By Jim Graber

( “Now is the winter of our discontent.” In many ways, the opening line from William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” circa 1592, still rings true. Are we open to a sea change like strengths-based talent management?

Donald Clifton, the so-called father of strengths-based psychology, devoted more than 50 years researching strengths, ultimately identifying 34 themes of talent. Millions have been assessed using the Clifton StrengthsFinder to identify their five dominant strengths.

Advocates of strengths-based approaches believe that, given the proper coaching, individuals can develop these natural strengths into talents and use them to become more effective individual contributors and supervisors. Other than helping staff understand their strengths, there hasn’t been a lot done to closely integrate the strengths-based philosophy with talent management processes.

Several years ago, the leadership team at the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, or IANR, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, identified talent management initiatives that needed to support its “2025 Strategic Plan.” It also recognized that more should be done for the more than 900 support staff it employed.

There hadn’t been a lot of effort to engage and develop this group, and leadership wanted to change the culture. The assistant vice chancellor at the time, Alan Moeller, felt that a strengths-based approach would be most beneficial. Trisha Dezort, the institute’s human resources director, and Ashley Bjornsen, its HR specialist, spoke with me about IANR’s initiative.

IANR operates from the perspective that every individual is talented in different ways. The key to creating the Institute’s culture is to empower people to do what they do best, not to focus on their weaknesses. When people do what they do best and succeed, they are happier to be at work.

First, IANR sent several HR staff to strengths-coach training and certification. Then, these coaches designed and began rolling out strengths workshops to orient the organization’s staff and supervisors and to have participants complete a strengths assessment.

HR identified 10 key stakeholder groups and conducted interviews, focus groups and an employee survey. People said increased recognition, more opportunities to fully use their skills, the opportunity to speak about career goals, more job training, and better compensation and paths to advancement were their top priorities.

At this point, the strengths-based path became less clear. IANR wanted to roll out a consistent strengths-based philosophy and achieve a fully integrated talent management system. Revamped performance management was already a priority, so IANR decided to tackle it next.

Traditionally, IANR supervisors spent a lot of time alone filling out performance scorecards. Some supervisors have 30 direct reports, so the old scorecard takes tremendous time, followed by employee meetings. In contrast, IANR’s new process is employee driven, with the employee completing the initial documentation.

Now supervisors and staff can spend time together having a conversation that looks briefly at the past and then focuses on the future through five questions:

  1. What accomplishments have you had since the last time we met?
  2. What will you accomplish before the next time we meet?
  3. What are your natural strengths and talents? How can you further use these in your job and within our team?
  4. What challenges are you facing?
  5. How can I help you be your best?

IANR staff reported that they feel more empowered; managers said they feel much more connected with staff. The old approach shut off conversation because people dreaded the meetings. Now, most report feeling motivated to continue performance discussions and learn more about each other’s point of view.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone putting the “more please” and “performance reviews” in the same sentence, but IANR has accomplished that, as well as pushing its culture in a positive direction.


Winning the War for Talent