In the moments that matter, how can we perform at our best? Ethiopian marathon runner, Abebe Bikila, who would make history as the first back-to-back Olympic marathon gold-medalist, spent his upbringing training, most of the time barefoot. Following his debut at a marathon in Addis Ababa, where he shattered the world record at the time, he began preparing for the 1960 Olympics in the Eternal City. To prepare for his first international marathon, he began training in sneakers.

Upon arrival in Rome, he replaced his worn out sneakers. A couple days before the event, he found that the new sneakers were not breaking in well and had blistered his feet. He ditched his shoes and decided to run the race barefoot. On the day of the race, a reporter who noticed asked him, pointing to his bare feet, “Are you planning to run the whole race?” He replied, “We habitually take off our shoes when we run. Our bare feet are more suited than the shoes.”

As the runners left the starting line, Abebe claimed a spot among the lead pack, trailing Ron Clarke of Australia and Radi bin Abd es-Selam of Morocco. They stayed together for 16 miles until Abebe and Radi separated themselves with a two-minute lead. Side by side with Radi until the final 500m, Abebe took off, sprinting down the Apian Way, unrivaled. He entered the Colosseum alone, crossing the finish line twenty-five seconds ahead of Radi. Abebe undercut the world record by eight-tenths of a second. He returned home a national hero.

In the moment that mattered, Abebe stuck with his natural strength. He was used to feeling the ground under his feet, undisturbed by the soles of shoes. He did the extraordinary—the unthinkable—taking his shoes off to deliver his best in that moment when he needed his best.

In leading business and teams, we need our teams to deliver their best when they need their best. Great leaders utilize each team member’s unique set of natural strengths to build a team that consistently performs at its peak. Engagement is the key. Employees will want to engage more fully when given the chance to use their top natural strengths. When a team engages with its work, it will more consistently deliver its best.

This is a moment when businesses need their best. Leaders, by this point, have found it necessary to reevaluate their company’s strategy, operations, and philosophy in order to cope with the pandemic. As a result, leaders may be seeking ways to overcome these challenges. In addition to wearing masks in public, socially distancing, and following safe and prudent guidelines to mitigate the pandemic, leaders can reinvent their team. Employing each team member’s unique set of natural strengths is a tried and tested method to motivate teams to engage with their work. How do leaders actually motivate their teams to engage?

Cultivating Natural Strengths in a Team

People commonly say, “I’m a people person.” But this statement is broad and unclear. They may be great with people, but that observation must be more specific to identify which relational strengths that person uses to interact with others. Some would consider a colleague that compromises easily and works well in a one-on-one setting but is reserved in large groups a ‘people person.’ This team member employs individualized and developmental strengths to navigate and cultivate interpersonal relationships to achieve a mutual goal. Others may consider someone who loves to network and easily leads group discussions a ‘people person.’ This colleague takes social initiative to navigate interpersonal settings. Drawing upon strengths such as investing time and authentic care or taking social initiative to cultivate relationships. Investing time and genuine care or taking social initiative allows both individuals to cultivate relationship with wisdom and finesse. To a leader, these are useful in different situations. Recognizing these specific qualities in employees provides more actionable information.

Your top strengths tend to be unique to you, Gallup refers to them as your signature, your fingerprint. They guide how an individual views and navigates situations. Top strengths often are innate. When squeezed under pressure, one’s top strengths are what come out. Something that creates pressure for others may be less stressful for someone using their natural strength. Top strengths also are energizing. They are what motivate you to put in your best effort. You are most efficient and satisfied when applying your top strengths.

As a leader or even as a team member, what is energizing to you? Where do you build energy? Where do you connect ideas more easily? 

Natural Strengths vs. Learned Strengths

Natural strengths are distinct from learned strengths. An employee might be outstanding at writing and while they derive satisfaction from it, it drains them. Learned strengths often require additional effort to achieve the same results as someone working with their natural strength. What is the highest quality of a team member can deliver repeatedly? The strongest performing teams likely have their team members utilizing their natural strengths. Companies may evaluate what they need, how they can identify them in their employees, and how the leader can position each of them on the team.

To initially assess an employees’ unique sets of natural abilities, the leader needs to have conversations with carefully chosen questions. It can start by asking everyone on your team how things are. Opening the door to a conversation invites them to walk through it. Most people will want to talk about it. Asking is engaging. From there, the conversations can be developed by asking how they are doing with their current projects. Have they noticed a trend in which projects they completed with ease and which they struggled with? As employees explore wider areas of their roles over time, the more their natural strengths will become clear. Consistently speaking with them about how they feel they are doing in their roles is important to shaping their future roles on the team.

Team Strengths: Assess, Reassess, and Optimize

A common mistake many leaders make while assessing strengths is that they only ask about them during the initial interview— “Can you tell me about your strengths and weaknesses?”—but never revisit the subject during the employee’s tenure at the company. There are two issues here.

First, directly asking someone to identify their natural strengths often fails to yield accurate answers. The employee may lack the knowledge, experience, or feedback from others, as well as the objectivity to identify their natural strengths. Distinguishing between learned and natural strengths often requires an external evaluation for objectivity. Ask investigative questions that illuminate the type of work they found most satisfying or least taxing. These include:

  • Can you tell me about a time when your work was most satisfying to you?
  • When are your colleagues most likely to notice your unique contribution?
  • If I were to talk to your colleagues, what would they describe as unique to you?

These questions get at which strengths underly your hard work. So many of us work hard, but for leaders that want to coordinate a team on which everyone is sustainably contributing as much as they can, it is essential that they understand what lies at the root of that hard work. Connect hard work with the best outcome.

Second, leaders who ask about a team member’s strengths more frequently throughout the employee’s tenure will have greater insight into their true nature. Without previously working with candidate, how could the interviewer or leader identify his or her top natural strengths? But the interview is only the first indicator that the leader may use to position that candidate’s role on the team. Ongoing conversation and careful attention will yield much more insight. Leaders also often miss the opportunity of identifying natural strengths by relying on annual reviews. These conversations frequently digress to productivity. Identifying natural strengths requires consistency.

As each employee’s top strengths become clearer, it is up to the leader to make good use of them. Leaders can incorporate the strengths of the team into their projects in order to engage the team and set them up to produce their best work. In choosing between two methods of completing a project, look for one that better utilizes the natural strengths of the team. While each member may need different a motivation or incentive to engage, when they do, the difference can be outstanding.

Under pressure, we can either struggle or choose to rely on our best strengths. The reporters in Rome mocked Abebe for running barefoot. He could have put on shoes like everyone else, but he prevailed, relying on his longstanding, trusted approach. Our businesses are running a marathon, and each member of the team pushes the company forward only as much as they engage. Getting to know the team and their strengths may be one of the most fruitful investments of time a leader can make, especially in these challenging times. They move beyond a group of colleagues and become a cohesive and engaged team. In what ways can your team kick off their shoes and run more naturally? What can you envision your employees achieving as a united team?