October 18, 2007

‘Loves and loathes’ at the Student Forum

Marcus Buckingham at SMU's
Tate Student Forum.

To succeed in today’s workplace, employees must have very clear ideas about their own strengths and weaknesses, said pioneering researcher and best-selling author Marcus Buckingham during the Turner Construction Student Forum on Tuesday, October 16.  

Unfortunately, he continued, “Most of us are just rubbish at it. The most popular answer in job interviews to the question ‘What are your strengths?’ is ‘I like working with people,’ or ‘I’m a people person’ – with no mention of which people or what you’re doing with these people.”

Buckingham, co-author of First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths, interviewed thousands of employees in his 17 years with the Gallup Organization and developed StrengthsFinder, an online assessment that identifies a person’s top five of 34 possible strengths. First-year SMU students who attended Mustang Corral this summer took the assessment through the Division of Student Affairs’ StrengthsQuest program.

Here are highlights of Buckingham’s question-and-answer session with SMU and area high school students before his talk at McFarlin Auditorium as part of the Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series.

Do you believe leadership skills are innate, or can they be taught?

There are skills you can learn as a leader – to set clear strategy, to be vivid as you describe a better future for people. But there are some that are better to be born with. I’ll give you two:

First, you better have an unfailingly optimistic view of the world. If instead you are naturally wired to see everything that can go wrong with the world, there are jobs for you – go be a lawyer. [Laughter.] The challenge for leadership is to see the world as a better place and believe deeply, unquestionably, that it can be so.

The second thing you need is an ego. If you’re going to drag me as a follower into this better future that you see so clearly, you better believe that you have a right to do so.

By the way, start really early as a leader. Volunteer for as many leadership positions as you can – in school, in your community. You’re going to learn a ton about what makes people want to follow you.

What are your top five strengths on StrengthsFinder, and how do you use them?

First is “Futuristic.” I’m the guy who goes, “Wouldn’t it be great if … ?”

“Context” is my second one. It asks, “How did we get here?”

“Focus” is my third. You have to ’fess up really early in life to who you are and who you aren’t, and one thing I know I’m not is a multitasker.

“Intellection” is the next one. I like to have time alone; I’m not good at cocktail parties.

And last, “Ideation.” I’m a concept guy. I like going beneath the surface.

How do I use them? Like you, I play them all the time. The challenge is how to channel them productively.

When you’re interviewing, how do you know whether a job is the right fit?

There are three questions you tend to ask yourself:

Why is this job important to me?

Who’s going to be working there?

What am I actually going to be doing?

Normally, people ask the “why” question first. Why do I want to be a vet? Because I like caring for pets. Why do I want to be a teacher? Because I like teaching.

The one that should be the most important is the “what” question. What are you actually going to be doing every day?

What you’ll find in your career is that you join because of the why, you stay because of the who, and you quit physically or psychologically because the what goes wrong. You still like the why, but the actual stuff you do in the course of a week drains you – it’s not the right stuff for you.

What is the difference between managing and leading?

They’re two very different jobs, and very few people excel at both.

The job of a leader is to rally a lot of people to a better future. Leadership is not about strategy; the critical skill you need is clarity. People are frightened of the future because they’re frightened of change – and they’re not silly to be frightened of change; they’re sensible. What a leader does well is get them all to see, “Don’t worry. There’s a land of milk and honey, and it looks like this.”

The job of a manager is to turn one person’s talent into performance. You hire a person, then you go, “Who are you? Oh, yes. Now, how do I turn that into performance?” That’s a one-by-one-by-one-by-one job.

So the trick of managing is to find out what’s unique in everybody; the trick of leading is to find out what everyone shares and tap into that.

I know I want to do something in business, but I’m not sure what kind of business. How do I choose a major?

In the U.K., you’re stuck with three subjects when you’re 15. When you go to university, you study just one. What’s great about the system here is that you can keep your options open. But as you think about experimenting, don’t experiment for the sake of experimenting. Experiment for the sake of finding what your true yearnings are.

You can’t learn to love everything. You can’t rewire your brain. You’ve got certain loves and loathes. So experiment, put your feelers out, try this class over here, and listen super-carefully to what invigorates you.

When you feel it, you’ll know. You’ll look forward to it. Time will whip by. When you’re done, you’ll want to do it again. Listen to that voice. Don’t say, “My counselor or my mom or dad says I should do that.” Listen to the yearnings inside. There’s wisdom there.

The next Student Forum, set for November 6, will feature aerospace entrepreneur Burt Rutan. Learn more at

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