Book Review: The Sharp Employee

by Jennifer Miller on September 18, 2009

in Book Review, Leadership, Personal Effectiveness, Team Effectiveness

In preparation for reviewing the Marcus Buckingham’s soon-to-be released book Find Your Strongest Life, I decided to pull some of Buckingham’s earlier books off the shelf and give them a second look.  This review is the first of a three-part series.

Now, Discover Your Strengths

Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton

The highlights:

In the follow-up to the best-selling book First, Break All the Rules, Buckingham settled into the key theme for many of his subsequent books: how to leverage one’s strengths. The premise of this book is that most organizations have the people equation backwards: they select, train, develop and measure their employees based on pre-determined, uniform standards like competencies and performance requirements. 

Buckingham and Clifton assert that organizations need to reverse the order of this equation. Rather than form-fitting people to an existing standard they need to identify employees’ strongest threads, reinforce them with practice and learning and help them carve out a role that draws on their strengths. The authors’ research leads them to believe that organizations’ inherent focus on “fixing” weaknesses (rather than building strengths) tends to create “well-rounded” employees.  That is, they are marginally good at many things, but not excellent at any.  By contrast, “strengths-based” companies have people who are “sharp”—defined by their spikes of talent.

 The book is divided into three sections:

  •  Defining “what is a strength?”—which is seen as a combination of innate talent, knowledge and skills
  •  Discovering one’s greatest strengths—as measured by 34 “themes” in an online StrengthsFinder profile, which is included in the purchase of the book
  •  Putting one’s strengths to work—both for the individual and for managers wanting to develop their employees’ strengths

Jen’s Take:

In theory, I agree that focusing on one’s strengths make sense.  In practice, however, most companies (especially large ones) are wired for conformity. This makes the concept of creating highly personalized development plans a challenge at best and completely impossible at worst.  Plus, I think that developing competencies can help leaders get clear about the performance they need to be rewarding in their employees.  My preference is to advocate for a “both” approach rather than either/or—work within the company’s need to have structure, yet find a way to capitalize on employees’ strengths, while minimizing their weaknesses.


Best for: managers looking to find a way to energize their employees; individual contributors who are seeking direction in what their hidden talents are


Take a pass: managers who work in highly structured organizations; the book’s recommendations may be frustrating.

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