San Diego, Calif. — “You don’t grow up. You grow into yourself.”
Marcus Buckingham, author of such management tomes as “First, Break All The Rules,” opened the 50th Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) International Conference On Fundraising (ICON) here on Sunday with those words to a room of 4,000 fundraisers. Buckingham’s hour-long talk focused on strengths, and he challenged old assumptions and definitions.
It was a day of famous faces. On the exhibit floor was Sean Kelly, a stand-up comic, star of the television program “Storage Hunters” and a celebrity auctioneer. The day was capped by a discussion with and performance by award-winning performer John Legend.
Most people, said Buckingham, want to shore up their weaknesses and don’t often focus on their own strengths. That’s the wrong way to go, he said. “You will learn the most, grow the most, be most resilient, productive in those areas you’re already strong,” he said.
According to a poll taken in six countries, the United States is the most strength-focused, said Buckingham. But, the poll showed that only 45 percent of American respondents said it’s a better idea to focus on strength than weakness to improve performance. Japan was the least strength-oriented nation, with only 24 percent focusing on strength. Others in the survey were China, France, Canada and the U.K.
“We live in a world fascinated by weakness and that takes strength for granted,” said Buckingham. He thinks people are focused on weakness because of fear: fear for a person’s weaknesses and fear that those weaknesses will reflect poorly on their companies and managers.
Buckingham wants to redefine strength and weakness. The common definition of strength is something that people are good at. But, people are good at plenty of things that they hate. Instead, he believes strength should be defined as something you feel strong doing. Look out for four signs of strength, he said:
- Success: where do you feel effective?
- Instinct: you actively, instinctively volunteer for an activity, even if you’re not the best at it
- Growth: while you’re performing the activity, you feel inquisitive and focused. You learn it rapidly
- Needs: after you’ve completed the activity, you feel fulfilled and invigorated. You might be tired, but you’re not psychologically depleted.
Managers need to deploy their employees’ strengths intelligently. There are people whose jobs fit perfectly for them. “They didn’t find (the job),” said Buckingham. “They built it. They took a job, looked at the signs that it fits, then tilted it until the best of the job became the most of the job.”
Legend, the nine-time Grammy-winning R&B artist, took the stage to close the day by sharing his experiences in philanthropy. He founded the Show Me Campaign after witnessing extreme poverty during his travels to Africa with Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs. “The single best way to break the cycle of poverty is through education,” said Legend.
The artist cited his grandmother, Bill Gates and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as his role models. He wants to fix education inequality, the “sad but changeable quality that where a child is born and how much the parents make determines educational prospects and quality of life,” he said.
There are some schools known as “dropout factories” where 10 percent of the schools are creating 40 percent of the dropouts. “They are doing their job,” as unfortunately described, he said.
Legend’s advice to conference attendees is to join the boards of local and national organizations working to improve education, and to put pressure on politicians to put students first. He said his job as an artist is to release beauty into the world, and philanthropy is another way to “inspire people and create joy.”
Though he admitted that the conference attendees know more about fundraising than he does, Legend told them “to remember what you’re doing it for. All of you are going to spend time thinking about the execution of being great fundraisers: what strategies and tactics are most successful. But it always helps to remember why you’re raising the money.”