Rhody Strengths Tours start rolling

Business and nonprofit leaders from five states recently participated in Leadership Rhode Island’s first-ever Strengths Tour to see firsthand how Rhode Islanders are embracing their strengths to improve job satisfaction, productivity and profits.

The out-of-state visitors heard from workers and managers who discovered their strengths, learned to communicate better and felt empowered to participate in workplace improvements that cut costs, raised revenues and made their jobs more enjoyable.

“The tour brought to life the statistics about the results of strength assessments,” said Jim Ball, a leader of organizational development and change management at Lonza Biologics, in Portsmouth, N.H.

“I saw workers excited about their jobs and the transition of their organizations,” he said, “I will go back to New Hampshire and tell the governor we need to do this.”

Another attendee, Ken Barr Jr., founder of Beacon Leadership of Spring Lake, Michigan, said, “One of the biggest values of the tour was to see organization-wide embracing of the concept. I saw it done throughout Rhode Island and at scale.”

Like LRI’s strengths coaches, both Ball and Barr use the CliftonStrengths Assessment, an online test that identifies an individual’s natural talents. It is named for the late Donald O. Clifton, the Grandfather of Positive Psychology, whose research company acquired Gallup, the public opinion polling firm, in the 1980s.

Clifton identified 34 natural talents that individuals possess in various combinations and in varying degrees, and developed an online test that produces individual reports, including each person’s top five strengths, such as Achiever, Responsibility, Analytical, Strategic, and Harmony.

Managers use the employee results to better align job responsibilities with strengths or to create teams with complementary talents to study workplace issues. Studies show that workers are more engaged when they get to use their talents.

The launching of strengths tours represents a new phase in LRI’s multi-year initiative, Make RI Stronger.

Mike Ritz ‘07, LRI executive director, explained that a 2013 survey conducted by Gallup found that Rhode Island had the highest percentage of “actively disengaged” workers in the nation. That meant they were unhappy, often called in sick or quit, spread a negative attitude to co-workers and drove customers to competitors.

The survey results prompted LRI to try to change work culture by encouraging people to discover their strengths and by training coaches to help employers incorporate strengths-management practices in the workplace.

The four sites on the tour were selected to show examples of how the statewide strengths effort is working, said Kevin Cooper, LRI’s strengths expeditor.

At the first stop, Steve Duvel ‘12, vice president and operations manager at Gilbane Building Company, said the Providence-based construction company began emphasizing strengths-thinking in 2014. After the employees took the strengths assessment, LRI coaches helped them develop their individual strengths and understand how they fit on various teams at the company.

Duvel gave two examples. One employee whose top strengths included Individualization, meaning she had an affinity for working with and understanding people, was invited to sit in on job interviews. His evaluations have helped the company build a stronger workforce. Another worker, with dominant strategic thinking strengths, now participates in long-term strategic planning sessions.

Within a year and a half, worker engagement increased by 18 percent, helping Gilbane retrieve its place among Fortune’s 100 Best Places to Work. The company also has experienced increased productivity and revenues, Duvel said.

The tour participants learned of a different challenge at the state Department of Health, which began introducing strengths last year. Because the workforce is unionized, the assessment created tensions and some fears about whether the results would be used to evaluate or promote workers.

Steven Boudreau, DOH’s chief administrative officer and a member of the executive leadership team, said the agency decided to move slowly to address the workers’ concerns. Gradually 400 of the department’s 500 employees agreed to take the assessment and related training.

With 12 senior leaders and managers functioning as strengths champions, a system is now in place to roll out strengths-management practices throughout the department. “If Rhode Island is the first strengths-based state, we wanted to be the first strengths-based state agency,” Boudreau said.
Hearing that some employees were skeptical of the strengths assessment prompted one visitor, Travis Guse, executive life coach and Gallup strengths coach in Richmond, Virginia, to observe that “The goal of the strengths assessment is not to label or pigeonhole a worker, but to start a conversation about the worker’s talents to increase his engagement.”

The tour also stopped at NAIL Communications, a Providence-based advertising agency, that works with the state Commerce Corporation on economic development plans.

Lara Salamano, chief marketing officer at RICC, said her staffers and the workers at NAIL completed the strengths assessment and training. She said that helped communication when they developed Rhode Island’s new tourism campaign, tagged with the “Fun-Sized” slogan.

“Understanding what people are good at was a key to strengthening our organization and to move people to jobs in which they can do their best,” said Salamano.

Lizzi Weinberg ‘16, head of production at NAIL, said, “We are only as good as our people and we want engaged workers who understand their strengths to do their best. That makes a stronger workplace with people with skills to work better with clients.”

NAIL and the state workers developed the tourism campaign by listening to 1,000 Rhode Islanders to understand what they found unique and what they are proud of in their state.

Ritz said one benefit of more engaged workers is more positive citizens who can change Rhode Islanders’ self-image which is often negative or pessimistic.

“Workers who like their jobs promote a more positive culture overall,” he said.

At a stop at Edesia, a nonprofit company in North Kingstown, tour participants heard how the 70 managers and workers are using strengths-based management practices to improve the production of nutritious foods exported to treat child malnutrition around the world.

The visitors had lunch provided by the Hudson Street Deli in Providence, where staff is using strengths to provide better service to its customers. In small groups, the guests also met with a representative of the state Department of Labor and Training, where at least half of the employees have taken the strengths assessment and strengths trainers are at work.

Also, Nina Pande ’12, executive director of Skills for Rhode Island’s Future, described a pilot program in which 170 high school students discovered their own strengths. Before embarking on summer internships, the students learned how to use their strengths in job interviews and in the workplace.

The final stop on the tour was VIBCO Vibrators, an industrial manufacturer in Richmond. All workers take the strengths assessment pre-employment and have placards with their five strengths tacked up at their work stations.

Dave Bragonier, a machinist, explained that knowing and understanding his teammates strengths helps fix problems that crop up in the production of machined parts.

Joanne Pelchat, an assembler, said an employee team redesigned the workflow of the assembly and packaging process. “The job makes more sense now and we had a hand in changing it,” she said.

Karl Wadensten ‘17, VIBCO’s president and chief executive officer, said the company uses strengths management and other best-practice tools to create worker engagement in factory-floor production.

“It was encouraging to see people take part in their work and feel actively empowered to make changes,” said Rachel Brewer, a tour participant who is associated with a nonprofit dedicated to systematic racial, gender and social equity.

“I saw so many people exploring their strengths,” she said, “That’s what I’ll take back to Boston.”

After Guse, the consultant, returned to his home in Virginia, he said his son, Kendall, was so excited about what he experienced on the Rhode Island tour that he talked with his high school principal about starting a strengths empowering program.

Also, Guse said he is pursuing an effort to duplicate the Make RI Stronger campaign in Richmond through Leadership Metro Richmond.

Other Rhode Islanders on the day-long tour included Kate Porter ‘18, communications manager for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Laura Jaworski ‘18, executive director of the House of Hope Community Development Corporation.

Ritz said LRI plans more statewide tours, perhaps once a month, to introduce Rhode Islanders and out-of-state visitors to the benefits of adopting strengths-based practices. He said LRI may start charging a fee to help the organization expand its services, train more coaches and extend the program to more businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.

Jim Clifton, chairman and chief executive of Gallup, participated in LRI’s second Strengths tour Nov. 9. Visitors from Massachusetts, North Carolina and the District of Columbia were also on the tour.