into the fact that she doesn’t know something or can’t do something, and to ‘please just give her the answer’ because it would be easier. And she’s just working it all of the time. She’s just working it, in a charming, lovely way.”

That’s a gift. It’s a genius gift. My son doesn’t have it. He doesn’t even know he can fool teachers. In his world that’s an impossibility. And it’s not a girl/boy thing because there are many girls that don’t have it. There are some boys that DO have it. It’s just a thing. It’s just a part of Lilia’s genius. She’s got to learn to channel that genius productively so that she becomes one.

You have a genius and you become one by growing into it. Strengths are value-neutral. They can be used for very good ends and they can come out in obnoxious ways. Part of stepping into your strengths or channeling your genius is a growth process. It’s something you grow into as you experiment and learn how to best apply yourself.

Q: You’ve addressed the opportunity that we all have as employees to apply our strengths at work to succeed. Can you give us some insight into what it means to be a “strong manager”?

A: There is a distinction between managing and leading. Leading is something you do with many people. Managing is something you do with one. A great manager is good because that manager is able to take one person’s personality and turn it into performance. So a great manager is somebody who is really good at generating performance out of an individual, one person at a time. And they do it through individualization. Individualization is the key skill of a great manager. Spotting how people are different, how people learn, how people are driven, how people communicate. Knowing that some people don’t communicate with e-mail very well at all, some people love e-mail, some people like face-to-face communication, or that some people like texting. That’s what a great manager is able to do.

What is a strong manager? Somebody who’s able to realize that each person has unique strengths to offer and then is really good at figuring out how to capitalize on those strengths.

Q: Any last thoughts you would like to share with our Vistage members?

A: I think the thing to remember is that this is the responsibility of each individual person. If you want to be a person who actually excels in your life and derives satisfaction from the work that you do in your life, there is no one who cares more about that than you. You can benefit from having a great mentor relationship, or a great manager relationship. But what that person, that mentor, that manager, what they need from you, is they need you to walk in with a full sheet of paper. Not a blank sheet of paper. I think too many of us sit down with a blank sheet of paper and we look at the manager and we say, “Hey, develop me. Help me. Grow me. Challenge me.”

And what we really should be doing is actually walking into that room and sitting down and going, “You know what; I know a fair bit about which activities strengthen me and which don’t. I’ve done some really good thinking about it, not just theoretically, but practically. I’ve looked to the activities that I’m feeling my week with. I try to understand which of those activities strengthen me and which don’t. I’ve looked at the activities that drain me. And I’m going to sit down in front of you right now and I’m going to tell you in vivid detail what those are. So that together we can think about course correction. Together we can think about what kind of things I can do to fine tune where I’m spending my time or what new skills I might learn that can build upon what I now know about myself.”

As an individual, you’re walking in there with the raw material. You are the best judge of what I say invigorates you and what doesn’t. And it’s YOUR responsibility to bring that to the conversation that you have with your manager or your mentor. No one else is responsible for that. And besides, you’ve got more insight into that than they ever will.

So that’s the thing I would leave everyone with is, that, it’s not that people don’t care about you. They do. But no one cares about you as much as you do. And no one knows you as well as you do. And it’s your responsibility to bring that knowledge and that awareness to whomever you want to partner with in your growth and your development.

Quick Takeaways

    • To determine your strengths-path, pay attention to what you’re positively anticipating and pick up quickly.
    • Genius is precise, or dictated by specific parameters.
    • Stepping into your strengths is a constant process — something you grow into as you learn how to best apply yourself.
    • A great manager is somebody who is really good at generating performance out of an individual, one person at a time.
    • You are the best judge of what invigorates you and what doesn’t.

Originally published: Sep 3, 2011

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