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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Being Resourceful: Introducing Strengths to Young (Technology) Workers -- Gallup Called to Coach: Vivasvan Shastri -- S6E29


On a recent Called to Coach, we spoke with Vivasvan Shastri, Senior Manager at Cisco, who has been a technology executive for 19 years. His experience spans products/services and managing business development across the globe. He is a Gallup-certified Strengths Coach, an author, avid reader and blogger. Our conversation was hosted by Gallup’s own Pooja Luthra from Gallup’s Gurugram (Gurgaon), India, office. 






Below is a summary of the conversation. Full audio and video are posted above.

Guest host Pooja Luthra: Tell me a little about your journey in terms of (CliftonStrengths).

Vivasvan Shastri: It’s been amazing. It’s been a quest of my life to discover who I am. I had no way to figure it out -- you do everything to find out who you are. And when I looked at my (Top 5) strengths, I realized this is who I am. My journey of self-awareness that started 18 months ago continues -- I look at my life from the prism of my strengths. It gives me the ability to explain who I am, how I treat others, and provides a roadmap for how to progress ahead. I look forward to continuing this journey for a long time.  

PL: Give us the background for becoming certified as a Strengths Coach. What was your motivation and has it met your expectations?

VS: It was an inflection point. In the beginning of anyone’s career, it’s all about obtaining skills. Managers and companies expect you to keep current. About 6-7 years later, you start to wonder, “What’s next?” Should I continue in technology or move into a completely different field or occupation? That is the first inflection point.

Most people at that point don’t know how to make choices -- they might have a lot of knowledge and skills, but they don’t know how talented they are. Once a career decision has been made, you reach the second inflection point around 15 years of experience. By this time, you have acquired skills and knowledge and experience in your field, but you don’t have an understanding of your talents and strengths.

At my first inflection point, I had no idea what I should do but I decided to follow my manager. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can result in losing a lot of time in building your career. You may spend 4-5 years trying different things. Then I reached my second inflection point, when I have to plan for the last 10-15 years of my career. I applaud Cisco for moving to a strengths-based performance approach. I took the CliftonStrengths assessment, and it encouraged me to explore strengths more, but I couldn’t find a coach. I had a report in front of me, but I didn’t know how to decode it. So I decided to become a coach myself. It started as a journey of self-discovery, but nobody wants a manager who tells them what they are doing wrong; people are looking for a coach.

It has completely changed the way I talk to people. Five questions like flow, moments of excellence, etc.; I look for those in my one-on-ones, and it has helped me become a better manager.

PL: Tell me about your approach in working with technical professionals and using strengths. How have you integrated strengths into technical work?

VS: Initially, there is skepticism. I didn’t start with the (CliftonStrengths) concept. I started with stories of people they could relate to; they (“techies”) will question the fluffy stuff, but start with stories from people who have been successful in using their strengths. Tell your own stories about strengths, how you’ve used it, when it’s helpful vs. not helpful. I give them the book, give them 2-3 free coaching sessions on how to apply the results. A few of my own staff have become so inspired by strengths that they have asked to become coaches.
I have to give credit to my company, Cisco, for providing an environment where a manager can fearlessly talk about strengths and pursue it as development.

PL: Have you been able to integrate strengths into the workplace, so it doesn’t look like a stand-alone thing?

VS: Not yet. I am using strengths as a way to engage my people and help them deliver excellent result. I haven’t been able to take the work I’m doing cross-company but we’ve started to improve on engagement and delivering performance.

PL: Talk about performance orientation. How have you tied naming, claiming and aiming into the context of the work that you do and the strengths you’ve provided feedback on?

VS: The “naming” phase of Name It, Claim It, Aim It is the most fun part for coaches and individuals because of the “aha” moments in realizing talents and strengths during the first two sessions. The “claiming” phase takes a little more time because it requires deeper reflection over the course of someone’s career and personal development. The “aiming” phase requires a person to take a few strengths to anchor their efforts in the organization, which gives them the platform to focus on leadership skills.

PL: Have there been collaborative approaches you’ve been able to use?

VS: I have used the book for team building with my monthly team-building exercises. These regular activities have bonded the team and have helped them pair with another person for help in specific activities. Once you get team engagement right and you focus on strengths, performance will come.

PL: You were mentioning (before the call started) transcending the idea of strengths outside of work and how you’ve done that. Tell us about that.

VS: We have a young population in India -- what people sometimes call a “demographic time bomb.” Younger staff members struggle to identify what they should focus on after graduation. They need help in finding out who they are -- in India, it seems that people follow the current trend. But they need a helping tool. We’ve been trying to reach out to universities in India and introduce the concept of strengths to the students.

If I had the same knowledge of my talents before starting my career, my career path would have looked completely different. I would have taken on different tasks, different assignments/projects, made different decisions. I never used strengths as a way to find a job; I picked the job based on title or “cool trend” but now I am conscious of whether the job and its responsibilities align with my interests and talents and strengths.

If we can provide this knowledge to students earlier on before their careers, two things will happen. One involves churn in organizations -- job retention in newer professionals with 50%+ leaving within the first couple of years. Perhaps this is because the job doesn’t align with their strengths. And knowledge about their talents may help them make better career choices and a far more fulfilling career. Skills can be learned, and we in India are good at that. But what we lack is awareness of our talents. If we can bring this to some bright kids, they will have far more fulfilling careers.

PJ: Walk me through your favorite tools and techniques in using strengths. What is your “brand” as a strengths coach?

VS: Spend a lot of time giving examples of successful strengths stories without talking about the strengths assessment. Link those stories to their performance and aspirations (that is the first session). Then introduce concept of CliftonStrengths and ask them to complete the assessment (that is the second session). After they complete it (the third session) and they read the report (possibly the book), they want to discuss their results. This is the opportunity to discuss who they really are (naming session).

The theme cards are really useful because it helps people explain the themes beyond the report. I give them time to reflect (take a break) on the results and discuss them (sometimes there is denial of their strengths -- “this is not me; maybe I got some questions wrong”; but when they come to the next session, they really “get it,” that this is really who they are). The values cards -- for people who struggle to relate to their strengths, I use the values card because people are very strongly tied to their values, even if they are not tied yet to their strengths. Their values are tied to their identity.

I then encourage them to download the app, especially in finding their results and more information about their strengths. Then the picture exercise -- picking out the one image card that describes them or their strength(s). This is very popular. In fact, I recommend a digital version for coaches! The reason this exercise is so beneficial is because the image tends to stay with individuals even when they forget the name of the strength(s).

After that, we move into Name It. Claim it. Aim it. I ask them to prepare a 5- to 10-minute story about their Claim It questions and share with me during the next session. The Aim It is time for the coach to take a back seat and let the individual take the lead. But that requires time to develop confidence and trust in the first two phases. If you (as a coach) put a lot of emphasis on Name It and Claim It, you’re well set for the Aim It segment.

PL: Do you have any examples of the Name It. Claim It. Aim It. stories?

VS: Without naming names, one individual in Poland who was a very successful project manager with high Significance and Competition. He is great when a team is working on a project that is absolutely collapsing. But he is conscious that in moving to the next level, his Competition drives him to outperform others or their expectations. He picks up so many projects and drives them to success that he can burn himself out. But despite all his accomplishments, his Significance was never truly fulfilled. It was dull. He was always looking for the next. He ran from project to project. I told him, “You’ll never satisfy your Significance if you run from project to project. You have to do something really big. If work does not offer that opportunity, then pick up a hobby that could earn you some significance.” After 9 months, he’s found a really good job that feeds his Significance … this is an example of how strengths has helped someone make a good career decision.

PL: One common thread in what you’ve said is the idea of self-awareness. People need to be aware before making any changes. So what has been the most fun part of your journey?

VS: When I talk about his strengths with my family, it’s hard for family to accept your strengths. When I discuss them with my family, they will often bring up the basement moments. There are times when I want to be alone with myself because of my Intellection talents. Still, it is fun when your family knows about your strengths.

At work, strengths does help people to be more authentic. People have an impression that their title dictates how they behave, how they talk, etc. People see through that when you’re trying to be like someone else. Strengths helps you come across as a more authentic leader. It’s fun to see when people really bring themselves to work. You don’t have to be someone else. Strengths gives you the support structure to be who you are, and still come across as a rational human being. 

PL: Excellent. You’ve holistically incorporated the idea of strengths, whether at work or at home. Jim, do we have something from the chat room?

Jim Collison: I have the picture cards. There is no “magic” behind the pictures. But if you can’t get ahold of them, you can create your own digital version. You want to make sure you have the right licenses because we license these, but it can be done. It’s important to see that the magic isn’t the subject matter of the pictures, but in the conversation that happens around these pictures. Don’t get too hung up on the materials and resources, but focus on what the materials mean. Pooja, would you add anything here?

PL: The various resources we offer as part of certification, the one thing I’ve heard again and again is that the material is very enduring. Coaches have been extremely creative in the use of these pictures (for example, making the cards spiral bound). So coaches should feel free to use these in the way that works best.

JC: Vivasvan, would you add anything to that?

VS: At times, as coaches, we struggle to share (we have one set of materials), and maybe could allow those we coach to take pictures of the pictures. The pictures beautifully sum up what the strengths are, and through the pictures you can really get to know someone.

JC: The pictures are a very popular exercise. When I identify with a picture, it means something to me. Am I getting that right?

VS: For a coach, sometimes the person you coach doesn’t tell you enough. What the picture does is to help you make sense of the unsaid. The choice reveals a lot about an individual.

PL: Early on, it’s not that people don’t want to share, but that they haven’t been able to articulate it. Sometimes it’s easier to choose a picture than to put it into words.

JC: I have the Theme Dynamics cards on my desk (which are great), but I love the simplicity of the picture. Vivasvan, you’ve seen that a lot -- where two different pictures represent two completely different ideas. Would you say that’s true?

VS: That’s very true. The picture communicates in more than 1,000 words an individual’s core strengths and the strengths from which they lead. They help you categorize boundaries of culture too. The pictures have been very helpful to me.

JC: Pooja, have you ever watched the body language change as people work through these pictures? I think it opens people up.

PL: We do an exercise that asks people to complete the sentence, “I am a coach who ___” for each of their themes. After that activity is done, we ask people to incorporate everything you’ve written into a picture. When you lay down those pictures, some people can identify their picture within 5 seconds. But some struggle, and I say, “Think about which picture is the ‘most you,’ which one would you choose?” And sometimes the same picture gets picked, but for different reasons, because they’re coming from their own filters. And that drives home the point that they’re seeing the world with their own filter.

JC: We don’t do this with music, but I think people would identify with a song or lyrics. The pictures allow us to get to someone’s emotional core quickly. But the whole atmosphere changes when the pictures come out -- and often, the room becomes more relaxed and they (the pictures) open things up.

PL: The more people talk about their strengths, the mood lightens, because it was a positive discussion that happened about me. 

You can start using your CliftonStrengths today:
Vivasvan Shastri (Viva) works as a Senior Manager with Cisco. Viva is a technology executive with 19 years of experience spanning products and services. Vivasvan has global experience in building and managing product management and business development teams in Europe, China, Latin America and India. Vivasvan is a published author, avid reader and blogger. His motto in life is “Be Good, Do Good.” Vivasvan has authored a book titled, Pt. Deendayal Upadhyaya's Roadmap for India

Vivasvan Shastri’s Top 5 strengths are Context, Strategic, Intellection, Maximizer and Learner.

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

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