Strengths First, Everything Else Second: An Interview with Marcus Buckingham

Marcus Buckingham
Marcus Buckingham,
The Marcus Buckingham Company

Marcus Buckingham is a bestselling author, renowned speaker, and in-demand business consultant. Based on extensive data gathered through interviews with workers across the globe, Marcus argues that people will always deliver their best when they focus on making the most of their strengths rather than on fixing their weaknesses.

The Root Watercooler Newsletter had the opportunity to sit down with Marcus and discuss his theory of strength-based leadership, how to identify people’s strengths and scale best practices across organizations, and how we can all get more of that “do what you love” thing.

Here’s how it went.

Watercooler Newsletter: Describe what you mean by strength-based leadership.

Marcus Buckingham: The single difference between great teams and bad teams is not company mission or vision. It’s not recognition, communication, pay, or training. The single defining difference between great teams and bad teams is that on great teams, people feel they can use their strengths in an intelligent way every day. This is strength-based leadership.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that a strength is what someone is good at. Not so. That’s performance. Strengths are an antecedent to performance. You can get good performance for a limited time out of almost anyone, but strengths are seen when people are in a state of “flow” – when time flies by.

A person’s strengths are a multiplier, an accelerant. So, the best leaders realize it’s critical to invest in every person’s particular strengths because that’s where people learn and develop. That’s where they’re going to give more, do better, feel engaged. Leaders need to adopt a mindset of deep inquisitiveness to figure out what each person’s unique strengths are. [Award-winning management consultant, educator, and author] Peter Drucker said it best: People get their strengths together and their weaknesses become irrelevant.

WN: How can managers be trained to identify people’s strengths?

MB: Leaders have to understand what’s teachable and what’s not. People are enduringly unique. You have to approach your understanding of people with the underlying assumption that you’re not going to change their personalities. Each person’s capacity to learn, grow, and develop will vary according to his or her strengths. People will grow in the areas where they’re strongest.

The great thing is that people give really obvious signs as to what their strengths are – you can see them before, during, and after an activity. Before an activity, is there positive anticipation? What do they naturally look forward to? Consistent volunteering for a particular task is a clue you can look for. Then, while they’re doing it, does time fly by? Are they “losing themselves” in this activity? Ask any kid the last time their day flew by – I guarantee you they have a definitive answer. With adults, it’s less clear, but it does exist. Sadly, we just don’t find ourselves in as many situations where this focus is considered acceptable. Finally, when they’re finished, do they want to do it again? Did it fulfill a need for them personally? They may be tired, but they’re not spent. Leaders need to recognize the difference.

WN: So, how do we spot the best within our organizations? Maybe they’re the “rule breakers” – to borrow a phrase of yours.

MB: It’s easy to see which leaders are magnets for talent, which people keep getting promoted, which leaders people want to work for. We have to ask ourselves, “Why do people follow?” They follow people who are good at leveraging their own strengths. The best leaders have mastery – they do something, often one thing, at extraordinary levels of competence. And they are able to help other people discover their “thing.” They help their employees figure out what their strengths are and how they can deploy them in an intentional way every day.

There are three key things I like to refer to when trying to capture what makes a good leader. The people who work for them have these sentiments:

  1. My teammates share my values.
  2. I know what is expected of me at work.
  3. I have the chance to use my strengths every day.

I love the Apple/Facebook comparison. If perfect indeed means perfect, go work for Apple. If done is better than perfect, go work for Facebook. They operate under two extremely different philosophies. So, what’s considered “the best” in one organization may not be considered so in another. It depends on many things: on the vision of the leaders, on the commitment of the staff, on the ways they engage, recognize, and reward people.

But when we study what the best leaders do, and we measure highly productive teams, what separates them are these three points.  You want to build a great company? You need to accumulate great teams. And what builds great teams? Strength-based leadership. If you do that, team by team, you will have yourself an outstanding organization.

WN: What advice can you offer leaders to help them highlight, leverage, build on, and replicate their people’s strengths across their organizations?

MB: Think about your favorite sports teams – the ones that win. Great sports teams are great because they go from the player to the play, rather than the other way around. They look at who they have, what their strengths are, and then build the playbook based on that. Often times, today’s companies are doing it backwards. They have the plays and they’re trying to retrofit the players, not knowing where people can add the most value to the game. You can’t replicate people’s strengths across your organization. Instead, you must find ways to use the strengths that each person has.

If leaders approach their role knowing and believing that the power of human nature is that each human’s nature is unique, then they will be able to extract the most effort from their people. Don’t fight the uniqueness; use it. Then check in with each person each week. Ask them: what are you working on and how can I help? This is not in addition to leading; this IS leading. When you check in every six weeks, that’s called feedback. Feedback is really hard to give and to receive, and if you don’t believe me, just get married. The best leaders coach their people on near-term actual work. There are no abstractions, just actuality.

WN: Lastly, I think we all want to know the secret to getting a little more “flow” in our work.

MB: Our research shows that 70% of us are in a job that’s at least in the vicinity of our strengths. To start living a first-rate version of your own life, you don’t have to blow up everything that exists. You can iterate. Start by deliberately maneuvering your job so it’s filled with more things that invigorate you. Tilt your world toward those things bit by bit. The most successful people seem to have a job that was tailor-made for them, and we wonder – how’d they get so lucky? Well, they didn’t. They made it. Deliberately. Selfishly. So it was more and more filled with things that put them in a state of flow. That’s why they’re good today. That’s why it’s sustainable. And this is possible for every person. You just have to know what to look for in yourself.

For more on Marcus Buckingham and strength-based leadership, visit