Lisa Cummings is the creator of Lead Through Strengths, where she helps people find and leverage their strengths at work specifically, but translates them to their personal lives as well.
She has 20 years of experience and practice in building strengths instead of fixing and filling gaps within yourself. Lisa uses her own strengths (positivity being one!) as compelling proof that this way of thinking really works whether you’re a seasoned professional or just starting out in your careers.
Not only have I had the opportunity to experience her presentation, but she found some time in her busy schedule to answer some of my questions. Read on to find out more on Lisa and her passion for strength training!
How did you become interested in leadership training?
I started my career in learning and development, so the training part came naturally. The leadership part came into play when I was an aspiring people manager. I read every leadership book I could get my hands on. I listened to audiobooks and training sessions for hundreds of hours, maybe thousands.
Then I became a people manager. And I was terrible at it. When I found the book First Break All The Rules, I felt like it was written by the leader I wanted to become. It was my “gateway drug” into all things strengths-related from Gallup, StrengthsFinder, and Marcus Buckingham. The big insight was that I had been wishing they’d perform the job just like I did when I was in the role. The book helped me enable each person’s best qualities - individualizing to each person’s gifts turned everything around.
So how do we find our strengths?
They’re right under your nose, yet they’re often tough to spot. I meet a lot of people who think they don’t have any special gifts. They dismiss it when other people say, “you’re so good at [x]” because it seems easy to be good at your natural talents. There are tons of ways to discover your strengths, so here are three good starting points:
My favorite way to start the strengths journey is to take the StrengthsFinder assessment. It gives you a Top 5 set of talent themes you can focus on and an easy way to think about (and even talk about) how you can be at your best. It’s especially great for teams because the simple language offers a way to talk about what makes each person great.
Personal Brand Poll
Another early step is to uncover how you’re known by other people. Get them to tell you the first three words they think of when they think of you. Ask people on your team. Ask a few friends. Ask your boss. Ask your mom. Ask that guy from Accounting who seems annoyed by you. Get a bunch of angles and you’ll discover trends that tell you what shows up when you walk in a room.
Yucks and Yays
Then grab a sheet of blank paper. Draw a line down the middle to divide it in half. Label one side “Yucks” and the other side “Yays.” Click through your calendar to see what’s coming up over the next few weeks. Write down items that make you think, “yuck, I’d rather skip that” and “yay, I can’t wait for that." Do the same for your To Do list. Repeat for your tasks and responsibilities. Then add interactions with colleagues and customers. For example, maybe you love customer meetings, but staff meetings drain you. You may not know why, yet write it down so you can watch for trends. Then leave the list out and keep writing Yucks and Yays for the next week or two. It’s a great way to spot trends. Often your Yays reflect your strengths zone and your Yucks reflect your weakness zone. Then strategize how you can get more of the Yays in your work and fewer of the Yucks.
During your presentations, you maintain such positive energy. How does this affect your professional life as an employee and manager?
It’s huge. Positivity is actually my #3 StrengthsFinder talent theme, so I definitely seek out fun-loving environments. Funny enough, when I started my career, I hid it. I thought that it would help me be viewed as a high-achieving go-getter if I put on my serious face. I squashed out my silliness and laughter during the day. I wore librarian glasses and suits that looked like they came from my mom’s closet. I’m sure I still smiled a lot, yet I thought my natural characteristics wouldn’t be valued in a corporate environment.
Today, my positive energy comes out because I am obsessed with customers and their experience. My sincere hope is that an event with me will create a spark for them to change the world by choosing to lead through their strengths. That’s a huge responsibility, yet it’s a blast when you can get people to see themselves (and each other) for what they bring to the team. Strengths-focused thinking brings me energy because I believe at my core that every person has gifts to offer the world. They just need a little help unearthing them. And unlike the younger me, I now leverage the positive energy to help people digest their deep, self-reflective moments and have some fun along the way.
What are some of the best ways to show, or tell, your manager what your strengths are so they are aware of the areas you will excel?
I love your reference to Show and Tell in your question. On the Show side, think about what you want to be known for. Ask yourself how you want to be remembered when you leave the current role. Ask yourself, “if I were the best in the world at this job, how would I act differently?” Then live into it. Be the person you want to become.
On the Tell side, it can be awkward at first if you haven’t had a team event that opens up the conversation. If you surprise your manager by sharing that you’ve been doing a lot of work trying to develop your personal leadership, your manager is going to be doing a happy dance in her head. It’s the best news you can get as a manager.
Script-wise, I also recommend saying things like, “I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can bring my A-game to this job, and I have a few ideas about where my strengths could contribute to stronger team performance. Can we chat about it in our next 1x1?” Think of a few projects or tasks you’d love. Pick items that would stretch you while also keeping you in your strengths zone. Then say, “I’d love to contribute to [insert your dreamy thing], so if an opportunity like that comes up again soon, would you consider me for it?"
And on the flip side, how do you tell a manager “that’s just not working for me?”
It feels tricky, and it requires trust. Often, the things that aren’t working for you are draining you because they’re in your weakness zone. Yet first, you have to make sure you’re not bellyaching about doing what I call “Laundry Tasks.” Those are the ones that almost no one enjoys. Just like doing the laundry, you realize that it needs to get done or you’ll stink.
My favorite way of having this conversation is to start with the chat about the good stuff you want more of. That way, you’ve established that you want to make a big contribution at the company. Then you can introduce the idea of what brings out your lesser performance or sucks the life out of you.
It’s also great to get clear on the thing that isn’t working for you. Is it that you need clarity on expectations, or is it that the whole role seems like a misfit? Many times, it’s a weakness that can be worked around with a creative look at it. Here’s an “Is It A Weakness?" flow chart you can use to spot what’s really behind a perceived weakness.
Who have been some of the most influential people in your life you have drawn strengths from?
The first people who come to mind are in my family. My grandmother taught me about being an independent thinker. My parents built a lot of confidence in me, and nurtured my obsessions with sports and extracurricular stuff. My sister is the perfect example of how you can be completely opposite in your approach and preferences, yet you can totally admire them for who they are. That helped me a lot when I first went to a corporate environment and needed to see how differences are differentiators. My husband helped me find my voice when I first became a people manager and needed to add “direct” to my soft style. He helped me see when I was creating false harmony rather than honest conversations that people deserved.
I’ve also been lucky to experience so many good leaders in my corporate roles. Marty Cormier and Ann Yelenick took chances on me early in my career. They showed me what it looks like to put your reputation on the line to support someone (me) who had potential without experience. Carol Woodley taught me a lot about trust and authenticity. Larry Shaffer taught me to listen. I’m still working on deep listening, yet his advice was transformational. Ann Bozeman showed me how to navigate complicated organizational relationships and systems. Robert Alvarez proved that logic and a big heart can go hand in hand in the C-suite. Tim Riesterer inspired me by modeling what influencing skills look like at their best, and to aim higher. He also helped me discover that I was utterly terrible at saying no, and that you can’t use late nights and grit to win in every situation.
There are countless peers and friends I learn from every day. This question feels like the Academy Awards because I know I am missing 439 people I’d love to give credit to for their impact.
You do a lot of research on employee engagement and happiness, I was surprised to hear only 13% of employees worldwide are fully engaged at work. How can we change that, as employees and managers?
It’s sad isn’t it? My favorite source for strengths-based research is Gallup. They’re the people behind the Clifton StrengthsFinder tool. They have behavioral scientists constantly uncovering statistics like the disappointing 13%.
The best way to change it is to take personal ownership of your career. Get really accountable about who you want to become and the life you want to live. Then start living into it today. Keep a big vision for yourself, and then make it approachable by doing one action in your strengths every day. Even if it is 1 minute.
Managers can support this in a big way by focusing on putting each person at their best. The best leaders in the world are absolutely aware of the importance of individualizing to each person’s talents. Of course, they have limitations sometimes - like when a role is a bad fit and they can’t customize the job responsibilities because only one person has that job in the company. Managers are not mind readers either. Although it’s natural to wish for them to see your strengths and put them to work, the ultimate responsibility is in your hands. If you own your career, you’ll continually find ways to point your talents at things that serve the company goals at the same time.
And, if you feel stuck because you don’t know what you want to do when you grow up (even when you’re 40), you’re normal.
When working with a company, or group, what is the first thing you like to ask?
I love having people share what they want to be remembered for. People usually aim their answers at something big they want to become, and it’s fun to see the mutual admiration in the room. Peers are often hearing what peers want to accomplish at their company or in their life for the first time ever. They get a new appreciation for what motivates each person.
For teams who want to focus on personal brand and self-awareness, it’s also a blast to have them bring quotes or song lyrics that reflect them at their best.
Receiving recognition is another way to celebrate employees to help keep them engaged. What are some fun and unique ways you have seen work in companies?
My favorite way is with silly props. For example, I leave a jar of pickles on someone’s desk with a bow and a card thanking them for “getting the client out of a pickle.” It sounds ridiculous, yet they get a huge chuckle and the recognition is memorable. If they remember they’re appreciated and valued, they feel more engaged on the job. I came up with 127 Ideas for giving recognition and keep it on the resource page because it’s something managers and peers intend to do and forget. Then they feel uncreative, so they skip it because they don’t want to give disingenuous attaboys. So I created the resource to help them find the right words and give them a creative spark.
Another fun idea I implemented with my fellow manager, Tammy Stanford, is a new employee questionnaire. We asked them about all sorts of favorites. We asked questions like: what’s the best recognition you ever received? What’s your favorite candy? What’s your favorite thing that costs less than ten dollars? What’s your favorite daytime drink? What’s your favorite charity? You get the idea. We asked about free things like recognition and cheap things like favorite drinks. When I surprised someone six months later with a 6-pack of Dr. Pepper, you’d think I knew his deepest secret guilty pleasure. It is a personalized and meaningful way to recognize people regularly without having to ask for budget. The reactions were over the top, even when someone received a Kit Kat bar. The high impact came because it was personalized.
For teams, I recommend reading the book How Full Is Your Bucket. It’s a fun way to start a movement of “putting drops in someone else’s bucket.” The idea is that if you’re noticing what works about each other, it makes it easy to get more of what works. It’s easy to repeat what you’ve already done.
What inspires you?
Nature. Dogs. The future. Music. I see art in nature. It’s where I get whitespace for my crazy brain that turns into clarity. Dogs inspire me because of how they can love unconditionally, even when bad things have happened to them. The future keeps me moving. I love technology and the idea of “what can be,” which seems limitless. It also fuels my driving and striving. And then music. It’s handy to live in Austin, TX when you love music. It’s a medium that brings people together who are otherwise divided. It helps people heal or feel raw joy or even explore their darkness. And as a drummer, it’s a daily source of learning and fun.
Finally, the idea that we’re always becoming something is hugely inspiring. Just when you think you’re getting good at something you realize how much there is to learn. Human potential is infinitely uplifting.
Lisa uses high energy and relatable experiences to guide you in finding your strengths. She is a true success story in “finding your passion” (and personally, she’s simply awesome!) Use this link to book her for your next speaking event so you too, can follow your passions!