Updated: Feb 27
I worked in residence life forever. Well not forever, but almost 20 years. I loved res life because it was something new everyday (#adaptability) and I got to work so closely with students and staff to help them grow and develop. I especially loved working with my RAs (resident advisors/assistants).
Creating a robust training experience for my RA staff was one of my favorite responsibilities. Throughout my years in res life, I introduced a variety of topics to help the RAs become better students and leaders: Franklin Covey for time management, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, True Colors, The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes & Posner, assertiveness training*, etc. All were all beneficial to varying degrees. Some topics stayed with me and others fell by the wayside. When I first discovered Strengths (StrengthsFinder/StrengthsQuest/CliftonStrengths/CliftonStrengths for Students) I introduced it like I’d done with so many other topics. I knew some people on campus who knew about the topic, so I invited them to come train my staff. Sometimes I’d stay and participate, but more often than not I’d just introduce my guest speakers and go do my “real work.”
I had a few people come talk to my staff about Strengths during training. Two of those colleagues, Erin and Alicia (co-founder of Strengths University), would often suggest ways I could integrate Strengths into my one on ones and staff meetings. I always thought it was a good idea, but you know how it goes. There are so many student and other issues that come up that you’re jumping from one thing to the other just to get through the year. Even though the RAs enjoyed the work we did in Strengths and I saw its potential, I rarely took the time to revisit Strengths until the next official training opportunity.
Even though I hadn’t fully embraced Strengths myself, my colleagues and I in Student Affairs decided we wanted to roll out a Strengths initiative across campus. All the incoming students took the CliftonStrengths assessment (formerly StrengthsFinder/StrengthsQuest) and our professional students took it as a part of their professional orientations. Within two years, all of our students – well all minus the small percentage of people who just didn’t bother – knew their Top 5, as well as a good chunk of our faculty and staff. Strengths became a part of all student orientations, HR new employee orientation, and freshmen seminar.
Since we were going all-in across campus, I decided I needed to increase how we used it in residence life. I did more training with the RA staff and started using it with residents, as well. Our resident door tags/decorations included each students’ Top 5 Strengths. We focused our bulletin boards on Strengths and started doing strengths related programming like “Time Management Using Your Strengths” and Top 5 Scavenger Hunts. We had already been doing a mandatory roommate workshop for all of our freshmen, so we revamped it to include how peoples’ Top 5 impacted roommate relationships.
The roommate workshop had already decreased the number of roommate “problems” needing staff intervention, but of course, it didn’t solve all of them. When our attempts to help the roommates/suitemates work it out themselves didn’t work, the next step was mediation. Unfortunately, we always had problems convincing our students to do mediation. I’m not sure what caused the stigma, but often roommates would rather continue living in a stressful situation then sit down with their roommate and a staff member to talk things out. My staff and I brainstormed for years on how to make this option more appealing to residents. When we started really integrating Strengths into the program, we changed the name of mediation to roommate coaching and refocused the experience on Strengths. By focusing on each residents’ Top 5, the involved parties could better understand how many problems stemmed from differences in talent, instead of some perceived character defect in their roommate. This change decreased the stigma associated with mediation and gave the coaching sessions more structure to help students get past the often-volatile, emotional phase much more quickly and productively.
During RA training, we did Strengths specific sessions but also integrated it into other topics. For example, when we talked about assertiveness, we focused on how they could each use their Top 5 to be more assertive, as well as how those same Strengths might be getting in the way of being more assertive. When we talked about leadership, the discussion was more about how THEY were going to be a successful leader based on their Top 5. The last year I was on campus, I trained all of my RAs to be Strengths coaches. (They weren’t certified by Gallup, but I taught them the elements of coaching I’d learned at my own training.) They learned about all of the 34 Talent Themes, how students’ Top 5 might impact behaviors on their floors or within the building, and how they could use their strengths to become more effective RAs. I got the RAs their All 34 Report to help them better understand their full list of strengths. (The All 34 Report is a list of all the 34 Talent Themes ranked from their Top 5 to the themes in which they are least talented.) Our talents, aka Strengths, impact how we see the world, so this also helped each staff member understand how to avoid letting their own strengths views negatively impact the way they viewed residents or behaviors that differed from their set of Strengths.
Training the RAs to become Strengths coaches took a large chunk of our fall training time, but was very much worth it. I condensed the week-long training I’d taken to focus on the things I thought they would most likely need on their floors. A large portion of my staff was returning, so I planned ahead and did some of the more basic training for the newbies in the spring before that fall. When we talked about roommate issues, confrontations/handling policy violations, helping skills, or anything that wasn’t specifically Strengths training, we looked at is from a Strengths perspective. After training, the RAs felt way more comfortable using strengths to build community, help residents, and tackle conduct issues by focusing on the individual Strengths of each resident. Even though it was an exhausting week, the RAs were excited to bring what they learned to their floors. When I left campus to start Strengths University, my biggest regret was not being able to continue to grow the Strengths program in the residence halls.
When we first started using Strengths on campus, I thought it was great – theoretically. But honestly, I was a little overwhelmed by the thought of having to learn 34 different Talent Themes. Remembering five things, cool. Remembering 34…ain’t nobody got time for that! I thought it would be useful for me to know mine, but I couldn’t wrap my head around using them to better supervise my staff or coach residents because there were so many! Who has time to learn everything about 34 things?!? Then each person has a different Top 5! Aghhhh! Turns out, while there is definitely a learning curve, in the end it actually makes supervising and coaching easier.
The trick is that while there are 34 different Talent Themes, you really only need to have a basic understanding of each one. The 34 Talent Themes are there to give you a framework to better understand the behaviors and world views people with those talents typically exhibit, but that’s really just the jumping off point. Everyone’s talents play out differently depending on their experiences, skills, and other talents, so memorizing a bunch of “facts” about each theme isn’t necessary or very helpful. Even if the person you’re talking to has the same Strength as you do, they probably don’t use it the same way you do. If you take Gallup’s theme descriptions and condense them into your own words, so you can remember the general concepts of each one, then it’s really just a matter of asking questions. The individual you’re working with is really the one leading the conversation. You’re there to help them reflect and point out things they might not have noticed. Once I figured this out, I felt way more comfortable investing in my own Strengths and using it across the residence life program.
The other great thing about using Strengths is that really, anything can be Strengths-ified. Incorporating Strengths into your residence life program doesn’t mean starting from scratch or recreating your whole program. Whether you have a residential curriculum, like we did, or a programming model, you can easily integrate Strengths into what you’re already doing. Like I mentioned earlier, we were already doing the roommate workshop. All we did was revamp the activities by putting a Strengths spin on them. If you do information on study skills, ask them “How do your Top 5 help you study effectively and how do they sometimes get in your way?” One on one meetings with staff are opportunities to ask questions about how they’re using their Strengths to accomplish their job. When staff members aren’t fulfilling expectations, you can help them reflect and come up with a game plan to bet back on track based on their Top 5. Again, everything is so personalized that you’re really just helping them use their Top 5 as a framework to reflect on how they see things and the decisions they’re making.
Once I understood more about how to practically use Strengths on a daily basis, I realized it wasn’t something else to do on top of my already full plate. It was actually a short cut to helping students and staff better understand themselves, learn how to play better with others, and grow and develop. CliftonStrengths is an incredibly powerful framework to help you and others figure out what they do best, how they might be getting in their own way, and how to turn their talents into Strengths. So, if you’ve ever thought about using Strengths in your residence life program, I would definitely say it’s worth the investment and don’t be afraid of the time commitment. After the initial learning curve, integrating Strengths into what you do every day makes so many things we do in residence life easier.
* Assertiveness training was one that stuck and I highly recommend it for both your professional and student staffs. As I mentioned, you can easily incorporate Strengths into assertiveness training. My favorite assertiveness book – and in my opinion one of the best – is The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy J. Paterson https://www.amazon.com/Assertiveness-Workbook-Express-Yourself-Relationships-ebook/dp/B0054M06EO/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1535320066&sr=8-3&keywords=assertiveness+workbook.