Ping Pong, Prop Bets & The Performance Zone

Mastering the difference between the growth zone and the performance zone is critical to your productivity, development and success.

Here’s how one rogue gambler applied his mastery of both zones in one of the craziest prop bets of all time.

Dealer’s Choice

Bel Air Country Club. Los Angeles, California. 1973.

The wager: One game of Ping-Pong. First player to 21. Winner gets $10,000.

The players: A skinny Stetson-wearing Texan named Thomas Austin Preston, Jr. versus the 1939 Wimbledon champion.

One stipulation: Mr. Preston gets to choose the paddles. They have to be the same type of paddles, but he gets to choose.

After some shrewd pre-bet give-and-take, both men shake hands. Challenge made. Challenge accepted.

The lanky man in the Stetson? Amarillo Slim, one of the greatest prop bettors and poker players who ever lived. The tennis champ? Bobby Riggs, once the world’s number one tennis player.

As you can imagine, buzz about the wager traveled fast. Word spread quickly among club members—get to the club house tomorrow.

$10,000 is a lot of money now, but it was worth $55,000 in 1973. That’s a lot of gas for one of these sweet rides.

The next day at the appointed time, onlookers crowded back into the luxury club’s table tennis room. Loitering turned to speculation as the growing audience began asking different versions of the same questions: “Does he really think he can win? Is he crazy? What are we about to witness here?”

Both men had a reputation for eccentric gambling tastes, but this

The Reckoning

Slim entered the room at match time right on queue carrying a large satchel. He placed the satchel under the green playing table, just out of view.

The two men exchanged brief pleasantries. The bet was restated for the benefit of the crowd. They shook hands one last time.

Game on.

The middle-aged poker player slowly made his way back to his end of the table. He bent down and began rummaging around in the satchel. Whispers turned to chatter. The chatter turned to sporadic hoots and shouts. What did Slim have up his sleeve and what was in that bag?

Slim gleefully milked each passing second of suspense. When he finally stood up and presented his paddle selection, the crowd gawked. Stunned most of all, however, was Bobby Riggs.

Slim’s chosen paddles for the $10,000 wager?

Two oversized iron skillets.

What happened next may surprise you even more than his choice of paddles.

Slim beat the tennis champ 21-8.

How did the gambler in the cowboy hat beat a Wimbledon champion at his own game and walk away $10,000 richer?

When To Hold ‘Em, When to Fold ‘Em

Imagine the grade school student who’s asked to draw a portrait of a classmate. The drawing turns out more stick figure than Cézzane. The frustrated child permanently dismisses his or her artistic abilities into adulthood with this self-accusatory broadside:

“I’m not an artist—I can’t even draw.”

This, however, is not true. Anyone can draw.

In fact, with just a few hours of intentional practice, anyone can dramatically improve their drawing skills.

Doubt it? Try Betty Edwards’ best-selling “Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain”. Your finished work may not be Lourve-worthy, but your illustration skills will improve markedly.

How To Play A Better Hand

Here’s the problem. It’s easy to muddle the growth zone and the performance zone.

We attempt an activity for the first time, but it doesn’t go well. We then make a permanent false judgement based on insufficient evidence that may hinder our joy, fulfillment and wellbeing for a lifetime!

Like the grade school art example, we often hold ourselves to a performance standard instead of embracing our time in the growth zone. This is the exact opposite of what Amarillo Slim did.

He knew he could never beat Riggs straight-up at his own game. Not on raw skill alone. He needed an edge. Slim was a poker player, not a former Wimbledon champion.

But, Slim did have an edge. It was just less obvious.

After years of hustling in smoke-filled pool halls and all night card games, he knew how to invest in the growth zone. Crucially, he also knew when to make the transition from growth to performance. By the time Slim committed to a higher stakes performance zone opportunity, succeeding at the performance itself was almost a formality.

You see, before Slim even made the bet with Riggs, he had already invested time in the growth zone honing his ping pong skills with, you guessed it…an actual oversized iron skillet.

Riggs spent the first several points furiously trying to wield the heavy skillet like a regulation-sized paddle. By the time the tennis champ got the hang of it, Slim was too far ahead.

Match point.

From A Pair Of Clubs To A Royal Flush

The growth zone is where we give ourselves the freedom to hone our skills, build our knowledge base, innovate unexpected solutions and make lots of judgement-free mistakes.

The performance zone is when we harness and apply our investment in the growth zone and put our training and preparation to a higher stakes test.

Sustainable success depends on intentional growth zone investment in preparation to deliver optimal results in the performance zone.

The trick is making it very clear when you are investing in the growth zone. This draws an important boundary around your time, focus and energy.

By granting yourself the freedom to truly experiment in the growth zone, you make better mistakes which leads to smarter growth which leads to better performance results.

Think of any master-level athlete or performer. Extreme sports athletes spend hundreds of hours practicing tricks before actually attempting their physics-defying stunts in competition.

Similarly, Slim spent an afternoon dinging ping pong balls off of the rounded rim of a skillet before he finally got the hang of it.

What’s one way you can invest in your growth zone today that might payoff in your next performance?

The House Always Wins—So, Become The House

Before you attempt your next project, clearly define your own growth and performance zones. Determine how much time and energy you plan to commit to each zone.

A few examples:

• Writers: “How long will I research ‘issue XYZ’ (growth) before I write and publish an article about it (performance)?”

• Speakers: “How many hours will I prepare and practice my speech (growth) before delivering my actual presentation to a live audience (performance)?”

• Athletes: “How many times do I practice the Crane Kick (growth) before I use it in a tournament to defeat the evil Cobra Kai dojo (performance)?”

This little exercise helps you differentiate between the two zones of any goal or project. The skill building, experimental phase and the official performance phase.

Reframe your personal and professional development mindset. Move away from a cluttered view of growth and development. Give yourself grace, freedom and clarity in the growth zone so you can crush the performance zone.

Remember ol’ Amarillo Slim and the fry skillets.

When we give ourselves the proper liberty in the growth zone, we clear the way for life-changing discoveries, smarter improvement and superior results.

Own the growth zone and you’ll own the performance zone.

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Best of the World of Work — Q1 2017

Hello StrengthsLaunchers!

Flow, success, entrepreneurship, talent management and how to make weekends more awesome.

A few of my favorites reads from the last 90 days. Enjoy…

Regardless of what you’re striving to accomplish, if you’re not consistently achieving flow it’s much harder to achieve your goal.
Is There a Flow State of Leadership? by Evan Sinar, PhD. – DDI

From an old 1995 Writer’s Digest in my files—Tom Clancy on success

Nothing more fun than the kid who has an idea, starts a company and is now living the entrepreneurial life. Love this stuff.
Buy Started Business At 13 Now Making Millions

Investing in employee development, even if it seems counterintuitive.
Retaining Today’s Young Managers by Leslie Brokaw – MIT Sloan Management Review

Pursue “mastery experiences” during the weekend. Happiness increases and is maintained for the entire next month.
How Can You Make Your Weekends More Awesome? by Eric Barker (Bakadesuyo)

For more insights into turning natural talents into true strengths, sign up at StrengthsLauncher.

We’re cool, we won’t spam you, and we love helping people focus their natural talents to achieve their goals and dreams.

Need A Role Model? Try Dabo Swinney

Dabo Swinney, head coach of the 2016 National Champion Clemson Tigers, overcame multiple life challenges before reaching the heights of coaching success.

How did Swinney conquer his circumstances when so many others are defeated by life’s misfortunes?

Imagine: Your older brother is injured in a devastating car accident. He spends two weeks in a coma and suffers severe memory loss. The aftereffects from the head trauma lead to a lifetime battle with alcoholism.


Around the same time, your father’s business begins declining. He tries in vain to keep his business afloat and care for his growing family. In the process, he amasses $250,000 of debt. He, too, turns to alcohol. Your once average American family life is now filled with daily tension, distress and domestic abuse.

Some nights you escape to the roof of your house for a few minutes of peace. You even sleep in the family car to avoid the turmoil.


The abuse takes its toll. Your parents divorce. The family home is foreclosed. Your older brothers have moved away and are now on their own. You and your mother are forced to bounce between motels, your grandmother’s small apartment and charitable friends for lodging.


Resilience Can Be Learned and Mastered

“A lot of kids would’ve gone the other way and not dealt with it,” Dabo’s mother, Carol McIntosh, said in this 2016 article about her son. “Dabo was a very positive person, always saw the good and thought he could make it work. He was no different then than he is now. He kept me laughing and motivated me, even in my darkest days.”

An optimistic outlook doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It also doesn’t take away the heartache we face during life’s disappointments. However, optimism is a skill that can be developed and honed.

Minda Zetlin, columnist and American Society of Journalists and Authors Board Member, discusses four excellent tips on developing an optimistic mindset.

The first point is my favorite—reframe your mental energy from the problem itself to solving the problem. Doing even one thing to improve a situation moves you from passive participant to active player.

Practicing optimism, even if it doesn’t come naturally, builds resilience. In turn, resilience helps us overcome life’s twists and turns, even when our understanding is foggy from the emotion of the moment.

Swinney seems to have mastered this at a young age: Be positive. See the good. Become a creative problem solver. Keep laughing. Stay motivated.

The Obstacle Is the Way

“You just do what you’ve got to do,” Swinney said. “When you’re in the middle of situations in your life, you just make the best of it. That’s kind of how I’ve always lived my life. That’s, to me, what true peace and happiness is all about.”

It is tempting to point to external circumstances when we suffer setbacks. We can let a broken relationship, a disappointing health diagnosis or other misfortune deal a death blow to our plans and dreams.

Yet Swinney personifies the Japanese proverb “Nana korobi ya oki”.

Translation: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

Our challenges pave the way for our triumphs. They mold us into the people we become. We only succumb to them when we give up, when we quit.

While there are certain times we should thoughtfully and intelligently quit (see Seth Godin’s, “The Dip”), we often raise the white flag too soon. Don’t do it. Stand up that eighth time.

Nana korobi ya oki.

Who’s On Your Team?

A piece of wisdom that has stuck with me for years: “We become the average of the five people we spend the most time with.”

It’s a spin on another old saying, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.”

Despite the disappointment of Swinney’s early years, there was still tremendous love in his life. He had a core group of people who supported and encouraged him. His mother was one of the strongest.

“When you go back and talk about those things, it churns up so many memories because it was hard and our hearts were so broken. But those were some of the happiest times of my life because we were together, we were safe and we were peaceful,” McIntosh said. “We didn’t have much, but we had everything we needed: We were together.”

Having the right people on your life “team” will make or break you.

The energy vampires? Cut bait—immediately. The authentic supporters, encouragers, friends and advocates? Seek them out and cherish them.

Do the key people in your life love, support and encourage you? Even better, do they admonish you in love if you get off track?

From what I know of him, Swinney would be the first to tell you he didn’t achieve his success alone. There were mentors, friends and family who all played a part, and still play a part, in his story.

It’s a story that deserves to be shared and modeled because the world needs more Dabo Swinneys.

For more on Dabo Swinney’s formative years and life story, check this out.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to send me an email at, or feel free to connect on these platforms: @WilksDoug, StrengthsLauncher or Doug Wilks on LinkedIn.

7 Reasons Leaders Are Readers

He never graduated from college, but he claimed to have read every book in his hometown public library. On April 12, 1945, this humble Missouri farm boy would later be sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States.

What did Harry Truman know about leadership we can learn from today?

“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” — Harry S. Truman

Here are 7 reasons on why you need to read if you aspire to lead.


“Do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.”

Every book we read expands our understanding of other people, places, ideas and cultures. It gets us out of our own head and into someone else’s. Out of our own time and into the sights, sounds and struggles of another era.

Research even shows complex biological changes in the human brain when we read—days after we finish reading.

While we can’t personally experience the grandeur and ethos of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Erik Larson reveals it to us (and its hidden horrors) in “The Devil in the White City”.

Reading lets us walk that crucial mile in someone else’s shoes without ever leaving the house.

A Gift Unopened

The literacy rate is 99% in the U.S.

If you can read, you are very, very blessed. Millions of people can’t.

Choosing not to read is a gold gilded gift you’ve left untouched and unopened. That gift has the potential to enlighten your mind more than almost anything else in the world.

“Upon books the collective education of the race depends; they are the sole instruments of registering, perpetuating and transmitting thought.” — Harry Truman

We may never travel to Afghanistan, but Khaled Hosseini takes us there in “The Kite Runner”.

Dismissing the gift of reading is to insist on living a 2D life in a 3D world.


It’s been said that a reader lives 1,000 lives—the non-reader only one.

Lonesome Dove helps us understand the dangers and hardships of an 1870s cattle drive and life in the Old West.

Moneyball shows us the commitment required to innovate and upend conventional wisdom in an industry permeated with groupthink.

War and Peace lets us relive the devastation of the Battle of Borodino and taste the sting of a lethal Russian winter in wartime.

If two people are stranded in the dark in a power outtage, but one of them has a flashlight, who has a better chance of finding a way out, a way to safety?

Books are our flashlight.

Stress Buster

Feeling overwhelmed?

Good news: You don’t need to visit a day spa or go full Willie Nelson to lower your stress.

Reading lowers stress better than taking a walk, sipping a cup of tea or listening to your favorite music.

Most of us won’t experience working in the high-stress, high stakes culinary world of a Mario Batali restaurant, but Bill Buford wryly revisits his adventure in “Heat”.

Speaking of stress…

Reading can help lower stress in a less obvious way than the act itself.

Humans need at least seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Yet, the average American only gets 6.7 hours of sleep. Establishing a consistent bed time routine helps us mentally prepare for a good night’s rest.

By adding reading to our sleep routine (real books only, no tablets or screens), we decrease our accumulated stress levels and create a pathway for consistent quality sleep.

Almost any P.D. James is worth a spot on your nightstand. Start with “Children of Men” (even if you’ve seen the movie) and move on to the Det. Adam Dalgliesh series.

Strategic Thinking

There’s a rhythm to reading that trains the mind.

Readers acquire the stamina and focus to process words and ideas over days, weeks and months. This skill extends to other areas like long-range planning and strategy.

“The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.” — Harry Truman

Every word, every page, every chapter is a building block. Over time, those blocks create rooms, those rooms become houses. The houses turn into a mansions and then bloom into entire estates.

Readers accumulate mansions on Boardwalk and Park Place.

Non-readers are left collecting rent from Baltic Avenue.

Want a primer in strategic thinking? Founding Brothers is well worth your time.

CrossFit For Your Brain

Dr. Natalie Phillips, assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, compared fMRI results from two study groups reading two different passages—deep reading and quicker, pleasure reading.

The deeper reading prompted more activity and blood flow to the regions of the brain known for executive function. However, even the pleasure reading showed an increase in blood flow to other parts of the brain.

Phillips proposes that different styles of reading may create patterns of brain growth and development that are “far more complex than just work and play.”

Reading is CrossFit for your brain, without the kettle bells and physical therapy appointments.

Are you a dog lover? Try Alexandra Horowitz’s “Inside of a Dog”. You’ll learn, you’ll smile and you’ll realize just what exactly is going on in your favorite pet’s mind.

Reading More in 2017

If you want to live a richer life, form deeper connections and begin future proofing your career, commit to reading more books in 2017. It’s a great way to start the new year.

However…if you’re firmly in the “I’m not a reader” camp, email me. I’ll wager I can find a book for you that will expand your horizons and, most importantly, one you’ll enjoy.

Try me:

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Best of the World of Work — Q3 2016

Below are my favorite pieces about business, performance and productivity.


Productivity — The Next Web: 7 Mental Models You Should Know For Smarter Decision Making
Organizational Behavior — HBR: The More You Energize Coworkers, The Better Everyone Performs
Talent — TED/Kare Anderson: Be An Opportunity Maker
Employee Engagement — Entrepreneur: When You Hire The Right Managers, Engagement Improves
Strategy — HBR: Slow Deciders Make Better Strategists

Remember, 70% of the workforce is disengaged in their daily work. Don’t fall into that trap.

Own, grow and focus your natural talent and find a way to do what you do best every day.


Doug Wilks

10 Ways Coach Bruce Gemmell Helps Katie Ledecky Win

While we’re not all Olympic athletes, we can all use a good coach to help us achieve our goals.

So, what makes a good coach? How do they help their clients grow, achieve and succeed?

A Passion For Coaching

It’s often said that great writers don’t want to write, they have to write.

Same thing with good coaches. A good coach lives to help people develop from better to best.

At this summer’s Rio Olympics, Katie Ledecky became the first swimmer to win the 200, 400 and 800 meter freestyle at the same Olympics since 1968.

Oh, yeah. She’s also broken 13 world records.

Simply astounding.

Beyond her extraordinary talent, dedication and work ethic, she also has the help of a good coach—design engineer Bruce Gemmell.

After years of success in the corporate world (which includes 11 design patents), Gemmell reached a crossroads. He had been coaching swimming part-time, fitting practices sessions and meets around his already packed work schedule.

But the pool kept calling, and the yearning to commit to full-time coaching eventually won out.

As Gemmell says in this pre-Rio New York Times feature story, “If I’m driving to work in the morning and I see a Siemens truck go by, I think: ‘Oh, I could still be working for them,’ and then, ‘Oh, I’m glad that I’m not still working for them.’”

A good coach’s zeal to teach and inspire isn’t negotiable. It’s as necessary to his or her wellbeing as food and shelter.

This passion, combined with a higher purpose, not only drives the coach, but also supplies a powerful daily model for the client.

Purpose > Everything Else

A good coach helps you tap into your purpose.

Knowing and living out your purpose is like driving through life on the Autobahn in one of these.

Conversely, not living out your purpose keeps you puttering in the school zone day after day at 20 mph.

When you’re fueled by a higher purpose, you simply can’t be defeated. Setbacks and detours are merely that—setbacks and detours. You stay alert, learn along the way and come out the other end stronger, smarter and exponentially more fulfilled.

Consider this: Gemmell used his own vacation time to coach Ledecky before he made the switch to full-time coaching.

Now, that’s purpose.

Good coaches find a way to live out their life purpose. In turn, they help you discover and focus your own.

Combine Different Disciplines In Novel Ways

Regardless of your vocation, every new day provides an opportunity to gain perspective and innovate.

As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

Major league pitching coaches with psychology degrees whose throwing mechanics theories crossover entire sports.

Head football coaches who’ve also run billion dollar companies.

Three-time “Coach of the Year” Olympic swim coaches.

Good coaches help connect seemingly disparate ideas to enhance understanding and give you an edge.

Focus on Natural Talent

Over 7,454,958,000 people live on our planet, and every single person has specific, innate talents. A good coach helps clients catch this personal lightning in a bottle.

Unfortunately, many people struggle articulating their strengths, much less use them on a daily basis.

If you fall into either camp, quit squandering all of that personal power and creativity!

We would live in an unrecognizably better world than the one we know today if more people understood and focused their unique strengths. (To begin your strengths journey, take the StrengthsFinder assessment. It’s easy, it’s fun and, at the very least, you’ll double your self-awareness.)

Developing our talents and turning them into strengths is a proven path to peak performance. Moreover, organizations with strengths-based cultures yield higher productivity, higher profitability, lower turnover, lower absenteeism and even lower workplace injuries.

Unfortunately, too many institutions (and teachers and managers) focus on fixing weaknesses…

Mitigate Weakness vs “Fix” Weakness

A good coach doesn’t waste time and energy attempting to “fix” areas outside of a client’s natural genius. This approach does two things, but it does them very well: demotivate and de-energize.

The idea that we can create well-rounded employees by trying to fix his or her weaknesses is a myth. Strangely, this notion is still conventional wisdom in some corporate cultures.

What an egregious waste.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Good coaches find creative ways to minimize weaknesses and build on the foundation of strengths.


I remember reading the average athlete in the 2012 London Olympics trained six hours a day, six days a week, for 12 months a year. Imagine the time, focus and energy a competitor like Ledecky invests in becoming the best in the world.

There’s simply no margin for mistrust in the quest for elite performance. As Ledecky says in this interview: “I just do whatever Bruce tells me to do, really, in practice.”

Yet, trust doesn’t just happen. It’s earned.

Trust is also “agenda free”.

Which leads us to…

Your Agenda. No One Else’s.

A good coach is present, accesible and undeniably “You” focused.

Research shows that many well-meaning people who find themselves in management roles aren’t a good fit. Sad, but true.

However, many employees assume their manager is also their go-to coach. A logical assumption, but not always accurate.

You want a coach who is energized to work with you and help you become your best. If the coach isn’t committed to the individual, how can that dynamic possibly translate into improved results?

It can’t, and it won’t.

Quick—name one person at work you would call your coach. You have three seconds. Go.

…Now, would this person describe his or her coaching approach with you as Ledecky’s coach does in the Times’ feature story?

“This is my happy place.” Gemmell said. “I feel the tension drop when I get on the pool deck.”

If this description doesn’t feel like the person/coach you imagined, it’s worth examining.

Good coaches really are in their “happy place” when they are coaching. This is what you want. Someone who loves what they’re doing and focused on your agenda.

It’s not about them. It’s about you.

True North Vs Magnetic North

The difference between true north and magnetic north over long distances can be several miles.

For a short trip the difference isn’t as significant. However, for a long journey, if you’re not making adjustments, you’ll arrive miles away from your desired destination.

And, just when you’ve ironed out your plan and committed to move forward on that big project, this little human behavioral jewel rears its ugly head:

The human attention span is now worse than that of a goldfish—8 seconds.


How many emails, texts and notifications will you receive today? How many IMs, phone calls and “emergency” meetings will hijack your calendar?

It’s easier than ever to get distracted from our top priorities.


A good coach is a counterweight who helps you chart your path, edit out the clutter and stay the course.

Always Growing. Always Improving.

A good coach creates an environment of constant learning and improvement.

As Ledecky says, “I think each year has gotten better and better…I couldn’t be happier with how my four years have gone with Bruce.”

A ringing endorsement from the best swimmer of her generation? Pretty legit.

Good coaches are growth and improvement idea machines. Individually in their own lives, and by extension, for their clients.

To borrow from lean startup methodology, we build a plan, measure the plan, learn from the plan and repeat. Build, measure, learn. Build. Measure. Learn. (H/t Eric Ries)

True growth and improvement isn’t relegated to hallway “hi-byes” or perfunctory year-end reviews. Same thing with good coaching.

Abundance Mindset

A good coach sees the unique possibility inside of you and works with you to develop and apply it.

Are there practice sessions in the pool when Ledecky maybe doesn’t swim her best? For sure! We all have those days.

Are there days when she and Gemmell try out a new training routine, don’t like it, scrap it and move on? No doubt.

Understanding and embracing the power of an abundant mindset is a crucial difference maker. Good coaches know this and help their clients practice it.

Carol Dweck’s best-selling “Mindset” explores the key differences between a fixed and an abundant mindset. Catching yourself in a fixed mindset moment and rechanneling it towards an abundance mindset can take time and practice. It can also dramatically alter the trajectory of your success. (For more on Dweck’s mindset research, go here.)

Good coaches know this and instill it in their clients. Life is not a zero sum pie. Life is about growing the size of the pie.

Finally, remember that just because you may not be a gold medal athlete like Katie Ledecky doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from a good coach like Bruce Gemmell.

Our own work/life gold medals, whatever they may be, are just as meaningful and worthwhile to us, our careers and our families. We should treat them as such.

Connect with a good coach and reap the benefits.

Are you stuck, disengaged or feel like you’re missing out on your true potential? Or, maybe you’re coming off an extraordinary win and want to keep up the momentum?

Say hello at I’d love to help. And, I promise it won’t involve 4:00 AM laps in an Olympic-sized pool.

Best of the World of Work — Q2 2016

Following is a round-up of my favorite articles from the last three months. Each essay will elevate your perspective and help improve your performance—in your work and your life.


Inspiration — Runners World: Patrick Downes Becomes First Boston Bombing Amputee To Finish Marathon
Career — Susan Cain/Quiet Revolution: How To Win The Career Lottery
Positivity — Forbes: What Negativity Does To Your Immune System
Decision Making – Eric Barker: How To Make Good Decisions—4 Secrets Backed By Research
Flow — Fast Company: How To Hack Into Your Flow State & Quadruple Your Productivity

Have an outstanding next 90 days, and remember:

Talent x Investment = Strength


Doug Wilks

2016 CliftonStrengths Summit Highlights

Every 24 hours another 7,986 people around the globe take the CliftonStrengths (StrengthsFinder) assessment to discover their unique, natural talents.

At this rate, the strengths movement will soon deliver life-changing insights to its 15 millionth person.

Last week over 740 coaches, educators and business leaders met in Omaha, Nebraska to share, learn and grow in their strengths journeys at the world’s very first CliftonStrengths Summit.

After processing the entire summit, two major conclusions stand out—smart organizations are intentionally creating strengths-focused cultures and the strengths movement is rapidly gaining velocity.

A World Coaching Movement

Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup, opened the summit by giving his unique, historical perspective of the strengths movement and its impact on the world today.

Clifton created The Gallup Path, currently used in over 500 companies worldwide. This behavioral economic-based model for organic sales growth has revolutionized the way companies manage their employees and engage their customers.

Needless to say, Gallup’s CEO is one of the world’s leaders in developing and focusing human talent. One of the many tools he and Gallup utilize to foster talent growth is the CliftonStrengths assessment, found in StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath and also online at Gallup Strengths Center.

StrengthsFinder 2.0 is the best selling non-fiction book of all-time on Amazon. It succinctly explains and explores the importance of understanding, nurturing and focusing our natural talents. As millions already know, the expertly researched Insight and Action-Planning Guides are the first step in turning your talents into strengths.

However, as Clifton explained, the real power of the assessment is beginning your own personal talent journey with an expert coach. Someone to help unpack and focus all of the nuance and depth of the talent themes.

As Donald O. Clifton, Jim’s father, wrote in his 1992 best-selling “Soar With Your Strengths”, “Strengths develop only in relation to another human being.”

Consider this: Millennials (those born between 1982 and 1993) already comprise one third of the U.S. work force. By 2025, that percentage will jump to 75%.

And, guess what? Millennials really want to be coached. An entire generation has come of age not knowing what life is like without the internet. Yet, organizations are behind the curve on delivering. In fact, only 46% of millennials say their managers actually deliver on their expectations for feedback.

Smart companies will correct this disconnect posthaste. If not, these companies will gain a lot of experience posting and re-posting vacated positions.

As Clifton said, “This is not a CliftonStrengths movement, it’s a CliftonStrengths coaching movement.”

The power of the assessment is in the conversation.

Can We Really Transform A Life?

Jeremy Pietrocini, Gallup Senior L&D Consultant, emphasized how everything changes—our work, life and relationships—when we get to use our strengths on a daily basis.

To illustrate, Pietrocini gave every CliftonStrengths Summit attendee time to share one story round-robin style of someone they’ve coached with the rest of their table.

What did the “before” look like? How did a journey of strengths conversations lead the client from, in some cases, barely surviving to actually thriving?

The individual stories our table shared were nothing short of exhilarating.

Each coach’s challenge wasn’t thinking of one really good transformational story. Instead, the hard part was only picking one to share!

We each shared multiple moments of moving life change. Each story ran the gamut: Soured business relationships turned revitalized and prosperous. Burned out executives rejuvenated with a strengths intervention. Struggling companies turned into flourishing cash cows.

The common denominator in each situation? Helping people focus and leverage what’s right about themselves.

“Strengths brings people to life in ways they had never imagined,” said Pietrocini in his closing remarks.

As our table of ten can attest (as well as the other 730 participants): Truer words.

Everybody Needs A Coach

It’s nearly impossible to pick just one favorite moment from Roy Spence’s touching and often hilarious presentation.

Co-founder and Chairman of Austin’s GSD&M, Spence has lived a strengths-focused life ever since he was a teenager growing up in Brownwood, Texas.

After receiving a succession of poor grades on numerous writing assignments, Roy was frustrated and discouraged. Ruth Griffin Spence, Roy’s mother and teacher, realized her son was actually a naturally gifted writer. She sat him down and gave the 14-year-old this life-changing advice:

“Roy, I don’t want you to spend another second being average at what you’re bad at.”

You see, Roy could write. He just couldn’t spell.

Roy’s mother knew focusing on strengths mattered exponentially more to his growth and development than attempting to “fix” his weaknesses.

As Mrs. Spence knew, editors, dictionaries and good copywriters can always be called upon to help correct spelling errors. (Fitzgerald was a terrible speller, by the way.) So, she encouraged her son to keep writing and communicating. The “i” before “e” except after “c” rules could be dealt with along the way.

Yet, our generations-old Deficit Remedial Education Model is still too prevalent in many school and business settings.

To anyone charged with developing and leading others, catch yourself before over-indexing on fixing what you think is “wrong” with someone. If you lead with a “weakness fixing” mindset, you’re dampening the power and edge of everyone in your orbit. This very power and edge is what will, in fact, make them successful!

Instead, it’s an essential part of your job as a teacher, coach, manager or leader to spot and nurture what’s right with your students and direct reports.

Anything less is professional malpractice.

Remember, the point isn’t to ignore weaknesses. The point is, if you spend your time and energy fixing weaknesses, you’ll only really be successful at one thing—herding everyone in your purview into a swamp of mediocrity.

As Spence reminded us, “God made all of us different, but we judge our kids with standardized tests...”

A thoughtful point worth pondering.

The Impact of Strengths And Coaching — Enterprise

One of Kristen Nagel’s key responsibilities as the Talent Enablement Director at Accenture is leading the growth and development of 375,000 employees. No small task.

Hearing Nagel describe the strengths immersion approach at one of the world’s leading professional services companies is to begin to understand the enormous value of an immersive strengths-based corporate culture.

At the heart of Accenture’s enterprise-wide strengths focus are these questions:

What are your priorities and what do need to do? How will you use your talents to succeed on your priorities?

It’s a similar riff on a helpful coaching construct—where are you now and where do you want to go?

So much value can be gleaned from such seemingly simple but powerful questions.

Incredibly, Accenture has completed 240,000 CliftonStrengths assessments and over 4,000 one-on-one coaching sessions. Now, that’s some enterprise-level strengths immersion!

With such dedicated commitment to leadership development, it’s easy to see why Accenture has been voted one of Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies” for 14 consecutive years.

The Impact of Strengths and Coaching – Education

Rachel Edoho-Eket, Assistant Principal at the Howard County Public School System in Columbia, Maryland, treated CliftonStrengths Summit attendees to an exploration of what happens when strengths are unleashed in our education system.

Unfortunately, a “vicious cycle of unrealized potential” is prevalent in too many of our nation’s schools.

Enter the unstoppable formula of strengths + leadership.

In 2012, Dr. Renee Foose, Superintendent of HCPSS, spear-headed a system-wide strengths movement. It began first with the teachers, then expanded to the students.

Student “strengths spotting” begins as early as grades K – 3. Formal StrengthsExplorer assessment begins in grades 4 and 5.

One student was even compelled to describe his strengths in verse, writing in part: “I am a (bird) leading its flock. I am a (fireman) helping injured people.”

Do you think this young poet’s confidence, self-awareness and budding emotional intelligence is impressive? Yeah, me too.

As a HCPSS Clifton Fellow, Edoho-Eket is part of a team of dedicated leaders helping our nations’s youth create their own futures by finding and building on their unique strengths.

Imagine if each of our communities had such dedicated strengths ambassadors? We could turn our country’s unrealized potential into actualized gain within a generation.

Because of Foose and Edoho-Eket’s leadership, wave after wave of Maryland students are becoming their best by focusing on “what is strong, not what is wrong”.

To see more of Howard County’s strengths-based education in action, click here.

The Coach’s Coach

One of my favorite CliftonStrengths Summit moments was when Jane Miller, Gallup Executive Vice President and COO, shared one of Donald O. Clifton’s favorite poems, R.L. Sharpe’s “A Bag of Tools”.

The perspective-building poem beautifully reflects Clifton’s own framework of Strengths Catalysts:

  1. Mission – Find a calling.
  2. Relationship – Strengths develop best in response to another human being.
  3. Expectations – Nothing happens until someone expects something of you in ways you can achieve.
  4. Celebration – Recognizing good work.

Perhaps you have one or more of the highest frequency talent themes like Achiever, Responsibility, Learner, Relator or Strategic.

Maybe you have some of the lesser prevalent themes such as Command, Self-Assurance, Significance or Discipline.

Regardless of an individual’s mix of talents, each combination can be molded and put to use to make the world a better place.

Where there is a mission, a relationship, expectations and proper celebration, people and organizations thrive.

CliftonStrengths Summit Keynote — A Lifelong Journey

Rounding out the dynamic list of keynote speakers was Paul Allen, Gallup’s Strengths Evangelist and Founder.

I took so many notes during Allen’s opening and closing remarks, it’s impossible to fit them all in here.

However, these key points resonated with special significance.

On viewing his career in hindsight through the lens of his own strengths: “My Top Five (talent themes) explained everything I’ve done in my business career.”

(Dear high school, undergraduate and graduate school students—if you remember anything else from this post, please appreciate the above quote.)

For Summit attendees only: “I’ve never used a computer before. I like computers, and this makes me feel more human.”

Allen’s father was a world-renowned engineering taxonomy professor who revolutionized global manufacturing. Yet, one of this man’s greatest gifts were the wise words he spoke to his son, Paul, when he was only five years old: “Make use of your gifts and talents to serve mankind.”

On growing a strengths-based society: “In 2004, 1 million people had taken StrengthsFinder. By 2010, 5 million. By 2014, 10 million. Today, 14 million people have taken StrengthsFinder with 7,986 taking the talent assessment every day.”

If you attended the CliftonStrengths summit, you most likely returned home as energized and passionate about the strengths movement as I am.

The ideas, conversations and energy from such a purpose-filled group will be fascinating to watch unfold in the years to come.

It’s remarkable to consider the impact one young Nebraskan professor would have on the world when he thought to ask, “What if we studied what was right with people versus what’s wrong with people?”

If you want to take the CliftonStrengths assessment and see what all of the buzz is about, click here.

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Or, drop me a line at I’d love to hear about you and your own strengths journey.


Doug Wilks