As a leader, I find it hard to believe that I once bought into the theory that we hire people for what they can contribute to our teams, and then we build their initial development plans around areas of development. Do we really think that we can change them before the year has even passed? The danger lies in thinking that we want to.

We all have strengths. They are what we strive to bring forward in ourselves. We want to be successful and add value. As Markus Buckingham, noted author and expert on strengths, says, “Your particular combination of strengths is deeply a part of who you are.”

We have a great model of this in our recent Olympic history. Michael Phelps, who ended his record-breaking career with 23 gold medals, is an example of the power of focusing on our strengths. Easy? No. Over the years, Phelps has struggled both in and out of the pool. But in finding his resolve, he was always able to return to what he does best: swimming.

How can you leverage your team’s strengths? Focus on what new members can bring to the game. Then try to think about the best team you were ever part of:

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  • How did you contribute? 
  • How did others contribute, in the ways you could not? 
  • What capability was missing? 
  • How did the collective strengths raise the bar for the entire team?

Seeing the unique capabilities in others helps identify how to leverage those talents to benefit the whole team. This can be accomplished by having everyone on the team complete this exercise:

  • Leverage others’ strengths: What do they do well? How do you know? 
  • Leverage your strengths: What do you do well? How do you know?

How can you make a difference in where you play and how you win? As Buckingham says, “Your strengths can be put to good use, or they can be put to bad use.” We have a responsibility to help our employees learn and grow, but not at the expense of disrupting team effectiveness. Individual development plans should include areas for growth, but it should plan emphasize strengths, not weaknesses.