Picture taken by Penny Rabiger
The tree of hope and a letter to future you
At the start of term, I used to get my new intake of Year 7 students to do two things: I would create a tree of hope on the display board and give every child a cut out leaf. They and I would write messages of hope and wishes for the coming year to ourselves on the leaves. These were sometimes declarations of intentions to work hard, do homework, listen, or to respect others. Whatever they were, they were deliberately intended to be for all to see. These leaves would stay pinned to the tree throughout the year for the class to refer back to and browse whenever seemed appropriate. There was great learning to be had through referring back and reflecting on what was written.
The second thing I would do is to get my students to write a letter to their future selves. We would spend some time imagining and discussing what we thought the coming year at school would mean, what they would need to achieve, learn, understand, overcome, and conquer. It’s also important to use this time to help students understand their own strengths and the opportunities, support and challenge they should expect during the year to help them make sure their ideas of what might happen to them are grounded in reality.
Each student would then write themselves a private letter, seal it up and hand it over to me for safekeeping. And I would do the same. As part of the ceremonies for the end of the year, we would open the letters and the children would laugh at how innocent and naïve they were, or gasp at how well their wishes for their future selves had been fulfilled or not. I liked this exercise as it created the feeling of a full circle and it challenged the children to connect deeply with themselves as individuals and as learners – trying to imagine what lay ahead of them and how they would respond to new things, react to challenges, overcome difficulty and seize opportunities. I am a firm believer in the idea that learning is as much about process, self-awareness and personal development as it is about the acquisition of knowledge.
Investing in strengths
It’s time for performance reviews at my workplace and I often feel like objective-setting can be a form of letter to one’s future self. It certainly should be done on the same backdrop of self-awareness as well as taking a realistic view of the needs and aims of the organisation where you work and what opportunities for development and growth there are within it.
There is much evidence to show that at school and at work we are all too often encouraged to invest time and effort on the things that we are clearly not skilled at or interested in and not enough time developing and building on areas of strength and interest. Of course we should not be subscribing to the view that we should only occupy our time and effort on things we think we are good at – some things are important to get to grips with, whether you like them and are good at them or not. One example I am really proud of is that I did my maths O Level/GCSE three times and got two U grades before I got the prized C grade. I even got a Saturday job to pay for my own private tutor the third time. I didn’t know it then, but dyscalculia made this hard for me. My determination made me the only member of my family to get maths GCSE and to go on to get a BA and and MA. My strength may not have been in maths but somehow even at that age, I could see that maths GCSE was a ticket to the future that I needed. Coming from a low-income, single-parent family and with a mother who had significant mental health challenges, I really wasn’t going to give up on it!
The Strengths Finder tool
This is why I really like Strengths Finder as a great way to connect people to their own leading strengths and to help them understand how they can build on these at work and in their out-of-work lives too. I have previously been asked to do Myers Briggs and other personality tests at work and felt that these were akin to horoscopes. It was hard to unravel how to share and implement what they described. I also feel that people need to take confident ownership of their own strengths, make these clearly known in the workplace and find opportunities not only to hone their skills but also to use them for the maximum benefit of the organisation where they work.
Strengths Finder measures the presence of 34 themes or strengths. These are people’s naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behaviour that can be productively applied. We often talk about talent when speaking of students and colleagues and it is key to remember that your talents are indeed the building blocks of strengths. Combining your talents with skills, experience and knowledge is what creates your strengths. With Strengths Finder, the more dominant a theme is in a person, the greater the theme’s impact on that person’s behaviour and performance. The Strengths Finder test is thorough and the results are presented in such a way that they are easily shared. You are given a short summary, a longer and more in depth overview, and an action plan with suggestions of how you could be using your strengths, how others should make use of them and how to work with people with different strengths. *I have included my short summary at the end of this post to give you a feel for what it looks like. It was very affirming for me to see my strengths described in this way and to see the tangible ways in which I really do have an impact in the workplace through using these strengths. Rather than seeing them as a rather quirky part of my personality, it fell into place for me the power and value my strengths represent to my workplace and to people that know me. This can give incredible confidence and enhance one’s creativity and decision-making abilities when you know you are building on a strength that is tangibly valuable.
We have all recently completed our Strength Finder profiles at work and have started to map them out on a simple matrix of where each person’s strengths lie. We will continue to explore how we should work together around these and it will be an integral part of each new employee’s induction to do the Strength Finder test and share their results. I believe that all organisations should be moving towards strength-based leadership rather than the often humiliating and punitive methods that we can unwittingly subscribe to through performance management.
While I find that a lot of focus in work and education can be on identifying and working on mending weaknesses, in their book of the same name, Strengths Finder writers Tom Rath and Barry Conchie describe what strength-based leadership can look like:
- The most effective leaders are always investing in strengths. In the workplace, when an organisation’s leadership fails to focus on individuals’ strengths, the odds of an employee being engaged are a dismal 1 in 11 (9%). But when an organisation’s leadership focuses on the strengths of its employees, the odds soar to almost 3 in 4 (73%). When leaders focus on and invest in their employees’ strengths, the odds of each person being engaged goes up eightfold
- The most effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and then maximize their team. While the best leaders are not well-rounded, the best teams are. Strong, cohesive teams have a representation of strengths in each of these four domains: executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking
- The most effective leaders understand their followers’ needs. People follow leaders for very specific reasons. When asked, thousands of followers were able to describe exactly what they need from a leader with remarkable clarity: trust, compassion, stability, and hope
It certainly makes you think doesn’t it? So, tying this back to a letter to the ‘future you’ exercise, at work we have been thinking about giving feedback and about our performance objectives in the light of our strengths. When setting objectives you are in fact trying to future gaze and describe a snapshot in time in the future. But if you are working these around what you already know, and creating a formula of strengths + organisational goals/business need + opportunities to use and develop strengths for the benefit of the organisation, you should be able to pretty accurately describe your objectives and planned outcomes.
Similarly, if you can spend time getting students, colleagues, employees, team members, people you coach or mentor to really focus in on their strengths, understand what the aims and goals are for the coming few months to a year, and to consider how they will build on their strengths to move forward, your letters to the future you will be inspiring when you write them and delightful when you open them a year later.
*Strengths Insight Guide: Penny Rabiger
Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Individualization theme are intrigued with the unique qualities of each person. They have a gift for figuring out how people who are different can work together productively.
Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? By nature, you derive much joy from assisting people in need. Instinctively, you are hardwired to do exactly what you said you would do. Your word is your bond. You are likely to earn the respect of many people. You even win over those who have a hard time trusting anyone. Why? You rarely disappoint them. Because of your strengths, you derive much satisfaction from doing things that benefit people. You typically work as industriously on big projects as you do on everyday chores. Driven by your talents, you are compelled to help people. You yearn to leave the world in better shape for those who will follow you years, decades, and centuries from now. It’s very likely that you help individuals acquire knowledge and gain skills. You are a fine instructor, tutor, and/or trainer.
Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.
Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? It’s very likely that you are naturally open and honest about who you are, what you have done, what you can do, and what you cannot do. Your straightforward explanations and stories help listeners see you as you see yourself. You reveal your strengths and limitations. You are forthright and plainspoken. People generally seek your company and want to work with you. Many are impelled to move into action by your words and examples. By nature, you have the ability to instruct, train, or offer suggestions to people who look to you for assistance. Driven by your talents, you are determined to share your knowledge and skills with people you coach, mentor, or train. Chances are good that you are comfortable being open and honest about who you are. Often you intentionally avoid people who are less than truthful. You prefer to spend time with individuals who speak as candidly as you do about their strengths, shortcomings, hopes, disappointments, failures, or successes. Because of your strengths, you enjoy the companionship of individuals who tell you what they plan to accomplish in the coming weeks, months, or years. Once you know their goals, you can help them reach their objectives. Few things please you more than this.
Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Arranger theme can organize, but they also have a flexibility that complements this ability. They like to figure out how all of the pieces and resources can be arranged for maximum productivity.
Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? Because of your strengths, you naturally choose to work in groups rather than do things by yourself. This preference for partnerships reflects your willingness to welcome into the team many different types of individuals. By nature, you automatically notice what people do well. You pay attention to their individual interests, too. Combining this information, you are likely to understand who should work and should not work together. You probably create partnerships where one person’s talents complement those of another person. You tend to match people to tasks they enjoy. Instinctively, you embrace a wide array of people. You honor their differences with ease. You identify specific things each one does quite well. These insights help you mix and match one person’s talents, skills, and knowledge with those of others in the group. Ultimately, you position individuals in such a way that cooperation becomes the norm rather than the exception. Driven by your talents, you are known as a reliable and dependable person. You are motivated to work diligently. You cannot rest until you have completed what you told someone you would do. Chances are good that you periodically think about what you need to upgrade or do better. What you discover may help you determine the number of things you can handle simultaneously. Perhaps you produce some of your finest results when you have more than one thing to do.
Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Achiever theme have a great deal of stamina and work hard. They take great satisfaction from being busy and productive.
Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? Chances are good that you push yourself to meet high standards and reach important goals. Your feelings of success or failure likely hinge on the way others judge your results. Your keen awareness of people’s moods motivates you to work even harder. You want to please them. You want to earn their approval. You often just want to make them happy. Because of your strengths, you critically examine the essential elements of the current condition. You toil tirelessly to identify the basic parts of various plans, problems, opportunities, processes, or ideas. Instinctively, you ordinarily take time and exert extra effort to comprehend what you are reading. You probably refuse to rush through written material. Why? You likely intend to commit to memory as many facts and concepts as possible. It’s very likely that you exhibit the physical and mental endurance needed to continuously toil long after others have stopped working. You are hardwired to pursue goals until they are reached. When obstacles arise, you become even more determined to succeed. By nature, you likely have a reputation for being a hard worker. This explains why you tell individuals they can accomplish a lot more than they think they can. You repeatedly pressure people to excel rather than settle for mediocre results. You probably have a very difficult time associating with people who do only what is expected and who whine when they are challenged to do much more.
Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Connectedness theme have faith in the links between all things. They believe there are few coincidences and that almost every event has a reason.
Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? It’s very likely that you sense you are not all alone in the world. You probably feel linked with every person and living thing. This openness explains why you invite a vast array of people to participate in conversations, activities, social events, or groups. By nature, you occasionally help people realize they are part of the human family. With your guidance, perhaps they understand that their lives are intertwined with people they will never meet. Because of your strengths, you have no doubts about being linked in some way with everything in the universe. This includes all creation and all humankind. Driven by your talents, you routinely isolate facts that link ideas, events, or people. You are especially sensitive to how one person’s optimistic or negative thoughts can affect the entire human family. This prompts you to pay close attention to what individuals and groups think and do. Chances are good that you may underscore what people have in common even though their backgrounds, experiences, languages, cultures, or interests may vary. Sometimes you facilitate dialogue between individuals. Once in a while, you create peace within groups or between people by pointing out links between them.