Character strengths

Character strengths

I am indebted for this article to Peter Kershaw, one of my Coaching friends and colleagues on our Coaching network who ran a brilliant session on using character strengths, and has allowed me to reproduce the background information:

Background to character strengths

Historically, most psychology research has been about studying what is wrong with us; what makes us ‘abnormal’. Positive Psychology focuses on what makes people be more than just free of ‘abnormalities’ but to actually thrive. This is an exciting area of psychology.

The founder is Martin Seligman. His research was based on many different, religions, cultures and philosophies throughout history and around the world. He discovered many commonalities. From this he found six core Virtues and from these we find twenty four character strengths that have been shown to help us thrive and be the best people we can.

Core Virtues

Courage : Character Strengths – Bravery, Perseverance, Honesty, Zest

Humanity : Character Strengths – Love, Kindness, Social Intelligence

Transcendence : Character Strengths – Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humour, Spirituality

Temperance : Character Strengths – Self Regulation, Prudence, Humility, Forgiveness

Justice: Character Strengths  – Leadership, Fairness, Teamwork,

Wisdom & Knowledge : Character Strengths  – Perspective, Love of Learning, Judgement, Curiosity, Creativity

When we use our strengths, we can achieve more and enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing. Rather than taking a Pollyanna view of life, Positive Psychology acknowledges that individuals and teams may have very serious difficulties. To overcome these difficulties utilising our character strengths can be a way of bringing about sustained and workable change as quickly as possible. Working with character strengths can help both individuals and teams both overcome difficulties and achieve aspirations.

Using the character strengths

The VIA questionnaire is a good place to start. There is both an adult and child version. You will need to register on the site to access the questionnaire by clicking here.

It takes around 20-25 minutes to complete and get your summary report, but well worth the investment of time.

If an individual has completed the VIA, it is tempting to then go straight to how those character strengths can be applied to what the client would like to achieve from coaching.

The recommended protocol is as follows:-

AWARE –  The individual needs to first of all be aware of what his or her top character strengths are. One would initially work with the top three to five strengths. How does they feel about the top strengths listed as a result of the survey? Sometimes a client will be pleased.  Other times, they might feel that other strengths should be up there. Sometimes, there will be a sense of ‘Strengths blindness’

One might suggest to the client that colleagues or friends pick from the 24 character strengths ones that they notice most. This might form part of a 360 feedback within a team.

EXPLORE – At this stage, one can see where the client or team is currently using the strengths. If the client thinks of examples, then one might ask them to think of a time that they were at their best. From there, one can see how the strengths are currently being used.

APPLY –  How can one or more of the top character strengths be used to either address an issue or move the person closer to their goal? How can a character strength be used in a new way?

Character strengths can be overused as well as under used. For example Curiosity can turn into nosiness.

Gratitude is one of the most powerful strengths to work with.

Character strengths most associated with CEOs are love of learning and curiosity.

Mindfulness of Character Strengths

When working with an individual or team, one can blend mindfulness with Character Strengths. You might already encouraging clients to be mindful in their actions and speech. in addition, one can encourage a client to be mindful of which strengths are being used in a given situation.

A client may ask him or herself ‘which strengths am I using now?  Alternatively, ‘which character strength could I use in this situation?’

It might be helpful for a client to set their ‘phone to ping say every hour. This serves as a reminder to the client to notice which strength they are using in that particular moment. Over a period of time a pattern will be seen.

In addition, it can be really helpful to encourage individuals to spot and appreciate character strengths in others. This might help with conflict resolution or team building.

If everybody on a team completed the VIA, then one might discover enough commonalities to establish team strengths.  This could be used a tool to develop purpose, meaning and direction for the whole team. This approach might lead to more intrinsic motivation than simply imposing the organisation’s own prescribed set of values. At the same time, the team’s values and strengths can (hopefully) sit comfortably with the company values.

Example of using character strengths to achieve a goal:-

  • Envision one goal you would like to attain. Use your hope strength to envision something that links with your interests and values. (Intrinsic motivation)
  • Make the goal SMART. Use your prudence strength to plan it out thoroughly across these five elements.
  • Weave in character strengths seamlessly. How will your signature strengths serve as a means to help you achieve your goal? Might other character strengths support you as pathways to your goal as well?
  • Begin to take action towards your goal. How will perseverance support you in overcoming obstacles and staying focused on your goal ahead?
  •  Enlist support. Might you include family, friends, colleagues to maintain your goal progress? This could involve deploying your strengths of teamwork, curiosity and love.



Autobiography approach

The Autobiography approach

Asking someone starting work in Coaching to take you through their background is an important part of an initial session. It establishes rapport and interest in the whole person, not just the work person. The “whole” person has evolved from life experience, so for both the client and the Coach, telling and hearing the life story is one way to begin to understand the client’s world

At the end of the article are a couple of tools; an “autobiography” tool to help individuals shape their own approach, and an alternative “Life chapters” exercise, both of which can be helpfully used. 

Typically, this approach has a reflective element to learn from whats happened in people’s history, where they are now, and then a forward looking element to shape the future. This may not be spelt out in detail, but maybe an overall direction of travel.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates at his trial for heresy

Why do it?

There are a number of compelling reasons for doing it:

  • For all of us relationships with authority figures and peers at least to some extent evolved from our relationships with our parents and mentor figures such as Teachers. This is a key aspect of relationships at work: it will have a fundamental effect on approaches to leadership and to being a follower. You need to have some glimmering of understanding about this as the client sees it
  • What someone emphasises and what they leave out is always interesting and relevant to their view of themselves
  • Most people have never told a complete life story to anyone previously and most enjoy the experience

Whats interesting about this exercise is that it challenges some of the basic principles about what Coaching is and isn’t; some see an increasingly “fuzzy” boundary between Coaching with its focus on the immediate and future, along with goal orientation, and counselling with a focus on people being temporarily unresourceful, and depending on the framework used, an emphasis on the past.

A working example

I thought it might be useful to give excerpts of my autobiography as an illustration of the approach, and the fusion of upbringing, work and social strands of people’s personality:

The healthy strands

From my early years, we learnt from our parents the ethics of discipline, aspiration to do better, and hard graft. It at times occurs to me as a lovely metaphor: we had middle class values as a varnish on a working class chassis, as there was little to share with 5 kids. My father was a Head teacher and my mother was a Nurse, and inculcated in us the value of education, working hard, and staying interested in world events . However, I think it was my Dad who should have got the “O” level Mathematics certificate I scraped through second time rather than me!

We had some important external people in our lives that provided some parenting and stability. People like Leslie Ellis, a family friend and larger than life character, took an interest in us as kids, and their house by the beach provided a safe haven to learn table tennis, and eat lots of food. Doff Wild, or “Auntie Doff” as we called her was no relation, but a dry and astute woman who liked the family, and over the years we became intertwined with her kids. Her son Clive was several years older than me, but looked after me from time to time with care, thoughtfulness and presents. I met him at my Father’s funeral last year and thanked him for his support as I was growing up.

Because of the family approach and what our parents had grown up with, we all worked from an early age in part time jobs. I “worked” in the garden from 10 for the whole summer to earn enough money to buy my first music player; a Grundig radio tape deck, which was my pride and joy. I worked on a fish farm (courtesy of Clive) from 12, in a butchers, in a big ex army and camping stores shop in Douglas in the Isle of Man, where the old owner took a shine to me, and mentored me through selling, shop displays and working with people. When I reflect, I learnt so much from my Saturdays and holiday work there about getting along with people and understanding their needs.

I learnt some early independence, perhaps through the isolation of my family position as a middle child with older brother and sister close in age and younger twin brothers, and think it partially explains why I operate best on the fringe of groups; I’m OK with this position though, at least now at this stage of my life. I have a strong sense of integrity and justice about what’s right and wrong; some some from the values of my Mum and Dad’s work. They also instilled in us ethics around working in the public sector, right and wrong through religion, working hard and grafting to make ends meet, and the pure and unadulterated joy of music, even if learnt through gritted teeth on piano scales and arpeggios!

Career Development

I talked to someone recently who I have worked with for a while, who has spent 35 years of their working life at Sainsbury’s, and took me back to the early 1980s. I started there as a raw and green Graduate Trainee after University, and whilst its wasn’t for me as a company, I learnt about organisation skills, managing people, and forecasting amongst other things. So much so that the next 2 years I spent traveling around the world, working in USA, New Zealand and Australia! I came back and had project management and marketing roles for British Telecom and Allied Dunbar, and then towards the end of my twenties, went into working both in the voluntary sector, and then the NHS. Genuinely, its what I would call an emergent approach, knowing that I liked working with people in an advisory role, but unsure where best these skills could be utilised. I also had a spell teaching in Further and Higher Education.

After the hopping around in my twenties, my thirties brought some more focus, working in health promotion in the NHS at national and local level for  a few years, until I joined what was affectionately called a “Training and Enterprise Council” (TECs as they were known) to support all sorts of organisations through a national HR standard of good practice. I did this for the best part of 7 years as an Executive, Manager and ultimately Operations Director, and on reflection its when things clicked for me, and I really found what I wanted to do; I think of it as my apprenticeship to freelance work.

I have now been running Crowe Associates with Sally for 11 years, and truly love what i do, a mixture of coaching and mentoring, group facilitation and project management in the area of people development. It’s not been a smooth journey and absolutely not incremental and linear, but I value the fact that I didn’t get stuck doing something that passed the time and paid the bills; work has always been a vocation for me, something  need to be passionate about.

The next few years

Handling anxiety is really important, and I think that the work I have been doing in resilience in the last few years with public sector organisations is interesting to apply to my own practice. It’s one of the huge challenges of our world today, as a society and for us as individuals. Perhaps we know that the rise of complementary medicine and the huge increase in anti anxiety medication like depression drugs is a backdrop to today’s world, but we need to find both collective and individual strategies for coping. Mine is to slow down, do a bit less, reflect a bit more through meditation, and face tough challenges head on. Its early days on the ratcheting back, but in a strange way the economic recession has helped me slow down as my Father in law would have said “to a gallop”; a canter or a trot would be even better..!

Its illuminating to reflect that I have inhabited a structured work life over many years, helping organisations plan the future, putting in place strategic and human resources plans and performance management systems, but in the last few years I have moved into much more fluid ways of working looking at personal development, coaching, and working with groups looking at group dynamics . I’m reminded of the Papua New Guinea saying: “knowledge is only rumour until it becomes part of the muscles”. I have moved away from strict planning (not entirely as it has some usefulness) and embrace much more the interlinking of intuition and reflection with a modicum of planning, rather than planning being in the driving seat. I know from my approach to fitness that you can have all the plans in the world, but they fall without the intuition to understand and self reflect, and deal with inbuilt “recidivism” of having several goes at making changes. The future in terms of work will be about 1-1 coaching, training as a psychotherapist over the next 4 years, and continuing partnership work where I have a integral connection to people working on a project over a period of time

In broad canvas terms, I would like to access other parts of my life more as well as family and work. I love music, and have played guitar and piano intermittently over the years, but not been able to give it the time and attention I would really like. Recently, I started piano lessons after a 42 year gap and am excited!

Maintaining existing and developing a few new “human connections” is really important; as I recognise the importance of inter connectedness. I don’t need lots; a few are fine. I have a handful of really close friends, and still periodically excited when I come across like minded people I can get to know better.

All in all, I think I would like to continue to become more and more comfortable in my skin, look after my body and soul, love the people around me, and increasingly have some adventures by doing some travelling again (like the world trip I did in my twenties) or even work abroad again for a short time.


Someone quoted to me recently: “make us know the shortness of our lives, that we may gain wisdom of the heart”.  Understanding your back story and making some sense of it I think is crucial to where you have got to, and where you are going in the future. I grew up in a context of staying busy, working hard, achieving and it’s taken me years to recognise the habit of “gerbil wheeling” as a way of life.

Understanding what works for you and what makes you tick in reflecting on your autobiography to date is important. For me it’s a learning that listening to my intuition as well as my intellect is the way to go: I like the idea from the Little Prince book that “what is important to the heart is invisible to the eye”.

I like the life I lead, I’m excited about the future, and learning to enjoy and really appreciate the sense of growth and learning that is part of me, and the way that I work.



Job search approaches

Did you know that if you hit Google with job search tips, you will get about 150,000 responses! (perhaps if you are reading this, you did). Landing the job you really want as the next step is often challenging whether you are a new graduate or someone with many year’s experience.  It’s worth bearing in mind a few principles when you are starting the search, even if some you already know and a bit obvious, worthy of reiterating.

The other element of job search is to reflect on both the practical and psychological elements of the search. The practical ones are indeed important; a job search strategy, networking, signing up to sites and the like. However, the psychological elements of a job search are just as important; how do you keep your resilience and confidence when you have another rejection from an interview, or not even been shortlisted for the job you were really passionate about?

  1. Creating a Job Search Plan

Obvious in a way; when you are planning something new, you create some sort of project plan? I don’t know that that many people actually sit down and plan a JOB SEARCH PLAN opting instead for using a ‘shotgun’ approach that involves blasting CVs and job applications to any job title that sounds appealing and hope something hits the mark. Instead, research the types of careers that fit the transferrable skills that make up your key skills as an individual.If you prefer a more shorthand, visual version of a job search plan on one page, try this Job search plan VISUAL

Getting a job offer is a mix of hard power strengths (i.e., degrees, internships, and skills) and soft power ability (i.e., networking, personal branding, and communications agility). You can’t focus on one and neglect the other.

This simple Job search template is designed to get you started on the “job search road”, using a mixture of coordinating any work you have done to date on Career review exercises, along with creating a structured approach to looking for a new job. Add any elements that you find helpful.

  1. Update and tailor your CV

Sending a tailored covering letter is a well-known job hunting tip, but are you doing this with your CV? Relevance is crucial when applying for any job. Your CV is most likely targeted towards one profession or industry, but no two jobs will be exactly the same.

Whenever you apply for a role, take a few minutes to check your CV against the job advert and look for any potential improvements you can make. For example, if you are hiding a crucial qualification at the bottom of your CV, move it to the top and make it prominent. Tailoring your CV for every application may take a little more effort, but it’s better use of time than making 10 generic applications that may not attract the attention you need (more CV tips here)

  1. Keep your resilience

You could be in for a wait, and have to hunker down (a recent example was someone who took 9 months to get a job in the sector she wanted to work in after many applications). In today’s jobs market, employers have plenty of candidates to choose from and they often receive hundreds of applications per vacancy. So the odds of applying for just one job and securing it are slim to none. Applying for several jobs at once, and getting your CV in front of as many hiring managers as possible, will maximise your chances. You still need to be selective about the roles you apply for, but scout out as many suitable opportunities as you can. Set a daily or weekly application target, track the vacancies, and make timely follow-ups. Find ways of holding onto your resilience, whether that be through support from trusted friends, mindfulness or regular exercise.

  1. Focus on Networking

If you’re spending hours cruising job boards and filling out endless online applications, think about varying things. Get out from behind the computer and go network. It depends on what statistics you look at, but it is claimed that around 70 percent of jobs are obtained through networking; whilst this might be an exaggeration it’s fair to say don’t underestimate the power of networking.

Online job applications work best if you have a near perfect match to key words in the job listing, but this might not always be the case. As well as job applications, focus on networking and marketing activities that can help flush out hidden gems that are rarely publically advertised. Plus, networking shows you have initiative and drive.

  1. Using Technology Wisely

Technology has certainly made our lives easier. Mobile apps are available to aid in job searches, and social media platforms are also helpful for making connections. The most obvious business networking site is Linked in. Still, technology is only as good as the person using it, so you’ll need to spend time keeping your social media profiles updated with current experience and connections. And set a goal to make at least five new connections every week during your job search.

Comprehensive job sites and networks such as MonsterLinkedInGlassdoor and, yes, even Craigslist can be invaluable resources for jobseekers — but the competition for listings posted on these sites can be downright overwhelming. If you’re looking for a job in a specific industry, consider researching job boards that focus on a particular niche.

  1. Speculative approaches

Sometimes called the “speculative approach”, this involves proactively making contact with companies to offer your services.  The success of this approach depends on the following factors:

  • Targeting companies that are likely to require someone with your specific skills and expertise
  • Writing a persuasive letter and CV that matches a particular need they have at that time
  • Understanding the employer’s needs and being flexible enough to think on the spot about how you can help meet those challenges
  • Ideally having a contact whose name you can use as an introduction into the company

How do you decide which companies to target?

  • Other people may have good suggestions so use your connections
  • Choose companies where you know they could genuinely do with your skills e.g. an underperforming company that needs your business development expertise
  • Companies selling similar products or services or in an associated industry
  • Suppliers, customers, or partners of your current or previous employers
  • Those which have recruited colleagues or bosses from your organisation
  • Scan the local and trade press for company news such as new contracts won, relocations, consolidations, senior management changes. These changes could mean new staff requirements
  • Organisations for whom you are genuinely interested in working
  • Smaller or less well-known organisations in the relevant field who typically receive fewer approaches from job-seekers than more high-profile companies

Useful sites:

Career Development

Career Development

“Our greatest vulnerability is the very door through which we must pass in order to open the next horizon of our lives” (unknown)

I have observed in managing a Coaching Pool over the last few years where trained Coaches are working with clients inside organisations, career development is by far the most popular area that clients want to work on. Career development may not be about a clear path, more money, new title, or the boss’s job. It may be new challenges, flexibility, or skill development. Many people don’t take the time out to really think about their work, until there is a crisis like redundancy or a re-structure, or they just bob along in their current roles, not thinking about whether there is anything out there they might really love doing.

Reviewing your career to date is important for the reflection it brings, and the emphasis for career planning these days is much more on individuals than Employers doing it for them. In a major career survey a few years back with hundreds of interviews across Executives and professionals from over 30 countries, most employees understand that they, not their employers, need to control their careers. 57% of respondents overall don’t expect their employer to provide a clear career path, and that sentiment increases with age. Immediate career plans are up in the air. Less than half of respondents in the survey indicated that they knew what they want their next job to be, and only 23% knew what their employer wants their next job to be. Opportunities with current employers aren’t promising, as only one in two respondents believed they have decent career opportunities with their current employer. Over a third expect their next career move will take them elsewhere; this is especially true in the pandemic over the last 2 years, where people are increasingly asking questions about their work life.

This section looks at areas such as why people do what they do, approaches to thinking about what your key strengths and values underpinning your career choices are, along with more practical aspects like CVs and interview skills


Please select the resources you are interested in from the menu on the right-hand side.

Career Review Coaching Tools

Career Review Coaching Tools

Whether people have many years of experience or are unsure of their career direction, different career assessment tools can help them gain a better understanding of themselves, expand career options, find a good match with employers, and identify strengths for the ever shifting workplace.

Also see Career change article for further background on career change and the practicals of creating CVs and good interview practice.

The “Career Drivers Assessment”

The Career Drivers Assessment asks individuals to respond to a series of questions around the “drivers” for their career, looking at areas like material rewards, meaning, creativity and affiliation

Career Anchors approach

A “Career Anchor” is a combination of perceived areas of competence, motives, and values relating to professional work choices, developed by Edgar Schein. To help people avoid these problems, Career Anchors help people uncover their real values and use them to make better career choices and includes reviewing their talents, values and attitudes.

Career Coaching Tool

The Career coaching tool can be used to explore how an individual’s interests align with their skill set.

Ideal “Job description”

The IDEAL JOB DESCRIPTION exercise inverts the normal way of matching individuals to jobs advertised, and instead asks to identify the key characteristics or attributes that they want to see in a future role for themselves.based on their current transferable skills and attributes they want to see in a future role in terms of areas like working in a team, autonomy, creativity as well as practical considerations of salary and travel.

Mind Tools Personal Development Plan workbook

The Mind Tools Career Personal Development Planning  workbook is a comprehensive workbook covering sections on; understanding yourself, defining your career objectives, and the creation of a personal development plan.