What is it?

CliftonStrengths is a product of Gallup, the global analytics and advice firm (i.e. Consultancy) more well-known for conducting opinion polls. Psychologist Don Clifton developed it to change the focus of human capital away from eliminating weaknesses to developing strengths. Analysing >100,000 talent-based interviews of successful individuals, Clifton’s team identified 34 talent themes in 4 domains common across cultures. These themes are natural patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that point to your innate talents.

After taking the proprietary 177-question online assessment, you will have a personalised report of your unique CliftonStrengths profile. This profile explains your strongest talent areas, how to use them, and how to manage weaknesses. Of all the assessments I’ve taken, CliftonStrengths is the only one able to describe nuances of my innermost thoughts and feelings. If you answered truthfully, reading the report will make you say “How did they know that? That’s exactly me!”.

How do I use it?

Referencing VIPS, CliftonStrengths blends Values, Interests and Personality into a holistic framework based on positive psychology. Your top strengths influence the way you think, feel and behave, forming the lens with which you experience the world. Unlike Values and Interests, your top 15 strengths are generally stable through life circumstances though the order may change. Clifton’s central thesis is that developing your strengths (talents in the equation) gives you the best chance of success.

Gallup’s formula for Strengths-based success

I like that the report provides useful insights for career direction without getting overly prescriptive. Weaknesses are also framed positively: blindspots or a strength flexed excessively. Even without a strengths coach, you can apply the recommendations to career, leadership and relationships. To give you an idea of what I mean, I’ll explain using my own report. Since 4 of my top 5 are also Singapore’s top 5, there’s a good chance what I’m sharing will apply to you if you’re Singaporean.

Top Strengths among Singaporeans, with 4 of my top 5 circled

In the full 34 strength report, Gallup goes into greater detail for the top 10 but leaves the rest unexplained. Isn’t that short-change for a “full” report? Not really. First, strengths beyond #10 cannot properly be considered “strengths” if they don’t occur naturally to you. Next, having a full report for all 34 will just distract you from focusing your investment on the top 10. Finally, if you focus on developing and deploying the top 10, trust me that your hands will be full.

Each top 5 strength starts with a personalised list of statements describing why the strength is unique to you. These statements will change depending on your unique combination of strengths. This part was pleasantly liberating, with some statements accurately describing inner thoughts and beliefs I rarely reveal. These statements are particularly helpful in interviews and professional/private relationships to help others understand you better. In my example, my passion for self-upgrading should be explained to potential employers so they don’t misunderstand attending courses as an excuse for skiving.

#2: Restorative and why it’s unique to me

This is followed by a single statement explaining why you succeed in applying that strength. I personally found this statement less useful, but good for a one sentence summary of your strength.

#1: Responsibility and how it helps me succeed

The next section is my favourite as it gives specific actions and recommendations to invest in this talent. It also contains broad recommendations of job responsibilities and tasks to pursue or avoid depending on the strength. This is useful not just for new graduates looking for their first job, but also mid-career switchers pivoting to a different career. By avoiding specific job titles, there is freedom to pick and shape your responsibilities without being trapped by roles. For example, I would be mindful to avoid sales and cold-call related tasks in any role I take up. Although I have experience in conducting such conversations, doing so would drain me as a burnout skill.

#4: How to use Harmony successfully

The final section deals with blindspots (not weaknesses), where exercising your strength exclusively may cause misunderstandings with others. Insights from this section will help improve your personal and professional relationships if applied correctly. If you’re a leader, this section also explains why your subordinates might perceive you in a certain way. Addressing the recommendations would improve their perceptions of you and may even help you advance. In my case with Relator, expanding my social circle doesn’t come naturally. To address this, flexing another strength like Arranger helps me form relationships with others using work as a pretext.

#3: Relator blindspots

This brings me to the issue of weaknesses. Gallup defines a weakness broadly as: anything that obstructs your success. Oftentimes, weaknesses are actually strengths used inappropriately, resulting in blindspots. Sometimes, weaknesses are a result of not possessing strengths in an area when it is directly needed. For example, I lack Influencing (Yellow) themes in my top 10, making it challenging to persuade or take charge. In either case, Gallup recommends a few ways to overcome this:

  1. Know how it affects you
  2. Find people to cover your gaps
  3. Apply a strength

You will notice that I just gave you an example of #3 when talking about Relator above.

Strengths #6 – 10 lacks the first section of why the strength is unique to you. However, if you read the statements for your top 5 carefully, you will realise #6 – 10 already influence the statements. This makes it somewhat redundant to repeat the uniqueness statements. The remaining 3 sections are still present and will give you sufficient food for thought.

An example of the team contribution section

There are still some parts describing your team contribution, big picture action steps, and a summary of all 34 strengths. However, the insights there are less illuminating than the top 10, so I recommend you focus on the above. And that’s it!

How do I get mine?

If you’re keen to find out your strengths, check out Gallup’s online store. I personally recommend getting the full report for all 34 strengths, rather than just the top 5. If you’ve previously taken a top 5 assessment, there is also a cheaper top-up option. You won’t need to retake the assessment again as Gallup retains the responses from your previous assessment. If you buy any CliftonStrengths book, you will also get a complimentary code for the top 5 strengths report as a teaser.

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