SRU workshop develops leaders based on their strengths

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From left, Erin Strain, Slippery Rock University’s director of leadership development, and Stacy Jacob, assistant professor of counseling and development, search for images that represent people’s strengths that are used in their professional development workshop called “Leadership Driven By Strengths.”

Jan. 8, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - A recent leadership workshop for Slippery Rock University employees began with attendees signing their name five times with their dominant hand and five times with their nondominant hand. The exercise demonstrated how using their strengths comes naturally to people, resulting in an efficient process and a more polished product, rather than the painstakingly drawn squiggles.

"That's the difference between working with a strength or a talent and working from a place that is a weakness," said Stacy Jacob, SRU assistant professor of counseling and development, who, along with Erin Strain, SRU's director of leadership development, conduct a professional development workshop each semester called "Leadership Driven by Strengths" at the University's Leadership Development Center. "In our work lives and in our leadership, when we work from our strengths, it's easy, but when we work from places that are harder for us, it takes more focus and time. Using strengths creates a better work product and better relationships."

Beyond the writing exercise, workshop attendees discovered that their strengths are more profound than the binary left- or right-handedness. After completing the Clifton StrengthsFinder, an online personal assessment test developed nearly 20 years ago by the Gallup Organization, attendees discovered their top five strengths. Gallup categorizes people based on 34 strengths or themes. Results have shown just 1 in 33.4 million people have the same top five themes in the same order.

"We look at the strengths as a tool to move everybody forward in a productive way," Strain said. "It's reinforcing to look at people's strengths and create a positive culture, rather than fitting people into boxes with (tasks using their) weaknesses and they are not as productive. Like writing with the opposite hand: you could still do it, but it took time and it was frustrating."

Supervisors can help their employees achieve department goals by assigning tasks based on their employees' strengths, while employees can identify ways to contribute to organizations or advance their careers based on what they learned from the workshop.

"It's really good for people to figure out who they are as a leader, what they are good at and what their talents are," said Jacob, who uses the StrengthsFinder assessment and the book "Strengths Based Leadership" in a master's-level course at SRU about higher education leadership. "Understanding yourself is the first step to leadership. You can understand theory, but not every theory works for every person, so you have to understand what kind of leader you are going to be."

The 34 strengths identified in the assessment, which include themes such as Focus, Competition, Includer and Strategic, are grouped into four domains of leadership strength: Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building and Strategic Thinking. People might not have any strengths from one of the four domains, which might be perceived as a weakness; but, using herself as an example, Jacob said that people can leverage their strengths from other domains to make up for a deficit in another domain.

None of Jacob's top-five strengths are considering Influencing, but as the graduate coordinator for her department, she has to convince prospective students to enroll at SRU.

"I have to find other ways through that," said Jacob, who instead uses her Strategic Thinking and Relationship Building strengths, including her top theme, Connectedness. "I try to work on how do I connect with people (rather than a broad, influencing message). I know I'm good with the individuals when they come in to our Interview Day, and I work on making personal connections, like writing notes, to show we are a personalized department and the way that we see them fitting in.

"It's thinking around how you might see your strengths in different ways or how you might use your strengths in conjunction with each other."

In addition to identifying attendees' natural talents and strengths, the workshop helped attendees learn ways to apply them in their daily lives. In another exercise, random stock photos of things like a rock-climber or puzzle pieces where spread on the floor and attendees chose images that represented their strengths and explain how they use that strength in their job.

As a final exercise, attendees were assigned to a team and provided drinking straws and duct tape to use to prevent an egg, dropped at arm's length from a person's chest, from cracking on the floor. Using each team member's strengths, the teams evaluated the directive, came up with a plan and assembled something, most likely a basket, to cushion the egg's landing.

Strain and Jacob have conducted the workshop since 2012. It is one of the most popular professional development workshops - which range from health and wellness to technology - offered by SRU's Office of Human Resources through the LDC.

For more information regarding professional development workshops at SRU, contact Strain at: 724.738.4334 or erin.strain@sru.edu.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 | justin.zackal@sru.edu