Is StrengthsFinder a recruitment tool? We ask a certified coach about “strengths” and team relationships

Have you heard of a tool called StrengthsFinder? It is a business tool that helps learn about individuals’ strengths and qualities. Quite a few people may have heard of StrengthsFinder, which was featured in our bestselling book, “Awakening Capability” (Nikkei Inc). It goes without saying that the overall strength of a team depends on the abilities of its members. By using StrengthsFinder to make use of one’s strengths, a stronger team can be created. We interviewed Tamaki Nakamura, a Gallup-certified StrengthsFinder Coach on how one may use this tool. Find out how to use this tool for recruitment and team building.


Whether you know it or not, I would like to review what StrengthsFinder is.
It is effective in reducing conflicts by facilitating learning about each individual’s strengths and by enabling innovation.
“Methods of strength development” – Understanding one’s strengths through self-evaluation and learning from practice.
The development of strengths requires “us” and “PDCA.”
A must-see for HR personnel: Can StrengthsFinder be used for recruitment?
Key Points

Tamaki Nakamura is a Gallup-certified StrengthsFinder Coach. She graduated from Keio University’s Faculty of Policy Management. After a short-term exchange study at Stanford University’s d-school, she co-founded the Design Thinking Institute (Now Eirene University) in July 2013, when she was still a student. During her tenure, together with developing design thinking courses for Japanese. In collaboration with a Stanford University lecturer, as a lecturer and consultant herself, she is engaged in innovation education and activities using design thinking for large companies and educational institutions. After becoming independent in 2018, she began investing in startups through an investment company while focusing on innovation through design thinking training and consulting services.

Whether you know it or not, I would like to review what StrengthsFinder is.

What kind of a diagnostic tool is StrengthsFinder? I would like to introduce StrengthsFinder to both people who do not know and to people who already do know what it is. I have skimmed through “Awakening Capability,” but hearing Miss Nakamura speak, I discovered something new. With a sense of reconfirmation, I would like to review what StrengthsFinder is, again.

Nakamura: “StrengthsFinder is a tool that identifies ‘a person’s strengths.’ It was designed and directed by American educational psychologist Donald Clifton. A respondent’s strengths can be identified by having them answer several hundred questions. Designing the tool is said to have involved the efforts of over 2 million people and more than 40 years of work. The tool is characterized by separating individual strengths into 34 qualities such as “achiever,” “empathy,” and “includer,” and focuses on ways to utilize them. Conversely, it does not focus on weaknesses. The 34 qualities can be separated into 4 groups: “relationship building,” “influencing,” “executing,” and “strategic thinking.” Individual strengths can be identified using an online test provided by Gallup. By taking the test, one can learn about all their strengths in ranked order. The term “strength” here is closer to individual qualities than to specific capabilities. Qualities turn into capabilities through development. As the state of development varies from person to person, it is necessary to have both knowledge of a strength as well as training to make use of it.”

Incidentally, why is it that the tool focuses on “making use of strengths” rather than “overcoming weaknesses?”

Nakamura: “An educational research institute in Nebraska, USA, has investigated (*) the relationship between qualities and capability growth. Over 1000 students were provided speed-reading training over 3 years as part of this study. Comparing their abilities after training, it was found that the students who were good at reading at the outset showed an improvement, where they went from reading 350 to 2900 words per minute. Students who were poor at reading were only able to go from 90 to 150 words per minute. Thus, it is easier to improve abilities and performance by relying on one’s strengths. Several people misunderstand strengths and think that they are the same as qualities. To make use of one’s ‘strengths,’ focusing on developing one’s characteristics and qualities (capabilities) is important. Making an investment will help develop strengths further.”

*Source ©️2012-2014 Gallup, Inc.

It is effective at reducing conflicts by learning about each individual’s strengths and by enabling innovation

StrengthsFinder can be used both for self and team management.

Nakamura: “By using StrengthsFinder, it is possible to identify members’ strengths and to understand what is going on within the team. If managers are aware of their members’ qualities, they will be able to manage them based on their unique strengths.”

Nakamura said this based on her experience using this tool in various teams.

Nakamura: “I co-founded a corporation in 2013. As the team comprised fewer than 10 people, we had to make the most of each person’s characteristics to achieve results. To that end, we incorporated StrengthsFinder into our team management, and shared individual strengths within the team. As a result, arguments among team members reduced. Teams came together to make use of individual strengths to produce results. Other members covered areas that a given member could not. Individuals also tend to think, ‘I cannot do X, but I want to improve my performance in Y.’ They are less likely to be stressed because there is lesser focus on their weakness. As a freelance Gallup-certified StrengthsFinder Coach, I support innovation in Japanese companies. While conducting trainings at companies, the same phenomenon occurred. The number of companies that showed improvements in their performance increased.

In addition, the tool also helps shape innovation.”

Nakamura: “In 2004, Associate Professor Lee Fleming from Harvard Business School studied 17,000 teams that had obtained patents. From the results, it was found that the teams that had developed ground-breaking patents were all highly diverse groups. The greater the diversity in the members’ areas of expertise, the more likely they were to achieve breakthroughs. Attempts to overcome weaknesses can lead to the loss of the individual and can increase uniformity among team members. It is important to make use of the members’ strengths to increase diversity and innovation.”

Does your company allocate resources to overcome members’ weaknesses? If something comes to mind, you may be picking up the buds of innovation.

“Methods of strength development” – Understanding one’s strengths through self-evaluation and learning from practice

Thus far, we have provided an overview of StrengthsFinder. There may be readers may not have a clear picture of what it is, yet. We would also like to address the ways in which strengths may be converted into abilities. We would then like to try putting this into practice. This motivated us to ask Ms. Nakamura how a member of this website’s operations teams can make use of their strengths.

Operations member: “Thank you for having me. I would list my top five strengths as follows:
・Communication: Wants to persuade people using words, highly expressive;
・Sociability: Seeks to meet people, wants to connect with people;
・Recovery Thinking: Likes to find and solve problems in business process and areas of human weakness;
・Harmony: Resolves conflicts and wants the team to act as one; and
・A collector’s spirit: Likes to gather information and cannot stand to leave things unknown.”

Nakamura: “I see. These are strengths that promote smooth human relationships, overall. StrengthsFinder incorporates three steps by which a strength evolves into an ability. These steps are:
・Knowing: Recognizing whether the characteristics of a strength are known and understood;
・Understanding: Writing down the points that apply and those that do not, while being dispassionate throughout; and
・Utilizing: Thinking about how one’s strengths can be used for the benefit of the team.
Qualities cannot become capabilities as they are. Rather, in the “Knowing” and “Understanding” steps, both self-analysis and assessments are effective. How would you be evaluated by the people around you?”

Member of operations: “One thing that comes to mind is the ‘personal network ghost.’ Many people both within and outside a company may say ‘Wait, you know these people?’ When I was seconded to Fukuoka, this was called a ‘Walking Tabelog.’ They like trying out new stores, and so when distant friends come to visit, they like to create two or three plans to propose to them.”

Nakamura: “Personal connections comprise ‘sociability’ and ‘communication,’ but trying out new stores makes use of one’s ‘collector spirit.’ Tell me about your experiences with using your strengths.”

Member of operations: “In the past, I have been to private cross-industry exchange meetings for young people. The first time, there were 50 participants. The second time, there were almost 100 participants. At the time, I was responsible for seeking sponsors, soliciting giveaways, planning scenarios and games, and attracting customers.”

Nakamura: “All that must have been seen by others as a tremendous ability to take action. Were you able to do all that without feeling burdened?”

Member of operations: “Now that you mention it, I think I was relatively happy in making these arrangements.”

Nakamura: “That is a strength. That you can achieve results just by working as usual is a good quality. People with ‘sociability’ have a feeling that ‘everyone in the world is an acquaintance,’ and are comfortable making friends with those they sit with on a plane, or even bringing strangers along to house parties. Is it not the case that these qualities were used in the cross-industry exchange meetings? Individual strengths can be too obvious for us to take notice of by ourselves. For this reason, in the ‘Knowing’ and ‘Understand’ phases, it is a good idea to share your strengths with those around you, and to try discussing your experience of making use of your qualities. Talking about it can help you understand members’ thought processes.”

The development of strengths requires “us” and “PDCA”

Member of operations: “I understand ‘Knowing’ and ‘Understanding,’ but what should I do in the ‘Utilizing’ step?”

Nakamura: “To utilize your knowledge and understanding, the ‘us’ component, that is, how it can be utilized in a team, is important. Why is this so? As the purpose becomes clear, it becomes easier to create a patch toward leveraging strengths.”

Member of operations: “Depending on the situation, however, you may not always be able to find out how to make use of a strength.”

Nakamura: “In such cases you may wish to change your approach. For example, let us say someone with low ‘sociability’ (meeting people, wanting to connect with others) and high ‘competitiveness’ (winning competitions and demonstrating motivation to that end) participated in a cross-industry exchange. Let us say that he was instructed by his boss to return with 50 business cards. I think, to such a person, situations with large numbers of strangers may seem difficult. However, as highly competitive people want to achieve results, I think their motivation would increase if they were to focus on ‘how to collect business cards as quickly as possible’ rather than ‘let us interact with people.’ As strengths change, the focus and approach will also change. Once it becomes clear what you are doing and for what purpose you are doing it, you can make use of these in any way.”

Member of operations: “I see, so it is a matter of changing the manner of perception. It is a guess, but I imagine using one’s strengths is similar to the process of developing one’s capabilities. Is it also important to iterate through the PDCA cycle?”

Nakamura: “That is impressive. As you said, it is important to consider acting on qualities. What will happen when you do so, and what challenges must you undertake next? The repetition leads to the development of one’s capability.”

Member of operations: “The flow is to first understand the strengths and then to consider how to make use of them within the team, and then repeat the verification. I will try to keep this in mind going forward.”

A must-see for HR personnel: Can StrengthsFinder be used for recruitment?

Were you able to get a picture of how strengths can be utilized from that presentation? Let us change topics here. Can StrengthsFinder be used for recruitment? If interviews can reveal personal qualities, it may be possible to make use of that information. Surprisingly, though, Ms. Nakamura says, “It may not be suitable for recruitment.”

Nakamura: “That is not to say, of course, that it cannot be used. However, I do not recommend it because strengths are, at the end of the day, qualities, and their state of development varies among individuals. If you recruit individuals based on a particular strength that you believe may let them do a particular task, you may not achieve the desired results. While testing candidates during recruitment, respondents will be swayed by the recruiter-side’s desire for ‘personality X with position Y.’ Answers will become unintentionally biased, which would make it impossible to determine strengths accurately. While responding, it is important to answer intuitively based not on ‘I want X to be’ but rather ‘It is usually this way.’”

Ms. Nakamura also said, “It can be used for talent development after joining the company.”

Nakamura: “The true value of the StrengthsFinder can be demonstrated in team formation, as described earlier. A startup that has just been launched only has a small number of members, and so trivial things can sometimes cause conflict. However, if you think ‘everyone starts out with different qualities,’ and see that as an advantage, conflicts can be reduced. While developing human resources, it can help identify areas for improvement. As in the speed-reading experiment introduced earlier, taking advantage of strengths can help develop your skills more efficiently. One thing to make note of while forming teams is the distribution of qualities. StrengthsFinder identifies 34 qualities across 4 categories. To ensure diversity, is it not better to assemble well-balanced human resources?”

Nakamura: “‘Well-balanced’ is, of course, ideal. I think it is difficult to achieve in practice. Owing to societal and company culture, it is easier for people with strengths that are similar to come together, and because qualities are particular to a given individual, they cannot be changed by force. That is not to say that there must not be any bias. StrengthsFinder incorporates the concept of a ‘quality dynamic,’ that is, by combining qualities, it may be possible to obtain different strengths. There are no strict rules around utilizing strengths. First, do not focus on weaknesses. Instead, make use of team members’ strengths. Then, step through the ‘Knowing, Understanding, and Utilizing’ process. If you keep thinking about why and what to do for your team, you should be able to create a strong team that makes use of its members’ strengths. Even if you understand in your head that people are different, it can be difficult to put into practice. It is precisely by working face-to-face and together every day that we tend to find values that match those of our own.”

As Ms. Nakamura mentioned, StrengthsFinder is a tool that can help understand individual differences and reconfirm individual qualities. It may help keep teams running smoothly and increase diversity. To create a team that produces results, it is first important to understand the “strengths” of all team members.

Key Points

・StrengthsFinder identifies “individual strengths” and focuses on ways to utilize them.
・In order to utilize these strengths, we must focus on and develop the characteristics (talents) and qualities of the individuals concerned.
・When incorporated into team management, teams will make use of these strengths to produce results and by not focusing on weaknesses, stress is reduced.
・Being able to produce results simply by working as usual is a “quality,” and as it is so obvious, you may not take notice of it.
・To utilize strengths best, it is necessary to understand how the team can make use of the strengths of individual members.
・The StrengthsFinder is not suitable for recruitment as strengths are fundamentally “qualities” and their state of development differs from individual to individual.
・Different strengths may be obtained by combining qualities.