Creating a Positive Work Environment at Georgia Tech: Strengths-Based Team

Strengths-Based team

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This is Part Two of a three-part series on well-being. Caroline Dotts, the associate director for healthy lifestyle programs at Georgia Tech’s Campus Recreation Complex, shares on the way Georgia Tech’s Campus Rec (the CRC) is using CliftonStrengths to create a positive work environment. The series is meant for those that might be interested in doing something similar at their own schools to see how Georgia Tech accomplished it. 

The CliftonStrengths assessment is a tool that has helped both students and professional staff at Georgia Tech.

It’s allowed them to discover their individual strengths, articulate who they are and how they operate, and work effectively in team settings. The campus recreation department has worked over the past four years to integrate theories and best practices of the CliftonStrengths approach into their work environment, which has led to a thriving, caring and successful team.

By giving our professional staff – and the students they lead – a universal, positive language to use, we have created a deeper awareness of ourselves, more meaningful connections to one another and increased engagement to our teams. This strengths-based approach is redefining communication on Georgia Tech’s campus in a positive and intentional way.

CliftonStrengths at Georgia Tech

The Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Complex (CRC) is situated in the heart of midtown Atlanta. It is home to 24 professional staff members, over 350 student employees and an average of 3,500 daily visitors. And even though it may not be noticeable from the outside, the student and professional staff all have one thing in common: we all have taken the CliftonStrengths assessment.

While not everyone can name their Top 5 from memory, those that can are the vast majority. This strengths-based language has been infused in our regular team meetings, in-service trainings, team activities, department goals and objectives, and even our annual performance evaluations. The impact of this approach deepens every semester, sparking self-reflections, rich conversations and heightened engagement from our newest student employee to our senior director.

To understand how we got here, we have to go back a few years. In 2015, the CRC had gone through some major staff changes – roughly one-third of our professional staff were brand new. We decided to hold a fall retreat – the first in several years – to reset and reorient. We centered our retreat on “then to now” and each area gave presentations on how the past several years had shaped “today.” At this retreat, we also re-evaluated our mission, vision and values, and constructed a new culture statement we all signed. It’s still hanging in our conference room as a reminder to the type of work environment we all pledged to create.

But We were Still Missing Something

In 2016, we began to explore ways to take things a step further. A few of the newer staff members had taken the CliftonStrengths assessment at other institutions, so we decided to take it as a team – with the caveat from our senior director, Michael Edwards, that we had to do more than just take the assessment.

The pursuit to “do something more” led us to a faculty member who also happened to be a volunteer chaperone for some of our outdoor expeditions. The idea to hold a two-day, strengths-based retreat was proposed. Dr. Mary Lynn Realff, a Gallup-certified strengths coach, met with the leadership team to develop team-building activities and strategies for deploying strengths in our department. Our focus was mainly on the Top 5 strengths we, as individuals, were bringing to the department, and the activities centered around getting to know our team on a deeper level. It was a great start, but we all recognized that taking the assessment and having a retreat to interpret the results was also the point where most stopped. Michael challenged our staff with, “What’s next?” It turned out to be a great challenge.

We began to brainstorm ways to deepen our understanding of our own strengths and also involve our student employees. As one of the largest employers on campus, we wanted to have conversations with our teams about their strengths and contributions to the department, as well as give our students a powerful tool in their professional development toolbox. We decided the best way to do this was through our yearly team experience training, where we shut down the CRC for one night and bring everyone together for department-wide training.

A Strengths-Based Team Experience

Our first strengths-based team experience was held in the fall of 2017 and was 100 percent strengths. All of our activities, debriefs and speakers focused solely on understanding our individual Top 5 strengths and how we contribute to our teams at the CRC. It was meaningful, but we didn’t balance our time with any CRC-related trainings – like critical procedures and protocols – that we usually went over at this once-a-year meeting. The deviation from the norm meant we saw a lot of engagement and enthusiasm from our students, but also meant we lacked some of the essential messages and trainings that are crucial to this all-staff training.

Around the same time as our team experience, we made the commitment to establish a certified strengths coach on staff – me. Dr. Realff had a grant that covered half of the cost, and the CRC committed the balance of funding for me to attend Gallup’s coaching certification course, offered just a few miles from campus. We have since added one more coach to our staff – our current assistant director for member services and student/staff development – and have plans to add at least one more in the near future.

After the addition of a Gallup-certified strengths coach on our team, the infusion of strengths grew. At the start of 2018, we completely changed our professional bi-weekly team meetings to incorporate strengths activities and reflections. We added strengths-based language to our department goals and objectives, and we also added strengths-based reflections in our annual performance evaluations. Part Three of this three-part series will detail how we did that, as well as provide examples on how to get started in your department.

Let’s Talk Cost

It’s important to take a moment here to acknowledge the financial commitment we made to this endeavor. The Top 5 assessment costs $11.99 per code (1) with Gallup’s educational discount. The coaching certification runs $3,750 – although the CRC only had to pay half of this due to Dr. Realff’s grant. To unlock the entire 34 theme report, it’s another $49.99 per person (2) – we have only done this for our professional staff to date. The sticker shock to have all of our students take the assessment in 2017 was real: we invested nearly $4,200 plus the $1,875 coaching cost to make this happen. That’s over $6,000.

However, one way to look at this cost is to think about the assessment code as an additional hour of training. Perhaps instead of a four-hour training, you offer a three-hour training plus the CliftonStrengths assessment code. At the CRC, our average student wage is $10.25 per hour; we looked at the assessment codes as an investment of time and resources into our student employees much like an additional hour of training would provide. Now that the strengths assessment is part of our on-boarding process, our managers approach the assessment code cost as they would look at any other training cost where they need to pay their employees to work. In other words, our managers now account for this additional “hour” of training when they prepare their budgets.

How the Strengths Language Became Commonplace

By the fall of 2018, three years after our first introduction to strengths, something amazing started to happen: we began to effortlessly use the strengths language everywhere and without further explanation needed. Our second attempt at a strengths-based student team experience seamlessly wove strengths language into our team-building activities andour critical department-wide messaging. In our team meetings, our reflection activities that were once solely focused on ourselves slowly began shifting to our teammates. We began actively pointing out when we saw others’ strengths in action, using their Top 5 strengths as words to describe them by and not needing to further explain what we meant.

At the CRC, we began using the language of strengths in a clear, understandable way. We began showing up to meetings and trainings with the confidence to tackle tough issues together, knowing our points of view would at least be heard and, at best, valued for the diversity our unique strengths brought to the conversation. Our annual performance evaluations effortlessly used strengths-based language in our comments. In short, we felt more comfortable working as a team because we were able to actually understand our teammates.

What’s Next?

In some ways, many might think our team has “arrived” at the top of a great summit. But our CRC team knows that reaching this summit just gives us a clearer view of the summits in the distance that we want to climb.

This year, we will dive deeper into the awareness of strengths in each other and in our students. We will collect more data points on how this strengths language is working in our student in-service meetings and our bi-weekly team meetings. Also, we will take a deeper dive into our 34 theme report as a team. We will work with other departments on campus to deepen their understanding of strengths and help them use the assessment as a tool for promoting connectedness, engagement and understanding in their own areas. Our programs and services will be infused with this strengths-based language so that everyone will know that we are a strengths-based department.

The CRC has seen the powerful change that a positive, universal language can have on our team and those we manage. We invite you to join us on our quest to continually ask, and answer, this important question: “What’s right with people?”

 

Caroline Dotts currently serves as the associate director for healthy lifestyle programs at Georgia Tech’s Campus Recreation Complex. Caroline holds two degrees from Belmont University. These include a bachelor’s degree in exercise science (‘07) and a master’s degree in sport administration (‘09). She has held positions in fitness and wellness at Cleveland State University, Georgia State University, and Georgia Tech. Caroline is a Gallup-certified strengths coach and leads with her top 5 strengths Positivity, Woo, Communication, Includer, and Activator.

References:

1 – Top 5 Assessment Code Price and Description:https://www.strengthsquest.com/234665/default.aspx?g_source=link_sq3&g_campaign=item_243761&g_medium=copy

2 – Full 34 Assessment Code Price and Description:https://www.strengthsquest.com/237851/default.aspx?g_source=link_sq3&g_campaign=item_243761&g_medium=copy

Heather Hartmann
Heather Hartmann is the editor for Campus Rec Magazine. She can be reached at heather@peakemedia.com.

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