I have always been very fascinated with Gallup's Strength Based Leadership concept and approach. Since completing the assessment myself, I have personally found so much success from identifying, understanding and applying the strengths that I have. My 5 strengths have also been very beneficial in finding specific roles that are tailored to my passion, abilities, and skills. I take every opportunity possible when working with our student staff to teach them how to use their strengths to develop stronger team dynamics, better understand their role on a team, and for career development.
I recently attended a session at ACPA from the University of Calgary that outlined their UCalgaryStrong program, which has inspired a more resilient campus because their approach to working with students is strengths-focused. Incoming students have the opportunity to complete the assessment during Orientation, and then departments on campus use strengths as a common language in which they advise and support their student population. I honestly thought it was an incredible approach to focusing on what students are good at and to build self confidence. As I listened to the presenters talk about the success of the program, it was reaffirmed for me how much I appreciate Strengths Based Leadership and how valuable it is to students and staff alike. It inspired me to want to continue to use the tool as a foundation for on-going training, developmental conversations, and team building.
As I reflected on my experience in that session, I decided to start looking into theoretical research on the strengths based approach and how I could use it to better develop and advise my staff. I found an overwhelming amount of content, but one particular article, Strengths Based Advising by Schreiner and Anderson (2004), was both inspiring and captivating. It was also exciting to read that the positive experiences that I have recently had with staff, peers, and students focused on strengths, rather than areas of development, is rooted in the purpose and intentionality of the strengths-based approach. It not only made those I was speaking with feel more confident and positive, but it also left me feeling like I had seen an entirely new side of those individuals and felt inspired by their new perspective and overall hopefulness.
In reading through the article, I learned that the nature of strengths-based advising is primarily focused on helping students learn ways in which to capitalize on their strengths in order to succeed in the future. In doing so, there are six key aspects that the advisor must be aware of.
Foundation - The advisor needs to set strengths as the foundation of the meeting and conversation, and create an environment by which the student becomes more aware of their strengths, which will in turn motivate the student to set goals, achieve at a higher level, make better choices, and complete their tasks (p.1).
Focus - The advisor shifts the focus of the session from problems to possibilities.
Framing - The advisor focuses on positive, open-ended questions rather than using a problem-oriented approach.
Feeling - The vibe of the session feels different to the student, which is validated by a research study conducted at Eastern University (Schreiner, 2000), which suggests that students randomly assigned to a strengths-based advising approach were more significantly satisfied with their experience than those engaged in the traditional approach.
Confidence - An individual's confidence increases when strengths become the primary focus of an advising session. When strengths are discussed within the context of how they can be applied or developed, students are affirmed and their confidence increases (p.2).
Direction - As students become more aware of their strengths, they begin to see how and where those strengths can be applied. This provides individuals with a sense of personal direction.
The article also discusses how using strengths eases the transition to college and university for students, which is demonstrated by the UCalgaryStrong program. As student affairs professionals, we acknowledge that students come to post-secondary with many external factors, many of which can influence their ability to be successful. Some examples of these types of background factors can include parental values and encouragement; the values and goals of peers in high school; cultural values and expectations; positive experiences with teachers and counsellors; exposure to college educated people; and the emphasis that churches and other community organizations place on higher education (p.3). If any of these elements create an unrealistic or inaccurate expectation of the college experience, students may encounter difficulty adjusting and struggle with resilience. As we know that people who are 'resilient' and able to make a positive transition: possess an awareness of their strengths (Meichenbaum, 1999); make more positive attributions about their own abilities (Weiner, 1991); and become more personally involved in the college experience and connect with other students, faculty, and staff (Aston, 1993; Tinto, 1987), appyling strengths-based advising to our day-to-day interactions is promising. It also encourages students to feel like they "belong in college", and positively connects them to their post-secondary experience (p.4).
Despite that the article is written primarily for an audience that formally advises students, there is a real connection to the work that we do in greater field of student affairs every single day. The conversations that we have with our own staff, students and peers are very impactful, and the strengths approach provides us with a language in which to have meaningful conversations. Furthermore, in a field that hires more students and staff than most, the article provides insightful questions around an individual's ability to apply their strengths, which may enhance many of our current behaviour-based, reflective and carousel processes. For example, consider asking, "Which of your strengths do you feel are most characteristic of you?" or "How have these strengths helped you in the past?". If you're looking to identify opportunities for development, consider asking, "In what ways do you want to develop these strengths?" or "What images come to mind when you think about fully developing these strengths?" (p.5).
The same theory applies to discussions with students around engagement. Not all residence or commuter students are actively engaged in the campus community, but perhaps it is because they do not even know what they are good at, or where there skills would be best utilized. In conversation, find out from students what they are passionate about, where their strengths lie, and what they aspire to do. Consider asking them what areas they most want to achieve in during their university or college career. Academics? Extracurriculars? Community service? Follow up by asking how their strengths might help them achieve this goal, and what campus activities would allow them to capitalize on their strengths most (p.5). Moreover, what types of leadership opportunities, co-ops, or on-campus work positions would enable their skills to flourish and empower their self-confidence?
Furthermore, I am inspired by the connection that this approach has to peer programs. Strengths-based advising does not have to be the sole responsibility of professional staff; rather, we should be encouraging our students to use this language to support and empower each other in their campus and/or residence communities. As Don Clifton and Paula Nelson state, strengths develop best within the context of a supportive relationship, and with that foundation the student has a greater chance of fulfilling his or her potential and achieving success in college -- and beyond (Clifton & Nelson, 1992). The programs on our campuses that emphasize relationship building and mentorship most are our academic and personal support roles. In many cases, these are peers who are acting in a mentoring capacity in hopes of supporting another individual in their transition to higher education, and to offer guidance to help others overcome obstacles in the way of their success. Knowing that the strengths-based approach is rooted in the context of supportive relationships, how can we use strengths as a tool for mentors to further support the success of their mentee and apply a positive approach to goal setting?
In conclusion, in reflecting upon the concept of using a strengths-based approach in our departments, it makes sense to me that not only would we learn more about our staff, students, and peers, but we could also empower them to learn more about themselves. In a society where it feels as though we often focus on a person's weakness or barriers, it is so enriching to know that there is an approach that emphasizes the very best in every person, and identifies what each individual brings to our communities, our teams, and our departments. It is inspiring to hear that institutions such as the University of Calgary are leaving the deficit model behind and adopting a strengths-based approach. It is exciting to learn that strengths-based educators are "trying to discover and develop a student's strength as opposed to identify and remediate the student's deficits" (p.10). It is also extremely rewarding, speaking from personal experience, to help others increase their own awareness of their strengths, and watch them apply and celebrate them! Knowing this, my challenge to other student affairs professionals is to consider how we can build this approach into our one-on-one advising, orientations, or leadership workshops. How can we use it as a tool for hiring, recruitment and training? How can our departments do a better job of using strengths to develop strong team dynamics and identify individual's similarities and differences? How can we continue to learn more ways to better support our students and create more positive student experiences? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we share and educate others on this engaging and positive approach?
A creative educator striving to enhance the holistic student experience and committed to exploring personal strengths and fulfillment.