Play to Your Strengths

Markus Buckingham explains how to live a strength-based life.
August 26, 2008

Early in his life, Marcus Buckingham was fortunate to discover one of his strengths—that he is energized by people who are good at what they do. He developed that strength into a career, during the course of which he has interviewed tens of thousands of successful people. His interviews have led him to write books that have sold millions, to speak before untold numbers of people and to share the stage with dignitaries, visionaries and world leaders. He now works through his company to help others discover and develop their unique strengths and abilities.

Feeling a bit anxious, the 12-year-old boy took his place in front of the audience. Students at his school in England participated in the daily assembly programs and, like some cruel joke, he was picked to read a passage. Looking around, he saw a multitude of eyes—all focused on him. As he opened his mouth to speak, a curious thing happened. His words flowed perfectly, and he completed his reading flawlessly. Never before had Marcus Buckingham been able to communicate well. Since he’d learned to speak, he stammered so badly that people could hardly understand him. He endured psychologists and therapists but, while he knew much about what was wrong, not until that day in the assembly did he have a clue how to fix it.

“I realized right at that moment an odd thing,” Buckingham says. “I’m strengthened by having eyes on me, and the more eyes the better.” While many people tend to close up when speaking in public, he discovered just the opposite was true for him. His mind seemed to work better and faster when many eyes were upon him. So he began to pretend. When he was talking to one person, he would pretend that he was in front of 10,000. And after several months, the stammer went away.

Buckingham’s discovery at 12, that he could use something that strengthened him to navigate around a weakness, marked the rudimentary beginning of his life’s work. Although it would take him a number of years to articulate his philosophy and several career moves to fully develop and refine his message, his success in conquering his stammer by using a deliberate mind game served as his first stepping stone. “Now I speak for a living!” he says. “How ridiculous is that?”

Buckingham’s father and grandfather worked in human resources, and both helped nurture his interest. His father worked for Allied Breweries, which owned 7,000 pubs at the time. His father’s quest for ways to select better pub managers led him to an American company, the Gallup Organization, in 1983.

Marcus was intrigued by Gallup’s work in designing interviews to identify the best job candidates and in tracking their performances after they were hired. When his father suggested he spend time in America to get a little real-world experience before attending college, he welcomed the opportunity. So at 16, he arrived in Lincoln, Neb., and worked with Gallup for several years before returning to England to earn a master’s degree in social and political science at Cambridge University.

Exploring his interests at Gallup helped Buckingham hit upon his natural inclinations. He knew his work there would enable him to study people who were good in their roles, whether they were housekeepers or superstar basketball players, and he found this study of excellence appealing.

Buckingham’s work at Gallup involved interviewing tens of thousands of people, many of them managers. The exceptional ones, it seemed, weren’t doing any of the things the business books taught. So telling were his findings that he coauthored a book titled, First, Break All the Rules. The success of the book led to a number of speaking engagements and, of course, other books—Now, Discover Your Strengths; The One Thing You Need to Know; and Go Put Your Strengths to Work. Buckingham left Gallup upon the death of his mentor, Don Clifton, and formed The Marcus Buckingham Company. He now lives in Los Angeles, designing educational materials to help individuals express the best of themselves at work and at home. He consults primarily with companies doing training and development.

Recently, Buckingham has focused on helping women and young people, and he worked with Oprah Winfrey in presenting a workshop for women. His step-by-step lessons are now available at Oprah’s Web site.

For young people, his interactive book and tool kit, The Truth About You, will soon be available. “I want to start with graduates and help them identify and take control of their strengths early in life,” he says, “and then make the right moves so they can thrive in their role their entire careers.” For, as Marcus Buckingham well knows, the earlier in life that you begin playing to your strengths, the more opportunity you’ll have to develop and enjoy your unique abilities.

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