My latest review for Perdido MagazineStandOut:

“Know thyself.” – temple of Apollo at Delphi

“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” – Margaret Mead

Self-assessments are irresistible.  We all love to compare ourselves to others, find out what our strengths are (and our weaknesses, if you force us to look at them).  We proudly proclaim our communication styles (“I’m very high D”), our Myers/Briggs types, even our zodiac signs.

I’m usually a little skeptical of these assessments, though.  With most of them, it’s pretty obvious where the questions are heading, and it’s hard not to skew your answers toward a flattering outcome.

I remember taking the Kuder Preference Test as a senior in high school, after a frustrating week as editor of my school newspaper.  I was so fed up with dealing with others that I swore I would never put myself in charge of anything ever again.  Of course, the test the next day produced a near-zero score on leadership, as I shuddered my way through every question that proposed heading up projects or managing employees.  (I’ve since held several leadership positions and enjoyed the experience, so clearly my low score was a product of the moment, not of destiny.)

But bearing in mind that assessment tests can be ephemeral, I was intrigued by the one that comes with StandOut.

Marcus Buckingham, formerly of Gallup, has specialized for years in helping people discover their strengths:  their natural abilities, interests and orientations.  In this new book, Buckingham premieres a new test, developed with Dr. Courtney McCashland, which promises to “unlock your best performance.”

This new assessment identifies nine “strengths roles” that represent constellations of qualities.   The test would identify my top two roles – where, according to Buckingham, I would make my greatest contribution:  “Your top 2 Roles are the focal point of all your talents, themes and skills. They describe your instinctive way of making a difference in the world. Know them well and you will know how to win at work.”

I carefully cut open the sealed insert bound into the book and then messily scraped off the foil with a quarter, to get my secret access code to the online test – free with the purchase of the book.  After creating an account on Buckingham’s website, I was ready to begin.

The assessment was more interesting than most.  Each question is timed, to discourage rumination and calculation.  The situations were often unexpected, and usually the multiple-choice options were all decent solutions; I had to pick the one I was most likely to do.  Not once was I asked, “Would you rather read a book or go to a party?”

My top two roles, when revealed, turned out to be not quite what I was expecting.  Apparently, that’s not uncommon; in the book, Buckingham says, “It’s not unusual for people’s Top 2 not to reflect what they think they should have gotten….Try to keep an open mind about what StandOut is telling you regarding how you may be perceived by others.”

Mind open, I began to read what the book said about my roles.  And it’s an interesting collection:  not only the definition of each role, but also suggestions for how to describe myself at a performance appraisal; how to make an immediate impact; how to take my performance to the next level; what to watch out for; and how to win as a leader, a manager, and a salesperson.  Although it’s hard to imagine myself saying “I’m one of the most resilient people I  know” in an interview, I found a lot of the ideas intriguing.  I especially liked the suggestions for how to communicate with those whose strengths differ from mine:  allow them time to sift and reflect, provide more details than I might think are necessary, and so on.

The book has a few short chapters that describe how the assessment came into being, why innovations work better when they’re keyed to people’s roles, and how to build on your strengths.  Except for those, all of the material in the book is available on the StandOut website, where you can take the assessment and receive your results for $15.  The website also shows you how your top two roles work in combination, ranks all the roles from your assessment, and gives you an action planning form called the Strengths MAP.  So if you consider paper and ink “so last century,” you might want to skip buying the book and go directly to your computer.

There are useful ideas here, although I wouldn’t agree with the author that StandOut is “The Rosetta Stone for understanding your strengths and those of the people around you.”   But then, I’m a Gemini.

Erika Andersen of Proteus International is coming out with a new book next month.  It’s called Leading So People Will Followand I’m looking forward to it.

A few years back, Erika wrote the best book on management that I had ever read.  I was reviewing books then for Perdido Magazineand they sent me a copy of Growing Great Employees.  It’s still the book I recommend when clients or friends ask me for a solid, useful approach to management in general.  Here’s the review I wrote, courtesy of Perdido:


Say you’re a manager.  The people who report to you are pretty good, but there are a few problems, of course.  You’ve had some management training from your company – mostly focusing on theory, rather than practice.  Some of the approaches you’ve learned are useful, when you can remember them in time.  Often you run on instinct; often you regret it later.  You recall vague terms:  “core competencies,” coaching for performance.”  It’s kind of a jumble in your mind.

You’ve read a few books on management, but most of them are either too simple or too abstract.  Usually they tout one skill, such as listening, as the cure for all workplace ills.  You’d give a lot for a clear, well-organized manual on the people side of management.

Got fifteen bucks?

Growing Great Employees might be the handbook you’ve been waiting for.  It’s the best management training book I’ve seen.

Beautifully organized, comprehensive, and straightforward, Growing Great Employees is better than its title.  (And don’t be put off by its unifying metaphor, gardening, which appears mostly in chapter headings and introductions.)  Erika Andersen, founder of the consulting firm Proteus International, has put twenty-five years’ experience into a reader-friendly, meaty guide to “all that people stuff.”

In admirably clear language, Andersen covers an astonishing amount of material:  the hiring interview, TRACOM’s Social Styles ™, delegating, positive and corrective feedback, performance agreements – even how to fire someone.  There’s a guide for making sure new employees start out well; a technique for discovering the key responsibilities of a job; a model for changing your own mindset to become a better coach.  Each topic is discussed step by step and illustrated with dialogues and case studies.  Diagrams and models are lucid, logical and easy to follow.  Every chapter ends with a page of “Big Ideas” that summarizes the main points just covered.

Even more useful are the many practical exercises throughout the book.  Called “Try It Out,” these experiments cover actual practice (using listening skills in a real conversation), planning (writing out statements and questions you might use in a corrective feedback session), analysis (filling out a job description template) and self-assessment (determining your preferred learning style).  There are checklists and charts, and even space to write in the book.

But what makes Growing Great Employees a true handbook – and truly useful – is its structure.  In the introduction, Andersen offers a summary of each chapter, acknowledging that many readers might not choose to read the book “in a straight line.”  Since reading non-fiction books out of order is a secret vice of mine, I was delighted; what’s more, throughout the book Andersen provides references back to earlier chapters as needed.  For example, in Chapter 4, during a discussion of non-verbal signals, she writes, “…if you’re reading this book out of order, at this point you might want to go back and read the first chapter, where we focus on listening skills.”  This interconnected approach, reminiscent of hyperlinks on a website, makes the book much more accessible if a reader is trying to work through a particular management problem.

Throughout, there’s a personal flavor, as if you’re having a private consultation with Andersen.  The tone is positive, down-to-earth, and specific – a welcome change from most management books, which seem either to oversimplify or to wallow in impenetrable jargon.  Growing Great Employees does neither.  Non-gardeners may roll their eyes a bit at chapter titles such as “Staking and Weeding” and “Some Plants Don’t Make It,” but Andersen has a charming way of laughing a bit at her own tendency to push the metaphor.  (She says in the introduction, “I intend to wring every last drop [from the gardening image] by the end of the final chapter.”)  It’s not really a gimmick:  more of a useful trellis on which some prize roses grow.

Is Growing Great Employees for you?  It’s worth a look.  As productivity demands increase and hierarchies flatten, hiring and keeping good people becomes crucial.  As Andersen says, “Most of the things that make employees want to work for a particular company can be provided by a skillful manager.  I can help you be that kind of manager.”  I think she’s right.