Critics of strengths-based coaching say it reinforces average leadership. On the contrary, research demonstrates that a purposeful, specific and context-dependent approach to leadership strength coaching delivers a more immediate impact on performance than focusing on a development need. When organizations invest in strong performers and high-potential leaders to unlock greater leadership possibility, they will see a better return on investment than if they use coaching to outsource performance issues.

Why It Works

Strengths-based coaching taps into intrinsic motivations. Neuroscience research shows that intrinsic motivation – what we naturally find interesting and rewarding, such as using our strengths – activates our brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Thinking about what we do well increases motivation to pursue that vision. Linking development opportunities to people’s strengths gives them a boost of energy and willpower. Picturing the use of strengths connects people to self-belief, which in turn makes goal achievement feel easier. It is a self-affirming cycle that leads to faster growth. In a world where leaders face profound and complex challenges that they have not encountered before, a reminder of what they do well gives them the confidence to lead through ambiguity or complexity, which creates a bridge between past successes and future possibilities.

In contrast, when a deficit mindset is the sole lens for coaching (coaching to fix what is not working or what is currently absent), it places another burden on leaders who are already feeling the weight of their challenging roles. The human bias to focus on what is broken means that many coaching engagements claim to bring a strengths-based approach but only set goals around leaders’ weak areas. When they focus on the negative, it makes it more difficult to see the opportunity. It is demotivating and chips away at confidence.

This is not to suggest leaders do not need to work on development areas alongside their strengths. Blind optimism will not make weaker aspects of leadership go away, but combining a focus on strengths while addressing one or two development areas enables greater openness in the leader and increases his or her willingness to change.

Consider the results of a global coaching program with a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company that operated in 30 countries and included 180 leaders. The program explicitly coached leaders to uncover their individual purpose and connect it with required business performance. It also explored leadership possibility to challenge assumptions and unlock new ways of leading teams and influencing stakeholders.

Results of a Strengths-based Coaching Program

Results of a strength-based coaching program

A deep-dive study of the leaders residing in Asia-Pacific countries from this global group produced remarkable results demonstrating that leveraging strengths provided a quicker uplift in performance than working on a development need. The greater the progress leveraging the chosen strength, the greater the increase in the leader’s performance. The qualitative data reveal that this uplift in performance is due in part to greater delegation. Reminding leaders of what they do well gives them the confidence to place more trust in their team.

Addressing a development need enhances performance over time, but it takes more deliberate work not to revert to old habits and consistent focus and feedback loops to embed changes. One leader in the program commented, “It has been harder to make progress on the developmental goal. I have had to be much more deliberate in my approach, really pause and consider how I go about it.”

Another leader reinforced the effort that working on a weaker area requires, noting, “There is increased commitment and dedication to my developmental goal; however, it is overshadowed at times with a heavy workload that gets me reverting to type.”

Implementing Strengths-based Coaching

For strengths-based coaching to have an impact, it needs to be combined with upfront feedback on development areas and expected shifts in performance. Coaching programs that overlook leaders’ weaker areas and solely coach them to leverage their strengths run the risk of colluding with inaccurate self-ratings or falsely suggesting that leaders continue doing what they already do.

Target change goals around one or two strengths, and make them context-dependent. Identify what the business strategy requires from leaders now and in the future. What one or two strengths does each leader need to leverage to increase their personal performance in this context? Where are they weaker? What do they need to shift to be able to deliver outcomes in this context? To accelerate growth, coaching around strengths needs to be linked to gaps in performance.

Although coaching has become more established as a vehicle to accelerate potential, many organizations still use external coaching providers with a remedial purpose – i.e., for the leader who has critical expertise or organizational knowledge but fails to lead, or for the leader who has negative, destructive behaviors no one wants to address internally.

The evidence provides compelling reasons to organizations to invest in their top talent. Invest in leaders who show strengths but have yet to translate them across multiple contexts or with different stakeholders. Invest in leaders who have performed well to date but are about to be tested in a new context. Invest in leaders who have lost confidence due to a setback or hold a deficit focus but could reconnect with their strengths and possibility. Finally, when providing coaching to a leader who needs to address a development area in order to progress, provide coaching around his or her strengths simultaneously.

Bringing together a strengths-based focus with coaching around development areas provides both short- and long-term increases in performance. Coaching a leader to leverage a strength provides a more immediate boost in performance, and coaching over time creates a more sustainable improvement in development areas. It is energizing and increases confidence, which becomes a self-fulfilling cycle. Evidence suggests that if organizations only have the budget for a few coaching sessions, focusing on strengths could produce faster results. However, a short-term, targeted focus on strengths does not mean that development needs disappear. That would just be wishful thinking.

Strengths-based Coaching: Whom to Invest in