15 March 2007

StrengthFinder: discover your talents, turn them into strengths!

I was the great show opener with my Spiderman costume

When I was 10 years old, my class was organizing a small theater play, based on the novel "Colombine" which is a variation on the famous characters from the Comedia del' Arte.

I have always been fascinated by stage action but this time, this was special. Catherine, my secret-beloved-classmate was playing the role of Colombine and she was the most beautiful girl ever in her white dress.

The other central character of this comedy was Arlequin, a joyful, carefree, colorful character. Arlequin entertains Colombine, charming her with his tricks and pleasant stories. I would have loved to play this role, the role of my life for sure, but it had been given to Gilles,... my best friend.

Well, I had accepted my fate, especially since Gilles was 1. a very good Arlequin, 2. my best friend. Until the day Gilles was ill at home,...

He can't rehearse the role! "Pleaaaaaase, let me do it!!!!". Yes! Here I go, ready to seduce Catherine with all my acting talents. Helas, after a few tries, everybody sees that I am not at all the same little extravagant boy than Gilles and that my performance is, how would I say? Well, average,...

Realizing on stage that I will never be able to seduce Colombine/Catherine by being her beloved Arlequin, I burst into tears.

Then, my teacher has the kind of idea that makes a great teacher. She acknowledges that I love being on stage, that I am a serious boy, engaging to other people and that I prefer intimacy to extravagance. So she just decides to create the perfect role for me, building on my talents. I'll be presenting the play!

So, on the big night, I sat under the lights, opening the "Colombine" book, reading an introduction that created the warm feeling of entering a formidable romantic story. Even if having a Spiderman costume, the only one left, must have left some parents wondering,...

Do your best or do -your- best?

This teacher had the great instinct to let me do something I was good at and that motivated me a lot, creatively finding a way to use my talents. She turned something which could have been a traumatic experience into a success story.

This story is like the piece of a puzzle for me. Last year, I made the semi-conscious decision that I should definitely do what I was good at. Why would I try to be a good project manager, a salesperson, a coach, an entrepreneur, a PR, a professional services leader, a top-executive if I can't give -my- best at it. Not my best efforts, but my own best, the things which make me very different from anybody else. Deciding this is both relieving and very energizing. This is the second piece of the puzzle.

Rely on other's strengths, they love that!

I also remember 2 years ago how I realized that I was much more successful when letting others use their own specific talents without trying to do all by myself. Severine is good at organizing meetings, she can do it! Rely on other's talents when you lack some. They will even be grateful that you let them do what they love and what they're successful at!

No wonder why I am always asking candidates what they like to do,... This is the third piece of the puzzle.

The online test

Then, starting a new job this year, I met my project manager, freshly arrived in the company, too. I was very impressed by the way he had been handling things and connecting to people from day 1. Having read "Behind closed doors: the secrets of great managers" last year, I thought: "He's really acting by the book!" (Kaz, you are allowed to blush if you read this blog,...).

Kaz told me about an idea I had discovered last year, when working with an external HR cabinet in my previous company: improve people's strengths, not their weaknesses. This idea was really appealing but also very perturbing (more on that further down).

So Kaz wants people in his team to pass a "StrengthFinder" test. This test is provided by the Gallup institute and aims at finding the 5 top strengths amongst 34 possible strengths.

I passed the test and the first thing I noticed having read the results was: "Hey, that's the first test I cannot feel bad about!". The test is telling me: here, here,... and here, you're really great!

And what about the rest? Is there something I should improve, work on, be wary of? NO, forget it. Use all your energy maximizing your own existing talents. Not the ones you may possibly acquire on the edge of exhaustion.

This makes hell of a difference, creating a nice little psychological "click" in your head,...

Me, you, our team

I don't want to paraphrase the book, it says a lot more that I do on the subject but here are some personal and team consequences:

  • It is more than ok to rely on others strengths. This has many positive side effects: work is done ok, people love doing that, you are relieved of what you don't like
  • Ÿ It is very important to think about your team in terms of provided strengths because this is your only building material for your project. You're not going to build on their weaknesses!
  • Ÿ You can also think about the strengths you're looking for when recruiting, to complement those of your team
  • Ÿ There's no better way to set yearly objectives: people have more chances to be successful, they will bring more value to the company, they will enjoy doing their job
  • Ÿ "StrengthsFinder" is in fact more like "TalentsFinder". Now I know what are my talents, I still need to grow them to turn them into real strengths. Even Mozart had to practice violin,...

Now, this little "click" is so important that I need to talk about the thoughts that can sabotage it.

Preserve the "click"

It is very interesting to start thinking about why we can hear some kind of big warning when thinking about this "strengths-only" approach. Very nice, but,... :

1. Your defaults can ruin your life/project if you forget about them

2. You can always improve

3. You should always improve (it's a matter of will)

4. Life cannot be a bed of roses where you just do what you like

5. Why would I forget about trying to be a great Commander?

Let's take these points one by one:

1. Well, you don't have to totally forget about them! You can for instance use personal strategies to mitigate most of the side-effects. You're very creative but incapable to think about paying your bills? Add an Outlook recurrent meeting to your calendar, buy a Palm pilot, arrange an automatic transfer, put a sticker on your fridge,... Whatever. Just do the little thing that will prevent disasters. Don't try to turn into a "Logistic man/woman". But wait do better than that: find someone that will be delighted to do that for you! (Is that what marriage is all about ;-) ?)

2. Yes, you -may- improve, but is it worth the energy and, most of the time, the unpleasant feeling worth it? Why don't you use this energy to be even better and successfull in what you're already great at? You prefer to hear: "s/he's incomparable" or "s/he's trying hard"?

3. This is more like a moral argument whose psychological roots I leave to the reader to find out,...

4. Why not? By carefully selecting who you work with, you may just find in others the strengths that makes your life great. Chasing receipts and checking amounts to the cent is not considered to be anyone's preferred activity. Yet, I've met people just loving to do that!
I like this one,... Well, because you can't have your cake and eat it. By focusing on your strengths, you're great but you give up being a super-heros capable of anything. I will never be Arlequin but I can be a super-presenter,...

My top 5

To finish with, here are my Top 5 strengths:


From what I know, this is pretty accurate and provides a solid starting point for improvement.

Now, why don't you take the test and drop me a line about how it feel passing it!

Disclaimer: To do the test, you have to buy the book. I have no interests in Gallup and there must be numerous other resources with the same approach, I am only interested in -your- little "click",...

Is Project Manager the highest lifeform?

Back after a looonnng time

I haven't kept the sacred "blog at least once a month" pace since last December because of my move to Tokyo (And I still don't have internet at home, arghh). However, here's my comeback
with a classical post about the developer vs project manager divide. I decided that an interview would be a better form of post than a long monolog and I really enjoyed doing it (beside I don't have to be the one to be smart!). You can find many more posts on the subject, including this recent one that had lots of comments, even if it's more on the lines of "everything sucks".

But I have more posts coming up:
  • StrengthFinder 2.0
  • Pattern matching with Ruby
  • Net pearls
So stay tuned!

An interview for a change

I have had comments by Teki on my "Interesting software vs plumbing" post. Those comments brought us to the subject of programmer's evolution: starting from being a self-satisfied geek, why would you become a project manager?

Wanting to write a few lines on the subject, I preferred to go for an interview with one of the best software professionals I've came in touch with, my friend Olivier. [some of my comment are in brackets]

me> Olivier, it is sometimes said that a programmer should evolve to a manager position to get a satisfying job in terms of career (recognition, money, autonomy, employment), what do you think about that?

him> I don't agree! A good programmer doesn't necessarily make a good project manager. Becoming a project manager is not the only possible evolution. Technical expertise is also amongst the possibilities. It is true that most of the time, the management positions are the only ones recognized socially and financially. But It doesn't have to be that way. In my previous job, I encouraged the HR department to setup 2 different "ladders" in the company.

By the way, as a recruiter, I have a very, very bad feeling, when a programmer comes to me and says: "Hey, I want to be a project manager in 2 or 3 years". Programmer is a real job, not a transition.

me> Do you think that there could be more than one "expertise ladder"?

him> I don't know, this "ladder" thing is essentially a social and monetary issue. Most people need social recognition and it is often correlated to salary (at least in France).

me> Is it possible to be a good programmer as well as a good project manager?

him> I hope so! [me> Olivier is both ;-)]

me> Is it seldom to be good at both? Can it be learned?

him> I think it can be learned. The real difference between Mr. Universe and me is not the amount of muscle, but essentially the time spent training. Training sufficiently may not make me Mr. Universe but it may still build lots of muscles. The only question is: will I enjoy the training, am I willing to do all necessary efforts?

me> Is it possible to be a good manager without having been/being a programmer?

him> Yes, I think so. I've worked with a very good project manager, who was not a programmer at all. However, he had a real respect for my expertise and trusted my judgement. Respect is a key point in our field. It is also true for programmers who are sometimes capable of utter pretention: try a newbie message on the mailing list for instance,...
[me> I sometimes wonder if it is possible to really have a deep understanding of programmers and software without having being one yourself]

me> Will programmers take over the world :-) and be rewarded as they should? What should they do to achieve this?

him> I don't think that any "world movement" [me> or certification program,...] can achieve that. Local action is prevalent, relentless communication is my only tool. I try to communicate whenever possible: to programmers, QA, directors, sales, consultants. Communication has to be relentless to make people realize the value of programmers.

However, the recognition of the importance of programmers will continue to rise as the upper management realizes their creativity is needed and how much turnover affects the company.

me> Why is programmers perceived added value so low?

him> Their added value? Is it really so low? Yes, perceptions can be very far from reality: some people think that programming is an obscure task, reserved for some kind of mutants. Other ones (sometimes the same but at different moments!), think that programming is easy because they use Word everyday and find it intuitive, easy to use. Or, they have programmed a few Excel macros and feel it is not such a big deal. But how much complexity is hidden behind a good software? It is so hard to make it simple!

Anyway, this is unfortunately the reality for most engineers I know, from mechanical to electricians.

me> Do you think it is a Taylorist / scientist vs agile / lean issue ? What I mean is: do you think that a Taylorist view of software leads to a natural division of Commanders / Executers while an agile view of software makes it more like a collaborative / creative process ? How do you see the future to that respect?

him> Taylorism doesn't apply well to software programming. It is fundamentally a creative activity and an undeterministic process. The V-Cycle was such a big misunderstanding. It has unfortunately spread through most of development standards from administrations to banks. Driving a car is a much better analogy: you constantly have to adjust your direction, your speed and manage obstacles as they occur.

Anyway, I don't think that any agile / lean methodology will drastically change things. Whatever has been said on the subject, there are not enough total project failures. I have not seen one around me in my whole career. [me> Lucky guy, I have seen quite a few, from medium to big].

Still it is so common to expect obligation of results and not obligation of means. Can you write a best-seller in 3 months? Maybe you can write "something" in 3 months, maybe you can write a best-seller in some years, but it takes a genius to write a best-seller in 3 months. How many programming Mozarts can write a brilliant symphony for each project they start?

me> Is there a question that you would have liked to answer ;-) ?

him> The question you ask at the beginning leads us to: what does it take to be a good programmer, a good manager? Is there an universal definition of those 2 roles, or only local ones? Whatever the answer, having the 2 activities being in conflict is always a sign of a big underlying problem: lack of respect,...