Strengths Coaching Blog

Friday, June 23, 2017

Why Use CliftonStrengths in Higher Education? - Called to Coach S5E21

On a recent Called to Coach, we spoke with Tom Matson, Senior Executive Leadership Strategist at Gallup.





Tom Matson, Gallup Senior Executive Leadership Strategist, is an executive coach, author and leadership expert. Tom works with higher education institutions to strategically plan and chart the right course for students. Before his current role, he served on Gallup’s executive leadership practice team, developing leadership programs for Fortune 500 companies.  


StrengthsQuest has been rebranded as CliftonStrengths.  Can you explain why that transition happened?



  • StrengthsQuest seemed to stop at self-awareness sessions on campus
  • Students and campus professionals would be aware of their top 5 but the knowledge didn't extend beyond that
  • Merge strengths and wellbeing knowledge -- great way to impact 
  • Retention rate for clients is 95% because they understand the why (engagement and wellbeing) with CliftonStrengths being the how
  • Book was written from that perspective  
  • Gallup-Purdue index provided additional insight into the long term outcomes of college students in the areas of wellbeing and engagement. This led to updated action items and a new book. 
While our coaches may understand strengths and engagement, why is wellbeing such an important component of strengths development?


  • Engagement has many definitions across the realm of Higher Education. Tom Rath, who loved Don Clifton's research around a life well lived, started to look at wellbeing.
  • Within higher education, it fits their mission.  
  • Working with higher education executive teams, it is beneficial to display the five areas of wellbeing and ask where the university is at its very best. Identifying areas of thriving vs. not.
  • The key for working with higher education professionals is how is retention affected by the areas you are not thriving in?  
  • "Wellbeing can be used a strategic framework. CliftonStrengths is not an outcome" - it is a tool.  
  • When a campus focuses on educating their community on their Top 5, they miss the mark of why that knowledge is important and how to apply it to a thriving and productive life.
  • "Why strengths" is an important question to ask campus professionals/students. Are you on the same page?  5 areas of wellbeing provides the strategic framework to impact the five areas of wellbeing.  Campuses can choose which areas of wellbeing they focus upon based on institution mission and goals.

Does the element of physical wellbeing play out as an outcome on college campuses?


  • Every school is different based on their mission and purpose. Identifying the area of wellbeing or campus life that is suffering (i.e., physical health, mental health). Aim strengths at that area of struggle for an institution.
  • As an example of using strengths to help students develop improvement plans.  A school in California, the president said the students top 5 will be used to create action plans for students to improve their health and to decrease their stress. The President dedicates every day at lunch to walk and encourages students to walk with him.  It's a great time for him to ask questions of students to gain more insight into the student experience.  
  • Physical wellbeing / wellness centers are popping up all over the country on college campuses
  • Five areas of wellbeing is the leading topic of his conversations with higher education teams and even executive leaders.  He does not start with the Top 5 or StrengthsFinder.  
  • How the areas of wellbeing impact performance / how strengths make you feel or contribute to dysfunction?  How to get out of dysfunction?
  • In the past, we have used an exercise called "Balconies and Basements" -- an exercise that often focused on strengths conversations alone (which is why we no longer use it in Higher Education conversations). Why? It provides little/no value to tell someone we are coaching that one of their talents is "in the basement" and then ask them how they can get it back up to the balcony without identifying why. No doctor would tell you that your heart is in the basement without talking to you about why it's broken/struggling. Rather, coaches like doctors, need to lead by asking questions about well-being and engagement and by so doing, that provides the reason why that talent is looking dysfunctional. When we lead with outcome based question, we shift from assessment feedback to life change.
When we talk about wellbeing, what are the resources available to coaches? what is the best way to digging into the concept of wellbeing and coaching?


  • Wellbeing book by Gallup
  • Remember, your client is the expert on how they are feeling and living their life.  As a coach, we ask the great questions.  So rely upon the answers of your clients in regards to their sense of how they are doing in the 5 areas of wellbeing. "There is nothing more authentic than asking people about their wellbeing."
  • Gallup-Purdue index reveals a lot about long term outcomes of thriving, wellbeing, and engagement. 
StrengthsQuest has moved to CliftonStrengths for Students. In your opinion, what is different, where are we headed, and how do you think people will receive the book?


  • We had two audiences - the Student Affairs professional (first year experience, residential life, career services, etc). Their job is to retain and engage students. Retention rate in the US is less than 50% (on average) and student affairs professionals are focusing on increasing the retention and engagement of students. 
  • Directly we wrote this for students to help them develop action plans on involvement, develop relationships, and opportunities to learn and grow. This approach focuses on weaving strengths around wellbeing and engagement.
  • In regards to higher education clients, when we focus on self awareness or surface level Top 5 knowledge, we lose those partners and clients in higher education. This is because presidents and top leadership teams within higher education institutions were not able to ascertain the value proposition of strengths-based approaches as their campus community could not defend the "why" and the values of strengths.
  • "We want to see students be at their very best - not just short term, but long term as well. We want students to leave a college campus and say 'I can't imagine a world without that experience' because they were so engaged, taken care of, and loved."
For which age group is this book most appropriate?


  • It's not for middle school students. It may be helpful for high schools to consider utilizing the book during the junior/senior year to help their students with the next steps beyond high school. While we may have thought StrengthsQuest was applicable most to the 18-22 year old crowd, CliftonStrengths for Students can be applied to the structure of higher education regardless of age.  
  • However, some organizations outside of higher education may find it beneficial due to its emphasis on mentoring, thriving, and wellbeing. 

How much did the Gallup-Purdue index influence the new book?
This was driven by exploring who is thriving in their overall wellbeing and highly engaged. These learning outcomes, based on the discoveries of alumni experience and feedback, were tied back to the 34 themes of talent. This was merged with the knowledge of Student Affairs on best practices for student retention. 

Is the book more of a philosophical overview or a step-by-step implementation for colleges? How is it outlined?

There is no step-by-step process because each college and university is different due to unique needs. The book gives a lot of examples of what matters to higher education but the action items are specific to students on how they find relationships on campus, internships, long term projects, and other successful behaviors.

What are "touchpoints" with colleges in regards to using CliftonStrengths?



  • We observed a lot of higher education institutions implementing "programs" based on strengths which was not being successful because it didn't go deep enough.
  • When we work with colleges and universities, we ask them which areas have the greatest number of "touchpoints" - meaning the greatest level of influence and student interaction within the area you are challenged by.  From one example, Tom explained that a university included residential life, academic advising, and leadership development as the most effective touchpoints.  We challenged the institution to consider how to weave strengths into those touchpoints that have the most impact and interaction with students. 
  • 24 touchpoints over four years from first year experience (at orientation), to their first year (roommates and Top 5), checking in with residential students based on areas of wellbeing, and other similar interventions that encourage more strengths-based and wellbeing questions.  Each year of a student's experience emphasizes different tasks and goals.
  • Do not see strengths as just a program. 
  • "When does a student move away from understanding their Top 5 and start living with a strengths-based lens?" 
What are some recommended ways for coaches to become involved in this work within higher education? Or for those who are not coaches yet but work for institutions that could benefit from this type of work?


  • As the economy shifted, endowments and funding within higher education has decreased.  Higher education institutions are trying to determine best ways to retain and engage their students, which has included higher enrollment goals.  By utilizing the Gallup-Purdue Index, we are able to support higher education leadership in understanding the importance of long term outcomes. Coaches need to lead with these two perspectives: (1) Outcomes are essential. (2) Strengths is the "how" and not the "why". 
  • Understanding the wellbeing of the institution and its students
  • Creating an experience that contributes to students' long term success and wellbeing will help increase affinity to their institutions post-graduation, which may have an impact on future alumni giving. 
  • Ensure the areas with the greatest number of touchpoints are prioritized for strengths and wellbeing implementation efforts. 
  • Find an executive sponsor within the institution who can get others to buy into the impact of strengths-based development as it pertains to a student's life cycle at the university.
  • "We need to be consultants that help universities and colleges address their points of pain and fears."
  • Sometimes we err on the side of treating all situations and people with strengths. It's like the z-pack in medicine that you're given for most of your ailments. "Strengths may all things to all people but we need to individualize what we're doing on campus towards what they are challenged by."  The vision and purpose of strengths needs to flow down from executive leadership. Coaches have an opportunity to be a trusted advisor in that effort. 
When does Gallup get involved in the university/college community?


  • Gallup current works with about 600 colleges and universities.  There are about 6-7 on our team who receive outreach from institutions requesting assistance. We may offer coaching sessions and training on campuses which challenges the staff to create a "cascading model" that encourages participants to teach others within their college community.  
  • When the campus has an executive sponsor, a team of interested people, and are ready to create their 24 touchpoints, we can start charting their individual course to be successful.
  • Our team, at our very best, is implementing strengths and wellbeing across an entire campus.  Perhaps 50-100 campuses are truly strengths-based (and have been for the past 4-5 years). We need to impact about 20-25% of faculty/staff on a campus to be successful. 
Is that number hard to achieve in the first couple years?


  • We try to develop goals for at least the first 1-2 years with the hopes of reaching 4 years of planning.  The most successful campuses focus on staff, faculty, and students.  In fact, peer-to-peer learning is more powerful. 
  • We need great coaches to help us expand our efforts to help colleges and universities achieve their wellbeing goals and address their points of pain when it comes to long term outcomes and post-graduation success of their students. 

How important is peer-to-peer coaching (using students) and how do others do that?
The most successful models included peer-to-peer coaching as part of their approach. Mark Pogue launched a program at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska that is based on the observations of best practices from other universities and colleges. 

When we think about the tools available for CliftonStrengths for Students, there are a lot of questions about how the assessment, reports, and materials differ from those used outside of higher education?



  • When we are asked for more "activities", that is sometimes an indicator that Strengths has become a program and is a more fixed-mindset approach.  On the CliftonStrengths for Students website, we have included a coaching guide that address four levels of conversations.  This links directly to the book and we will further develop these conversations based on the new action items. 
  • "We have a culture that thinks they need to build a resume with 10 or 15 things they are involved in...but one of the things we found from the Gallup-Purdue Index...that was recurring was that they were extremely and deeply involved in a just a few things. Organizations want students who understand what it means to go through the ups and downs of the tension of an organization.  It teaches resiliency and that they can own their own engagement even with times are tough."
  • More resources will be released on the CliftonStrengths site that will help develop richer conversations around strengths rather than activity-based resources. 
The best way to partner with Gallup is to support the framework and approach based on wellbeing, engagement, and an outcomes-based mindset.

Don't miss out on the 2017 CliftonStrengths Summit in Omaha, Nebraska on July 17-19. Register today!

Visit Gallup Strengths Center to browse our myriad of products and learning opportunities for strengths-based development.

Continue the coaching conversation on Facebook and Twitter. It’s a great way to network with others who share a passion for strengths!

Tom Matson, Senior Executive Leadership Strategist, is an executive coach, author and leadership expert. Tom is a TEDx speaker and presents to thousands of people each year about Gallup’s research on leadership, well-being and behavioral economics. He challenges his listeners to become authentic leaders who are committed to living their strengths each day and to creating a thriving, engaged life. Tom is the author of Unfrozen and Journey in the Present and is the strategist, architect and senior writer for CliftonStrengths for Students.

Tom's top five strengths: Strategic | Individualization | Maximizer | Relator | Activator

Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach, Rachel S. Carpenter, contributed to this post.

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