Editor's Note: This article is featured in Best of Connections 2021. Read Apra Editorial Advisory Committee Chair Jessica Balsam's editor's message to learn more about the top articles of the year.
By Mel Kepler, Certified Strengths Coach, Capital Humans
Imagine a child brings home a report card to their parents. They are taking four courses; of these, they are acing three of them and have a D in the fourth. Where do you think parents would spend the majority of their time and attention?
If you said on the bad grade, you’re right – 77% of American parents agreed that the worst grades deserve the most time and attention. Looking at ourselves through a lens of our Strengths — what we’re doing well and what we’re great at — is counter to much of what we are taught and is an unfamiliar experience for many of us.
However, this is exactly what the Strengths-based approach asks us to do — to stop focusing on what’s wrong with people, including ourselves, and start talking about what’s right with them. Gallup has done its research on the effects of Strengths-based development — employees who work at organizations that practice this type of development are more likely to be engaged at work, less likely to quit their jobs and more likely to report having an excellent quality of life. 
This approach requires you to accept that you won’t be good at everything or become an entirely new person, but instead, you can use what you’re good at to get you where you’re going. You’ll develop your own way to success instead of following someone else’s.
This is crucial in a prospect development role, because of the variety of skills required to be good at the job. These skills are often dichotomous: great attention to detail, with big-picture thinking! Comfortable working alone, with amazing people skills! Lots of historical organizational knowledge, with a future-focused thirst for change! It is important to be able to map your own path to these outcomes — that is, to do them in the way that is most effective for you — in order to be great at two ends of a spectrum.
How Do I Know?
The best way to get started on developing yourself based on your Strengths is to first assess what your Strengths are. The CliftonStrengths assessment is how I usually recommend my clients do that since I’m trained in how to interpret it. However, there are some things you can watch for to get clues to what your Strengths might be. You can also use these as clues to the Strengths of people you work with, to help you better understand how they approach the world. Keep an eye out for:
- Rapid Learning: What do they pick up easily without having instructions?
- Yearning: What do they really want to do?
- Flow: When they lose track of time, what were they doing?
- Glimpses of Excellence: What are they known for?
- Satisfaction: What do they finish and immediately want to do again?
You can use these clues to get insight into what your Strengths might be — or to get an idea how to respond to the people around us based on their Strengths, not our own.
As a prospect development professional, you must be able to connect to people, and that means meeting them where they are, not expecting them to be where we are. CliftonStrengths has found in their research that there is no correlation between any given Strength or set of Strengths and any particular profession that they have studied. This means that there isn’t a “prospect development professional” Strengths profile. You must learn which of your personal Strengths you can use to best engage the people you encounter — be they donors, clients, medical professionals, artists, alumni or even your colleagues.
The CliftonStrengths assessment is actually, at the heart of it, an assessment of talents, not strengths. The distinction between those is that a talent is a natural way of thinking, behaving or feeling — a way we almost can’t help but be — whereas a strength is something that is honed, through practice and development, to consistently provide impactful performance. Even when we look at only our own Strengths, we still have a duty to grow and build on them and become the best possible version of ourselves.
What Do I Do?
Once you understand your own Strengths, you must learn to use them effectively. Strengths don’t just describe what we are good at; they also influence our choices, direct our actions and filter our worldviews. We see things differently based on our Strengths. Some of us are more likely to take a long-term view, while others look at individual to-do list items. Some people hear an action item in the same statement that others take simply as for information. Given the same prompt, some Strengths go into research mode, while others build out a team, and still others have already started executing tasks.
Knowing our Strengths and how they make our responses unique helps us craft our interactions with others to maximum effect. For example, an email titled “How can recent grads help current students?” will get different responses, from different people, than one titled “What recent grads should know about current students.”
To use myself as an example: My top 10 Strengths are: Strategic, Communication, Positivity, Activator, Woo, Maximizer, Futuristic, Individualization, Arranger and Ideation. But what does that mean? It means I see the big picture and choose paths that will work; that I bring ideas to life and make them stick in your head; that I get people moving and leave them lighter than I found them. It also means that I’m likely to see things in terms of what I can do, rather than what I need to learn or how people might feel about it. Knowing these are things that are true about me, not “people,” means I am better able to see the other people I encounter as they are, rather than as the same as myself.
When you understand the ways your particular set of Strengths impacts your view of and approach to the world, you can more effectively aim yourself at your own goals. Knowing and claiming your Strengths allows you to make plans to address the goals that work for you personally. Once you are able to name what about a particular Strength or set of Strengths that helps you succeed, and apply that to the goal at hand, you will be more effective and enjoy the process of meeting your goals more.
Let’s think about a goal that might be shared by several people on a team: Identify five good prospects to cultivate. Different people with different strengths might approach that goal in different ways.
Someone with high Relator might talk to trusted teammates about potential sources for prospects, whereas someone with high Input or Context might dive into research mode, looking at where prospects had been found in the past. Someone with high Discipline or Deliberative might mark off some time in their schedule each week specifically for this task, whereas someone with Woo or Connectedness might work subtle inquiries about potential prospects into their usual socialization activities.
A plan that works for one of these people will feel awkward and ineffective to another — and that is okay! The important part is that the way you do things works for the person doing those things — that is, for you.
It’s About You
Over 25 million people have taken the CliftonStrengths assessment, and Gallup has done the math — the odds of anyone having even just your top five Strengths, in your order, is one in 33 million. That’s about the same likelihood that you will be killed by a piece of a satellite falling from the sky. About 238 people in the world have the same top five Strengths as you, in the same order — and they’re probably not at your organization, nor are they likely to be the people you’re in contact with.
Why do I bring this up? Because you’re most effective when you operate as yourself, in the way that works with your Strengths; that may mean that each of us operate a little differently. I want you to take your Strengths as they are intended: a description of what makes you unique and amazing.
As we learn more about ourselves and our Strengths, it’s important to remember that these terms are not labels. For example, we should not make someone write all our emails because their No. 1 Strength is Communication, nor should we bar someone from writing emails to prospects because Communication is their No. 34 Strength. That No. 34 Communication person may have, over time, built the perfect email template based on what they have seen work best from their colleagues in different scenarios.
In other words, there are different paths to the same behaviors and outcomes, and those are what we should be focusing on. Differences are advantages — if we take advantage of them, rather than treating them as problems we need to fix.
Remember, CliftonStrengths has found zero correlation between any Strength or set of Strengths and any particular career or level of success. This means that there’s no “magic formula” of Strengths to make you a great general, teacher, consultant or prospect development professional. “Yeah,” you might be thinking, “but there are Strengths that are better suited to some jobs than others, right?” Actually, not really! I have coached hundreds of people, from all kinds of careers, and sometimes you see those seemingly “perfect” combinations of Strengths and career — as in, of course that person with Input, Intellection, and Connectedness is a children’s librarian (and a great one, too)!
But just as often I see a combination that seems strange, until I investigate — like a quality assurance person who doesn’t lead with Deliberative (find the best practice and be careful and cautious) or Consistency (rules are important and should be followed). This quality assurance person, instead, led with Belief, Learner and Responsibility. She approached ensuring her organization met quality standards as a learning experience for the whole company and did her work not to enforce the rules, but because she truly felt it was the right thing to do. Two people’s behaviors can look very similar, but the motivation can be very different.
You — whoever you are, and whatever gets you up in the morning — can be a great prospect development professional. I promise. The key is to find how you do it best and what your motivation is, and orient yourself around that.
At the root of it, our Strengths profiles are just telling us to grow ourselves. You can succeed at what you want to do, with who you are. You don’t have to be a different person to be successful. You don’t have to be all things to all people. And if you don’t have to change who you are, why wouldn’t you want to be the best possible version of yourself?