In the last post, I discussed the role that entrepreneurial resilience can play in both a new venture’s success and a founders’ well-being. Now, I want to explore with you the importance of character strength development and its application to the venture realization process.
I have worked with strength development approaches for several years, dating back to the late 1990s when I started to use multi-source feedback processes in the engineering design curriculum. This early work led to the publication of the Team Developer (2000), an assessment and skill-building tool to support design teams and their innovation-related activities. Over the past two decades, I have continued to use strength-building activities to support cognitive and behavioral development for aspiring entrepreneurs, startup founders, and corporate innovators.
In addition to some of my own development tools, I use the character strength framework, created by Peterson and Seligman (2004) and fully developed by the VIA Institute of Character with founders and aspiring entrepreneurs. From their perspective, character strengths are considered one of the basic elements of our identity.
VIA 24 Character Strengths
Your character is expressed by your thoughts, feelings, and resulting behaviors. Character strengths and their expression can contribute to your sense of well-being. Research has demonstrated that developing your character strengths support the main elements of well-being and positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning in one’s life, and accomplishment (referred to as PERMA in positive psychology circles). A character can be measured, developed, and applied in appropriate circumstances. As you will see, once you have a handle on your strengths, you can learn to apply them to a number of situations both in business and in life).
There is a great deal written about the 24 character strengths identified by the aforementioned researchers. Here is a concise image where you can easily reference each character strength with a sample survey item as we continue our discussion.
Our focus for this discussion is on these 24 character strengths. As you may ascertain from the above image, each individual character strength consists of specific cognitive and behavioral elements. For example, under “Creativity” you may consider yourself a person that is “always coming up with new ways to do things.” The current VIA survey consists of 96 survey items across the 24 strengths. You are asked to respond to each question honestly rating how “much like you” the statement reflects your thoughts and behaviors. With a modicum of self-awareness, one should be able to self-assess the extent to which one exhibits behavioral traits of specific character strength.
An important doctrine of VIA character strength development is that you possess all 24 strengths and your goal is to begin to understand when to apply them more or less depending on the situation. I have always been an advocate for focusing the enhancing strengths over areas you consider more in need of development. The premise behind the VIA Character Strengths is that we possess them all, but may exhibit some more than others. In fact, as we look at each of our strengths, we can look at them as a continuum. For example, many would consider perseverance an important trait for any entrepreneur—the ability to stay focused on specific tasks or goals, especially under adverse circumstances. You may have this strength, but there may be times that you under or over apply it to specific circumstances. When perseverance is under-applied in a situation, you may not spend enough time on a venture idea, giving up too quickly before the opportunity is fully understood. On the other end, if it is overused, you may not be willing to pivot your venture’s direction in a way that better supports your objectives and the customer’s needs. Most importantly, strengths are often manifested within certain contexts and dormant in others. As we will discuss, understanding when to capitalize on specific strengths is an important development goal for founders and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Your Signature Strengths
An equally salient character strength credo is that we tend to manifest specific strengths more frequently than others. All of us tend to rely on certain strengths to navigate specific situations whether it be personal or professional. When you take a look at your VIA survey results, the top 5-6 character strengths are considered your “signature” strengths or what I call your superpowers.
Essentially, these are the character strengths that you have rated as being most like you. I find that in almost any situation, these superpowers can be applied successfully. I remember the first time I responded to the VIA survey in 2018, I was quite surprised and pleased to find “Creativity” as my number one strength. I had always felt that I tended to think creatively about problems and solutions but never saw this as a core strength. In fact, I thought perseverance would have been my number one superpower, but alas it was number ten (a middle strength)! There were many surprises on my signature strengths and these led me to think about how to engage people and situations in new ways. When confronted with a new situation, I was ready to be proactively creative. See my initial signature strengths as reported by VIA in 2018.
The research shows that your character strengths tend to remain stable over time, but that does not mean that they are fixed and unchangeable. In fact, when I responded to the survey again recently, many of my signature and middle strengths were the same, however, the order had changed substantially in some cases. “Perseverance” landed in the number 4 spot, while “Honesty” moved to number one with “Creativity” a close second. One major change I posit is related to differences in thinking and behavior during the pandemic. “Hope” has become one of my signature strengths, certainly an important supporting attribute for being resilient.
Integrating Character Strengths into the Curriculum
In an earlier blog post, I listed the eight modules that we use to teach aspiring entrepreneurs, startup founders, and enterprise innovators. For each of these modules, I have asked students to consider how to best apply their strengths during various stages of innovation and venture realization.
At the beginning of a course, I have the students take the VIA survey and ask them to be prepared to refer back to their basic results throughout the term. At the end of each module, students are asked to reflect on specific aspects of the venture process they are currently working on and reflect on how their strengths can be applied to support them at this stage. Their reflection responses are both discussed during in-class peer sessions and integrated into faculty feedback to support student growth as an entrepreneur. The figure below illustrates sample venture and character strength reflection questions for select modules.
One of the most interesting reflection questions has students discuss how their top signature strengths can be applied to support venture realization.
Judgment: Judgement is key to control the risk when making decisions, and to have a clear head to make those decisions in moments of great pressure.
Honesty: Comporting in an authentic way will allow me to build valuable relationships and a worthy reputation in the community.
Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence: Appreciating high standards for my work and the work of others will be beneficial in any industry where I am servicing others. Understanding that quality work is crucial will permeate to who I hire and how customers are treated, making for a high-quality guest experience. Furthermore, this will help me to stay focused on a personal level.
Perspective: Taking a step back and being able to plan strategically and prioritize the next steps in the process will be a critical skill we will need to leverage especially in the initial stages where resources are limited.
Spirituality: Faith provides perspective and keeps me from getting lost in whatever it is I’m working on. Maintaining that outlook preserves peace, which is a priceless asset along this venture journey.
Throughout the semester, students continue to reflect on their strengths and see how they can be applied in certain situations throughout the venture realization process. Individuals and team members learn how to best use and blend their unique qualities to; move through the venture development process in a disciplined manner, overcome challenges as they occur, nurture relationships throughout the marketplace, and how to best maintain a sense of well- being.
In the next post, we will continue to explore other pre-screening activities that help entrepreneurs, founders, and innovators decide as to whether a venture opportunity is right for them.
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