Understanding our Strengths and Influencing our Department Culture

ARTICLE | Aug 29, 2017
by Ed Foley, Performance Analyst, City of Olathe, KS

Very early in my career in 2002, my employer at the time, gave all employees the book Now, Discover Your Strengths and it included an online assessment called the Strengths Finder. The book was very short, an important thing for someone who isn’t an avid reader, but as I read it, I realized this was good, really good stuff. One story in the book talked about how Warren Buffet became so incredibly successful with stock investments but did it in a way that was counter to the high intensity world of Wall Street. Here was Buffet sitting in the Midwest community of Omaha, NE and outperforming all the “high-powered” asset managers on the coasts. If there was ever an example of leveraging your strengths to be professionally successful, Buffet personified it. 

I am naturally someone who likes to see the glass half full vs. half empty. That’s just my bent, and talking about what you do well, really well attracted me. At the time in 2002, it just felt a bit counter to the norm and even still today, because we often think about our short comings and how we need to improve them rather than what do we do well, and instead focus on that!

So, I took the assessment and that sealed the deal–I was forever a believer. To this day, 15 years after printing out my top five strengths for the first time, I still have those sheets of paper. After reading the information about my results, I became a stronger employee and person. Since then, I have encountered the Strengths Finder assessment multiple times over my career and every time I gained something new. I would not just learn about my core strengths, but I would see the strengths in a co-worker and learn about some distinct aspects to their strengths.

Now, let’s jump to the year 2014. The Resource Management Department at the City of Olathe decided to have all 30 or so staff in the Department do the assessment. I’ve never seen an employer leverage the knowledge and skills from it like the Resource Management Department has done at the City of Olathe. Here is how it happened. 

We did the normal meeting where an outside trainer shared with everyone how to understand the assessment and so forth. Then, a week or so later, we each met in our divisions and talked about the information. Next, and this is where things get really exciting, the Department planned to have quarterly coffee talks where each group of employees who possessed a strength would do a brief discussion on that strength. 

There are 34 strengths, so we typically did three coffee talks a quarter and over the course of just about two years kept this information in the forefront of everyone’s mind. Each employee had the opportunity to let their voice be heard as to what made them really successful as a person and employee. It was a tremendously insightful experience. We were not just hearing the words used in the book to describe the strength, but we heard them from our co-workers in their own words. 

We also were able to truly understand and identify the co-workers that if we had a particular need to bring someone onto a team with that strength, we knew where to look. I have used this on multiple occasions myself.

To help each facilitator of a strength group prepare for the coffee talk, a facilitator sheet was created to guide the discussion. These discussions were wonderful. As you met with your smaller group who shared the strength you built a new and deeper relationship with them about this wonderful thing you shared in common. Then, at the larger meeting, there was opportunity to hear and learn while we got to know each other better. Many laughs were shared because people felt open and free to talk about these topics they so naturally possessed.

We have completed all the strengths and continue to build upon this information. As new employees join our department, they are given the assessment and a sheet with all our strengths is updated. 

This was an extremely straightforward way to leverage a powerful assessment in a way I had never experienced before. I encourage all of you to consider this if you have the opportunity.


Facilitator will schedule a meeting for team members with this strength to share insight about the strength and discuss information that would be beneficial for the Resource Management team to know about this strength. To help with the discussion the following questions are provided:

Questions for Facilitators to utilize in group discussion

  1. Confirm that your primary strength meets these criteria:
    1. Authenticity–“Yup, this is the real me!”
    2. Feeling a level of being in the zoneor even excitementwhen being able to use it
    3. Feeling invigoratedrather than sappedwhen using the strength
    4. A desire to be able to use the strength more frequentlyas a key behavior required to perform your job well
  2. What do you wish others (supervisor, co-workers or others at work) understood about how to best utilize your strengths?
  3. Does possessing this strength ever create stress or challenges for you? Under what circumstances?
    1. Do you feel that others ever exploit your strengths?Do you ever “overdo” your strengths? (and then they start to look and feel like weaknesses?)
    2. As a group that shares this strength, how might you combine forces to positively impact the RM department? ...the City?
  4. What are some activities or tasks that need doing – and your collective strengths in this area are best suited to conceive it, design it, implement it – or evaluate it?
  5. What strengths should you seek out in others to complement your strengths?

Facilitator will coordinate a brief Resource Management department stand-up meeting in the lounge area to share information about the strength and what the department can do to support members with this strength.

About the nextERA Series

nextERA is an advisory group, appointed by the Alliance for Innovation Board of Directors and comprised of up-and-coming professionals in the field of local government. Each month, a member of the advisory group prepares an article based on their own experiences with ways to encourage a healthy innovation culture in your organization.

Contact Information

For more information, contact Ed Foley, Performance Analyst for Olathe, KS, at ewfoley@olatheks.org or 913-971-8764. 

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