Strengths Training: Helping Students Foster Their Innate Talents

Approach at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln focuses on helping students develop their strengths, rather than fix their weaknesses.
Strengths Training Helping Students Foster Their Innate Talents

IN THE 1950's, three-time University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) alumnus, psychologist, and popular instructor Donald O. Clifton asked a question that would drive his future research: “What will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?” This query inspired his work at Nebraska, which became the origin of the science and practice of strengths-based leadership.

Clifton, who served first as chair of Selection Research Inc. and then of the research firm Gallup, went on to develop the CliftonStrengths assessment tool (formerly known as Clifton StrengthsFinder), which helps individuals identify their innate talents. In 2015, UNL’s College of Business received a US$30 million gift from the Clifton Foundation and Gallup to establish the Clifton Strengths Institute.


Our institute supports the College of Business in two primary ways: It helps students identify and maximize their talent, and it guides faculty and staff in their personal, professional, and leadership development.

All first-year business students take the CliftonStrengths assessment when they first come to campus. They then enroll in Professional Enhancement I—Investing in Strengths, an eight-week course where each student is assigned to a certified student strengths coach. In fall 2017, the institute trained 80 students as coaches, who worked one-on-one with more than 800 freshmen.

Throughout the course, coaches lead weekly team meetings of up to ten students and facilitate two one-on-one sessions for each team member to help students maximize their potential. In the latest course evaluation, 87 percent of students indicated that their coaching sessions helped them understand how their strengths would help them choose the right careers, and 92 percent viewed the time they spent with their coaches as a positive investment.


In addition to promoting our students’ personal and professional development, the CliftonStrengths assessment provides data that the College of Business uses to inform its pedagogy. Students’ assessment results reveal the top five collective strengths of each freshmen class, information that college leaders and faculty can use to improve classroom interaction. For instance, the assessment recently showed that competition is among the top five strengths for our freshmen. This suggests that faculty should teach our students in ways that appeal to their competitive natures to motivate them to learn and perform.

The institute’s three staff members also lead a program called Clifton Builders, which encourages students to start and grow something of economic value. Students are selected based on the results of the Gallup Builder Profile 10 (BP10), a 30-minute assessment that helps individuals determine their strengths in ten areas common to successful entrepreneurs. Students take this assessment during their Investing in Strengths course, and those who show the most entrepreneurial potential can apply for the program.

Once selected for Clifton Builders, students can choose between three tracks: business builders, team builders, and community builders. As a cohort, they then enroll in Building a Life for Impact, a course where they receive advanced training in strengths-based leadership and employee engagement; in addition, they consult with business clients to assess the businesses’ employee engagement and suggest measurable strategies for improvement. These students can choose between enrolling in the 12-credit-hour Clifton Builders Management Minor or the 24-credit-hour Clifton Builders Management Major.


The Clifton Strengths Institute is housed in a 2,165-square-foot, eightroom space on the first floor of Howard L. Hawks Hall, the business school’s new building, which opened in 2017. Faculty and students utilize this space for one-on-one coaching, classes, workshops, and social gatherings. The institute’s staff also conduct outreach activities, such as leading workshops across campus and creating community partnerships.

In its latest community effort, the institute has partnered with Gallup, Prosper Lincoln, Lincoln Public Schools, and other local businesses to start the Nebraska Builders Initiative. The initiative delivers an introductory strengths-based program to high school students with high Gallup BP10 scores, as a way to help them cultivate entrepreneurial mindsets and prepare them to build new ventures. In June, a select group of high school students went on to complete a Builders Internship, where they created their own startups at the College of Business.

Sheri Irwin-Gish is the executive director of communications, marketing, and external relations for the College of Business at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.