Why Gardening Is A Great Metaphor For Working With Strengths

pathway between tomato fruits

One summer morning, as I sat outside with my coffee admiring the flowers in my garden, I realised that gardening is a great metaphor for working with strengths. 

There are so many different elements to consider as you plan and care for your garden. And the way you understand and work with each element contributes to the outcome you get. When you line up enough elements in the right combination, you get a flourishing garden. Get enough of them wrong, and there will be a gap between your expectations and your results (and a temptation to blame the plants, soil, or anything other than the gardener!)

How my garden taught me about working with strengths

Right now, in the hottest part of summer, I have a sweet flowerbed full of different types of plants, bearing a multitude of shapes and colours in their flowers. It is always full of bees, brings me a great deal of joy, and is often remarked upon by people walking on the nearby public pathway.

It needs regular watering to keep the blooms looking good, as we’re having a sunny, windy season (thanks, La Niña weather event!). And beyond the initial planting and the ongoing watering, I also have to pop in regularly to remove weeds, add fertiliser, and occasionally pinch out or chop back a plant that’s running rampant. 

And this garden is so much more pleasing than my spring garden, even though they have both been planted in the same flowerbed. 

In winter last year, I got rather enthusiastic and planted hundreds of flower bulbs in a small area. My vision was for a profusion of different blossoms, flowering from late winter to early summer. My results were terrible! Barely anything bloomed, and what did was mostly a single type.

At first, I assumed that there was something wrong with the bulbs I’d planted. I decided to find a different supplier for next year’s bulbs. Then I figured that the soil was poor, so I made a note to get more fertiliser next year.

But one day, it dawned on me that I’d over-crowded the garden, so that the early bloomers sprang up and shaded the ground around them. That meant that the soil temperature didn’t get to the right level for many of the later bloomers to get going. My expectations had not become a reality because of what I had done – not anything inherently wrong with the garden or plants.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that working with strengths is a lot like tending a garden – you don’t have to get everything right, but once you understand the basic elements and get enough of them right, you’ll be richly rewarded.

The seven elements of gardening and working with strengths

The seven elements of gardening and working with strengths are:

  1. environment 
  2. what you’re growing 
  3. process 
  4. room for growth 
  5. support 
  6. natural limits 
  7. the gardener

I’ll cover each element below – feel free to pause as you read through and spend some time reflecting on (or even better, writing down) which one or two areas would make the biggest difference for you right now, and one or two key actions you will take in each area.

1. Environment

The first consideration when planning a garden is to understand the environment in which it is located. This includes things like soil type and quality, the climate (including temperature, rainfall, direction and strength of the prevailing winds etc), the aspect (slope, orientation to the sun etc), the types and quantities of common insects, the amount of sun and shade the garden receives. You’re looking for any factors that are outside the gardener’s direct control. Of course, there are actions you can take to reduce the impact of environmental factors, but first, you need to know what they are.

The same goes for working with strengths. Take stock of the environment – is it likely to be supportive of or hostile to your attempts to use your strengths? What “winds” might you face in terms of organisational culture, systems, and processes? What “pests” might you have to guard against (such as naysayers, incompatible goals, perverse incentives etc)? Is the situation in which you are trying to grow likely to help or hinder your efforts?

2. What you’re growing

Once you understand the environment you’re working with, you can start thinking about what you will grow. There are some environment/plant combinations that will never work. You don’t see cactii in a rainforest, and willows don’t grow in the middle of the desert.

Beyond these completely incompatible combinations, you’ve got a huge amount of choice available. But you need to understand what each plant type needs in order to flourish – because that will determine how much ongoing effort you need to put in. 

And you also need to be clear on the outcomes you want. If you want something that’s beautiful to look at, you’ll probably choose flowers and ornamental shrubs and trees over a vegetable garden. But if you want to fill your belly, even the most beautiful rose won’t give you what you want.

Then there are companion plants – things you plant together that strengthen each other, and increase your output without adding any more inputs. 

And when you’re working with strengths, the same principles apply. Make sure that the strengths you want to grow are compatible with your environment. If you’re looking to boost your leadership and influencing strengths, but work in a sole-charge, transactional role, you may need to look for growth opportunities outside the workplace. Think about the outcomes you want, and pick the strengths most likely to lead to those outcomes. And look for strengths you can combine (companion planting) that will be mutually beneficial.

3. Process

Now that you understand the environment, and have selected plants that can succeed in that environment, it’s time to focus on your process. This includes preparing, planting, and tending your garden.

What does the soil need to best nourish what you’ll be planting? There’s a pretty realistic metaphor here about manure helping things grow – not everything is sunshine and roses, as the saying goes! You also need to dig the soil over – bringing in more oxygen, and helping all the goodies in the soil (worms & microbes) get to where they need to be. 

Now, consider when you’ll be planting – both the season and the time of day. If you want daffodils in spring, you need to plant the bulbs in late summer or early winter – it’s too late by the time spring rolls around. If you want strawberries for Christmas, you’ll be planting in spring. You’ll always be putting the work in well in advance of when you want to reap your harvest.

And if you want your summer-flowering seedlings to survive, plant them in the morning or evening and water them well – planting in the middle of the day with no water, and you’ll have cooked seedlings within a few hours. You also need to protect your new-growing plants, whether from animals that will nibble, or environmental factors like wind, rain or sun. As the plants grow, they’ll get more robust, but in the early stages, you’ll need to give them a little extra protection.

Now, applying this to working with strengths: prepare the “soil” that you are in by talking to the people around you to break up the ground. Tell your boss that you want to develop your leadership strengths, and ask them how you can help them in their leadership. But make sure you pick a good time – right before they are wrapping up a major project means your request might fall flat, but right before they start a major project gives you a great chance to lend a hand. 

And pick the right people to talk to – some people seem to get a great deal of pleasure out of making life hard for others – they are not your people! Instead, look for those who have protected, supported, and nurtured the dreams and goals of others (and while you’re at it, make sure you’re one of these types of people too!)

4. Room for growth

When you’re planting out, think about the likely dimensions of the plant when it is mature. How tall and wide the plant will it grow? This is important because, as I learned, if you plant too close together, none of the plants can fulfil their potential, because they hold each other back.

Pay special attention to the amount of root area the plant will need. When a plant gets rootbound, its growth is limited because it doesn’t get enough of what it needs to continue growing. And it’s also susceptible to strong winds, because it doesn’t have enough of a hold in the ground.

A photograph of different size and colour plant bulbs

The application to working with strengths is around considering how extensive you think your strength will be compared to where you are now. If you want to develop your writing strength, but your role is 95% customer-facing, you’re likely to become “rootbound” with your writing. You need to find a way to create more space for your writing – perhaps in your leisure time?

And if you pick two tightly-linked strengths to work on, you may end up limiting both strengths. Sometimes it’s better to pick two very different strengths, because they will grow in different ways. This is like planting bulbs under a tree – both types of plant can grow strongly, because they aren’t competing for sunlight.

5. Support

It’s not enough to plant the right things in a suitable environment and walk away. Many plants need some kind of support to grow to their full potential. That could mean stakes or trellis to grow up, netting or snail bait to protect the fruit/vegetable from marauding pests, shade cloth and/or mulch to keep the leaves and roots cool, and ongoing fertilising and watering to nourish growth.

What kind of support do you need working with your strengths? A mentor in the organisation can provide structure and shade by sponsoring you and providing opportunities to apply your strengths. A coach can show you where pests could trip you up and how to defend against them, as well as remind you of the need to regularly replenish yourself. An accountability buddy can push you to put your ideas into action and help you review your results.

6. Natural limits

Not everything grows forever – neither plants nor people. Some plants are simply for a season, others are perennial (regrowing each year).

Some are deciduous – they lose all evidence of life, but when their preferred conditions return, they come back with a vengeance.

Some are evergreen – but even they have a quiet season where they pause growth, and even they lose leaves and sometimes limbs.

Nothing is ever lost in nature – when a plant, leaf, or limb dies, it returns to the ground and eventually nourishes new growth.

So it is when working with strengths. Some of your strengths will be evergreen – always present, but not always to the same extent. Some will be deciduous – they will come and go as situations and life stages dictate. And some will be a one-time deal – something that springs up when you least expect it, then die away once that season passes – rarely, if ever, to be seen again.

Trying to make a deciduous strength evergreen, or vice versa, is a recipe for disaster. You are pushing back against the very nature of the thing! It’s better to respect the natural limits of your strength and give it what it needs to flourish at the right time, than try to turn it into something it isn’t.

7. The gardener

Up to this point, we’ve been talking about the garden without considering the gardener. And yet the gardener is a vital element in the garden – and each gardener brings something unique to each garden.

The main characteristics of successful gardeners that I’ve observed (I come from a long line of green-thumbed women!) are:

  • They know a great deal about their subject matter
  • They consistently show up to work for and in their garden – rain or shine 
  • They have a learning orientation – they know that they don’t know everything, and that even what they do know might need to change over time or in response to unusual situations

And those characteristics are also incredibly helpful when working with strengths. Building your knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, and how to work with them strategically, is a foundational aspect of working with strengths.

Consistency is key – you don’t train for a marathon by going for one run, and you don’t boost a strength through a single action. Show up frequently and regularly; put in the work to maintain the right growing conditions. Weed out what’s unhelpful and drawing energy away from what you want to grow. Regularly fertilise and water the plants. Keep an eye out for the effects of pests (weaknesses that trip you up, unsupportive people, situational factors that hold you back), sun (strengths that are getting too much time in the spotlight), and shade (strengths that don’t get enough time in the spotlight), and take relevant, timely action.

8. Bonus element: the unknown

Sometimes it isn’t any of the seven elements above – unexpected and unforeseeable events just happen.

In that case, mitigate the damage and try again later – whether that’s next week or next season. There’s nothing wrong with leaving a garden bed, or a strength, to lie fallow for a while. While it is lying dormant, you can review the seven elements and look for ways to improve them.

A photo of a green-gloved hand holding a green garden trowel against a green background

Just because your tomatoes didn’t grow well this season doesn’t mean you’re a terrible tomato gardener! It might have been the plant. It might have been an unusual growing season. Your neighbour’s cat might have dug up your seedlings.

And just because you thought you knew what you were planting doesn’t mean you’ll always get what you expected. Seeds and bulbs can get mixed up. Weird things can happen as plants germinate and grow.

Rather than wait until you’ve made all of the mistakes and experienced all of the strange things that can happen in a garden, use your learning orientation. Read books on gardening and apply their insights. Ask an experienced gardener to teach you how to spot and fix the problems.

And for your strengths, engage a strengths coach. They’ll teach you the tools to spot the best opportunities for growth. They’ll give you ideas for how to nurture the strengths you want to grow. They’ll suggest areas to prune or weed so that you don’t get held back. And they’ll show you the path to lifelong learning and growth.

And remember, whether you’re growing plants or your strengths, you don’t have to execute on every element perfectly. You simply need enough of the elements in a good-enough state, and growth will start to kick in naturally.

Let’s talk about your strengths

I created The Strengths Deck to put the power of working with strengths in your hands. If you want to learn about your unique strengths fingerprint and how to make the most of your amazing strengths, drop me an email, send a message via my Contact page, or make a booking for your free, 30-minute call to talk about how we can get your strengths working for you.

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