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Nicky Garcea



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The emerging practice of strengths-based recruitment


There are greater numbers of candidates and more people with high potential on the market than ever before.

As a result, it is vital that HR professionals think differently about recruitment and approach interviews in a new way in order to ensure that the right candidates are chosen for the right roles.
Although the competency-based method of assessment is still being used unchallenged in many HR departments, the method has fundamental flaws.
While the focus is on assessing what people claim they can do or to have them provide examples of what they have done, the problem is that most recruitment and careers advice services run classes to help candidates practice their interview technique on this basis.
As a result, the challenge for many potential employers is that job applicants have become too polished in their responses, providing ‘evidence’ that is well-rehearsed rather than a real reflection of their stills and personality. A second limitation of a competency-based approach is that it typically assesses what people can do rather than what they do well and enjoy.
In contrast, using a strengths-based method helps employers to recruit people based on their natural talents by enabling them to identify and assess the things that candidates not only do well but also love doing. The approach is more reliable because it matches an individual’s strengths to a given role, ensuring that job applicants are not just capable, but will actually be engaged and motivated enough to live up to expectations.
Strengths-based recruitment likewise enables people to be more authentic and to show themselves for who they genuinely are. Practitioners are trained to look for energy and authenticity as well as evidence of high performance in relation to the strengths under consideration – a combination that should guarantee the appointment of a genuine high flier.
The practice works by identifying what key strengths would enable success within a given role, both now and into the future. Such strengths include an individual’s personal attributes, their alignment with organisational values and their ability to be flexible and agile enough to adapt to the evolving needs of the business.
Another difference with a competency-based approach, which typically focuses attention on a small number of generic aptitudes, is that strengths-based interviewing explores in more detail what abilities are actually likely to lead to success in a given role.
In its infancy
It is important to balance such specific role requirements with a need for organisational simplicity and skills transferability. But if you get it right, you will be more likely to hire better quality talent and higher performing workers. The idea behind the concept is to be better attuned to what people do best in order to harness their abilities more effectively.
Although the approach is still in its infancy, some companies are already seeing the benefits. Aviva is one of the latest companies to have gone down this route as part of its ongoing commitment to recognising individual achievements in order to help improve the internal and external customer experience.
To this end, the insurance firm made a new employee promise: ‘who you are and what you contribute matters to us’. To support this change of tack, it looked at ways of improving its recruitment and talent management processes. A critical first step was to hire people that had the natural talents to deliver results in a customer service role.
As a result, the company evaluated 60 different competencies of high- and low-performing agents, which included time management, team-work and empathy. These criteria were then integrated into the firm’s interview techniques and assessment tools. It also developed a series of bespoke recruitment campaigns.
Rachel Russell, an HR business consultant at Aviva, said of the move: “We’re delighted with our success in using strengths to help identify if someone is right for a role. Strengths interviewing allows us to focus on individuals, what they enjoy doing and what they’ll be good at.”
The approach shifted the emphasis from assessing people’s past performance to evaluating their future potential. Therefore, it helped the firm to find the right people “who’ll be motivated and energized in their work”, she added.
Since going down this path, Aviva has seen staff productivity levels increase by 21%, call average delays fall by 54%, quality rise by 14.5% and customer satisfaction jump by 12%. The induction process has also been shortened by a week, employment churn halved in the first 12 months and morale has noticeably improved.
Top tips for adopting strengths-based recruitment are:
  • Use multiple sources of data to establish your criteria – understand the desired outcomes for any given role, embed company values and understand your organisational strategy
  • Map strengths to the data gathered in order to design job descriptions, roles and person specifications
  • Ask for feedback – discuss the strengths that have been mapped to a given role with key stakeholders
  • Trial exercises to assess high and low performers in order to ensure that they evaluate what they are supposed to evaluate – write down ‘look fors’ and ‘listen fors’ for each exercise to ensure accurate scoring
  • During the interview process, ask candidates to undertake authentic exercises that measure their strengths and also clarify what a typical day in the role would look like.

Nicky Garcea is the consulting director at strengths-based recruitment specialists, Capp.

11 Responses

  1. Identifying the strengths for the roles

    Strength based coaching is something I deliver to both businesses and individuals. I am currently working with an independent recruitment agency which wants to understand this area in more detail.

    I can advise him from a candidates viewpoint, ie using a variety of strength based assessments, including CAPP but what I would like more information / knowledge about is how Aviva went about choosing which strengths were required for particular roles? If at all possible are you able to provide a strength profile for a particular role?

    Having used CAPP myself I can honestly say I found it extremely useful to highlight not only my strengths but also the latent strengths.

    For those of you who are still unsure about whether this is a viable means of recruitment, I can only reiterate that by using strength identification you will be employing someone who will actually enjoy the role for what it is and the reward almost being a secondary factor. Strength based coaching is an integral part of developing a positive well being ethos within an organisation, which needs to be embedded at the very top and then be delivered and developed throughout the company. The results seen by Aviva are not unusual for a company determined to create the environment within which people can flourish.


  2. Train Assessors

    I couldn’t agree more with Sandra. Training assessors and recruiting managers is critical. Particularly for those who might have been trained in competency-based approaches in the past. Our clients who see the greatest results have continued to invest in and run in-house training.

  3. Strengths-based recruitment practice effect

    Pam, raises brilliant points here. We are already seeing candidates becoming wiser to strengths-based interviewing and wiki jobs is full of strengths-based interview examples. At Capp we really try to stay ahead of this challenge by doing a couple of things. 1. Building validated question banks so it is not the same interview being used each time. 2. Measuing a strengths through the lens of energy, performance and use. Thereby testing a strengths 3 ways. A successful candidate will therefore have to have shown the motivation (the energy), a evidence-based example (the performance) and that they have applied this strength recently (the use). I don’t think this is yet the ‘holy grail’ but I do think strengths have got the potential to take us beyond competencies.

  4. strengths based recruitment

    Sandra, thanks for your input here, and for what its worth I think you are so right there. A deep understanding of ‘Strengths’ within the recruiter cadre is critical to the success of strengths-based recruitment.

    I wonder how many recruiters truly understand the whole ‘strengths’ thing – from philosophy to performance  – enough to recruit to ‘strengths’ as opposed to standard profiling (DISC MB et al)?
    I think the discussion would be enriched by some experiences from the field, such as your own, Sandra, in running ‘strengths-based’ selection.
  5. Strength Based Recruitment

    As an HR consultant formally employed at Aviva to manage the intial trialing of strengths based recruitment and its subsequent introduction, I fully endorse Nicky’s article.  When strengths recruitment is undertaken properly and there is a true understanding of the outcomes one requires the role to achieve,  the results on speed of a new entrant to get from induction to great performance results, coupled with lower sickness and, importantly, employee engagement are impressive.

    The main drawback is, not suprisingly, the understanding, training and strengths of the recruiting manager.  Where managers have had poor/no training or/and don’t have a natural strength to recruit then interviewing for strengths will have at best no impact.   if you are thinking of going down the strengths recruitement route, which I would fully recommend that you consider, I cannot stress enough that within any scheme you build in an going assessment of the ability of recruiting managers to undertake the task.   Only  this week I was talking to someone who had recently undergone a strengths interview at an organisation that has introduced strengths recruitment, and the feedback had left him confused and concerned.  Listening to the feedback this  person had received  it was clear that the interviewer had no true understanding of the strengths interview and no ability to listen and pick up on people’s strengths.  It is therefore highly unlikely that the organisation will continue to gain the rewards of higher performance and increased engagement whilst it doesn’t continue to ensure that managers are proprely trained and have natural strengths to carry out recruitment interviews.

    TO Nicky’s tips, I would add train and assess recruiting managers

    Sandra Betts

    HR Consultant

  6. Strengths based recruitment issues

    I have a few issues with strengths based recruitment. One is that it assumes that someone’s weakness is always going to be someone else’s strength, and this is not always the case. If you only interview and hire people based on what they are strongest at, there are bound to be areas that no one loves doing, or are particularly good at.

    Are we not also in danger of having employees that have a less well rounded set of skills, if we start recruiting by and then focusing only on their strengths? For example, I’m not a massive fan of maths, but I need to use it in my role, and I can’t just hide from the fact that it’s something I’m not good at and just not do it.

    It also seems to be sold as a ‘new’ idea, but there is nothing revolutionary about people performing better when they enjoy what they’re doing, or performing better in an interview when you ask them to tell you about projects that they’re proud of.  Furthermore, the way you build up a definition of a ‘strength’ is done in the same way that you build a definition of a competency, its just dressed differently.

    I look forward to hearing more about this method and what others think about it.


  7. Strength based recruitment

    I have to say I struggle with the idea that this approach to recruitment being advocated here, has provided the results quoted at the insurance company.  Could it be more accurate to suggest that when they identified the strengths of their top performers, they also sent a signal to those already on board that these things mattered?  We refer to that as recognition, identified over many years as one of the greatest motivators.  And in addition, could it be that they also focussed on identifying and  developing these strengths amongst those already on board?

    Which leads me back to what I believe is core to the success of all these ideas/suggestions/recommendations……….and that is to first build the environment in which people with the strengths required, can flourish.  You can hire the brightest and the most enthusiastic and most promising, but unless you have the right environment in place, they will oftentimes become more a hinderance because they are unable to go on and become brighter and more enthusiastic,  leading to an inability to deliver on the promise they bought to the job. 

    So while I am not in any way decrying this approach to recruitment………in fact I encourage it……I would like for the idea to be presented so that it is clear what must happen first in order to get the results being touted.  Too often good ideas are promoted as being on their own the answer to better business, when it truth they have to be promoted as part of a package.

    Cheers.  Don Rhodes.

  8. Strength based recruitment

    Pam, I know many people who have embraced the whole ‘Marcus Buckingham’ and ‘Strengths’ approach in their own lives.

    Interestingly, their approach to this has always appears to me to be development based rather than job-search based. I have never come across people looking to hack ‘Strengths’ in the same way as they work on hacking ‘Best interview answers’ or ‘Killer CV writing’.

    That’s not to say they wont of course!

  9. Strengths based recruitment

    Having come across CAPP and Marcus Buckingham some time ago, I have huge respect for their work. I largely agree with what Nicky was saying and, having worked with competency based assessment and selection for more than 20 years, I think it is high time for the emergence of something else which more closely responds to the GenY need to work with a company that reflects their values and to work in a role which plays to their strengths. Who could argue with this – its the holy grail of recruitment.

    However, I dothink that Nicky’s point about people becoming more practised at competency based selection, will also apply to strength based selection as it becomes more widely used.  Of course it is always more desirable for people to work in roles and within companies they love and enjoy and which play to their strengths, however, in reality, people want a job first and foremost and if they think they need to embellish their strengths to ensure they get a role in their ideal company (what they think is their ideal anyway), then possibly they will. Of course it could be the strengths based assessment process prevents this ’embellishment’ and it’s candidate proof – that would truly by the holy grail.

  10. Strengths

    A few years ago I read a trilogy by Marcus Buckingham:
    First, break all the rules.
    Now, discover your strengths.
    The one thing you need to know…

    This article builds on what is contained in these books and I can strongly commend these to you if you wish to harness the talents of your staff to the needs of the business; improving engagement, motivation and productivity. Google are another company successfully putting this into practice.

  11. Focus on Strengths in 2012

    I agree with Nicky’s position here.

    In fact, back in Dec 2011 I encouraged all our clients, contacts and friends to make 2012 the year they focus more specifically on their strengths than ever before.

    It would be interesting to know how recruiters are testing and evaluating strengths at application stage and throughout the recruitment process.

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