Patrick Lencioni Exclusive: Discover Your Team’s Genius

Do too many of your company’s best ideas go nowhere? Why are some of your smartest people silent in brainstorming sessions? Best-selling author Patrick Lencioni offers answers to these and other key business questions with his most provocative—and productive—idea so far: The Six Types of Working Genius.
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Earlier this year, Patrick Lencioni got frustrated. The author of some of the best-selling business books of all time, including The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage, had just finished a webinar with 70 Catholic priests working to think through how to build better teams and improve their churches. It was important work. It didn’t matter. The interaction left him wiped.

But then, an idea came to him for his podcast—and that got him charged up. His mood turned almost instantly. He was about to start machine-gunning Amy Hiett, the co-founder of his consulting firm, The Table Group, with this latest revelation when she stopped him.

“She turned to me and she asked, ‘Why are you the way you are?’” recalls Lencioni. “’Why do you do these things you do?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’m exhausted. Half of it frustrates me, half of it I love to do. I wish I knew because I’m really kind of frustrated. And I have been for years.’”

Maybe you’ve had this feeling—or routinely do. That you wish you could do more of X, less of Y and absolutely none of Z. Most likely you shrug it off and do it all the same way anyway. It’s work, it’s hard and that’s why they pay you for it, right? Besides, it has to get done. But Lencioni’s moment of lucidity turned into something more—much more. It led Lencioni and his team to ponder some of the most profound, first-principle questions about work, about leadership, about teams—about life—and to develop a potential answer.

He calls it the “Six Types of Working Genius”—a way of assessing which part of the team-driven act of getting things accomplished you and each member of your organization is naturally good at and enjoy—and which you don’t. Understanding your answer, it turns out, isn’t a fuzzy, kumbaya exercise. Working Genius comes as close as anything we’ve ever seen to explaining why some teams succeed and some don’t, and how getting anything accomplished in an organization actually works.

Developed in the past four months, Lencioni sees it as perhaps his most important work ever, far outstripping the potential impact of The Five Dysfunctions and other projects that he’s devoted over two decades developing. “It’s an assessment tool and an analysis for an individual who wants to understand their own natural God-given gifts, their working genius, the things that they’re great at and love doing, that they get energy and joy from,” explains Lencioni. “Ideally, we should spend as much time as possible doing those things.”

Now, he and his team are starting to roll out the Six Types of Working Genius in the hope of making workplaces—and work—more productive for everyone. He’s made the assessment available for you and your team at workinggenius.com, but before you dive in, it’s worth spending some time understanding what he means and how Working Genius works—and doesn’t—in every organization you know.

The Six Types of Working Genius

When you think of genius in the workplace, what pops to mind? Probably the archetypical solitary inventor or corporate titan. Edison, Morgan, Gates. Of course, we all know it takes teams to actually accomplish anything, and for every Steve Jobs there’s a group around him to bring his ideas to life.

But what we don’t know—or at least never focus on, says Lencioni—is that there’s a particular kind of genius associated with all the other parts of accomplishing things in an organization, too. He’s distilled them into six types: Wonder, Invention, Discernment, Galvanizing, Enablement and Tenacity. Each of us, he says, excels naturally at a couple of these, is competent at a couple more and frustrated by two others. To enjoy your work, and to actually be any good at it over the long haul, Lencioni says you should be spending the bulk of your time on the two in which you excel. And for a team to get anything done—and done well—you need to have people with all six types of “working genius” present.

So how, ideally, does great work get done? It starts, says Lencioni, with Wonder and Invention, what he also calls the geniuses of ideation.

The Geniuses of Ideation

Wonder. People with the genius of wonder are “questioners, ponders, dreamers, but not necessarily with an idea, but reacting to their environment.” They tend to be the people on your team who are naturally gifted at asking “why” and who angst over unrealized potential in people, initiatives and the company as a whole. While this genius may get overlooked, there are serious implications if it’s seriously lacking on a team.

Lencioni was recently working on a team-wide assessment for a well-known Silicon Valley software firm. None of the company’s nine senior executives, it turned out, had wonder as a working genius. In fact, six of the nine had it as one of their working frustrations. The implications struck them hard.

“They said, ‘We don’t ponder anything,’” Lencioni says. “‘Every meeting has a PowerPoint slide and a goal. We constantly try to get things done. We never sit and go, ‘What’s going on in the market? What’s going on in our environment competitively? Should we be coming up with something new?’ They were struggling to understand the market and the needs of their customers and innovation. And it was because none of the executives naturally enjoyed the process of sitting and wondering. And the CFO said, ‘If we don’t start having meetings where we just ponder and bringing people in who are good at this, we will never catch up.’”

Invention. The next link in the chain is probably the easiest to explain. If those with the genius of wonder ask “why?” those with the next genius—Invention—say “how?” According to Lencioni, this is what we traditionally think of when we think of genius—the Edison, the Jobs. People with this kind of genius like finding solutions for problems and are innately good at it. They prefer working with a blank slate and get real joy and satisfaction when asked to come up with something out of nothing.

“The problem with the inventor,” says Lencioni, “is everything he or she comes up with isn’t necessarily good.” That aspect is often overlooked, he says. To create actual value from the genius of invention, you need the next two kinds of genius: the geniuses of Activation.

The Geniuses of Activation

Recently, one of Lencioni’s colleagues was working with a high-profile innovation team, taking them through the model, when a senior leader there stopped the discussion cold–he’d suddenly realized why more of their ideas weren’t landing right. “He said, ‘We go from innovation to product. We just try to implement everything that the innovation people throw against the wall.’ There’s no activation. The middle step is activation. I think these middle two geniuses are the two that are so often overlooked.”

Discernment. Those with the next type of genius are a necessary complement to inventors—evaluating ideas with intuition and integrative thinking. Having someone on the team with the ability to know if something coming out of the ideation phase is a good idea or not is absolutely essential. “They have great judgment,” says Lencioni. “They’re the ones that give you confidence that what the inventor came up with is actually worth doing.”

“The discerner provides feedback to the inventor, and they go through this iterative process of tweaking it and getting it right,” says Lencioni. “If there’s not a discerner, half the crap we throw against the wall doesn’t work. And we don’t know why. I think this is one of the most important things that an organization needs. And it’s so passive, and internal people don’t even know how to value it. But every inventor needs a discerner. Otherwise it’s a crapshoot.”

The corollary to this, of course, is that the inventor needs to be able to trust the discerner’s judgment. That’s crucial—and it can take a bit of ego reduction for inventors. An inventor who isn’t ready to hear “no” from others about their latest brilliance or hasn’t found a partner they can work with to help them shape their ideas—or even flat-out reject them—is likely to find themselves frustrated and disappointed over time that the things they come up with never seem to live up to their initial promise, blaming execution rather than deeper, subtler factors they may not see. It’s only through allowing discernment into the process, being open to feedback on whether the idea is good or bad, timed right or wrong, for example, that good ideas stand a chance of getting the attention they deserve because the team isn’t wasting time on every idea.

Galvanizing. But it takes more than a good idea to deliver on its potential. It takes a team. And that’s where the next genius—the genius of galvanizing—comes in. From what Lencioni has seen so far, this is often a trait what we think of when we think of capital ‘L’ type leaders, even if we don’t exactly know what we’re seeing in them when we see it.

Galvanizers, says Lencioni, have the gift of being able to rally people to a cause. “The discerner says, ‘This is an awesome idea,’ but somebody needs to say, ‘Okay, I am willing to get people excited.’” That’s the galvanizer.

Actually, more than willing, they may not be able to help themselves. Galvanizers are people who get juiced by a good idea, latch on to it and sell it around the office, throughout the organization and with customers with a contagious, infectious energy we all recognize. “This is a working competency of mine,” says Lencioni, who finds himself more of an inventor and discerner. “I can do it, but it exhausts me.”

And that, it turns out, has been a hidden problem within his own shop, says Lencioni. His three other co-founders all lack this genius, too. So, every time Lencioni came up with a good idea, he quietly dreaded it, because he was the only person capable of rallying the troops. “Every time I’d come up with a new idea and we decided it was worth doing, they’d go, ‘Okay, Pat, get us going.’ I got to the point where I’d come up with a new idea and I was depressed because I was going to have to push the ball up the hill again.”

Luckily, in the process of diagnosing this issue in his company, his team also came up with a solution: One of his senior staff reveled in the work of getting people to take up a cause. No surprise, he was also naturally gifted at it. He was immediately promoted and put in a new position on the executive team, charged with bringing new ideas to the team and to market.

The Geniuses of Implementation

Enablement. If those with the gift of discernment can tell what’s a good idea and those who are geniuses at galvanizing can bring others to a cause, those with the next genius—enablement—are the way ideas actually come into the world and succeed. “If nobody comes alongside and says, ‘I will provide the help, the support, the assistance you’re calling for,’ then no ideas get off the ground,” says Lencioni.

Recently, Lencioni was working with a team that lacked the gift of enablement. “Everybody wanted to invent things and discern things and galvanize. And they were like, ‘Why doesn’t anybody ever help? They didn’t have anybody with that genius.”

Those with the genius of enablement are the selfless “team players” who get great satisfaction—often far from the spotlight—in seeing things done right. “I don’t have the gift of enablement,” says Lencioni. “I feel bad admitting that. It sounds like I’m not a nice guy. right? I mean, I love to help people, but I like to do it on my terms. When my wife says, ‘Hey, let’s go. Help me clean the garage.’ If she says, ‘Stand over there and I’ll tell you what to do.’ I’m like, ‘First tell me why you want to clean the garage. What does clean mean to you? Is this the right thing to be doing right now? And if it is, I think I have a better way.’ It drives her crazy.”

“If everybody’s an inventor, then no one gets a great executive team. There have to be people who say, ‘I will help. I know how I can help you. And I will do what you need.’ Enablement is a huge genius. And most of the people that have it, deep down inside, they know they have it, but it’s never actually been celebrated, and they don’t consider themselves geniuses. But that is their genius.”

Tenacity. Then, in the end, there are the finishers, those with the energy, talent and drive to get things across the goal line, making sure the “Ts are crossed, the Is are dotted,” as Lencioni puts it, “that it lives up to standards, and that the final product is good and has the impact they want.”

This is the genius of tenacity, and, interestingly, Lencioni has found that many people with this genius are also uncomfortable with “spitballing” ideas because if they sense people are not being serious about an idea, they just cannot feel invested in it. After one of the women in his office took the assessment and found one of her geniuses was tenacity, she admitted that brainstorming made her crazy. “I get anxious, and I can’t get on board with something if I don’t think people are serious about finishing,” she told Lencioni. “But if they really have a plan that could work, then I’ll get involved.”

Genius in Action

In the past, Lencioni—or any other boss—hearing a comment like that (if it ever was uttered) might think, she has a problem. Or worse: She is a problem. But an interesting and unexpected side effect of developing the Six Geniuses, Lencioni says, is that it removed a lot of the guilt and judgement typically found in the workplace.

“That’s the key that this unlocks, which is so powerful. That release from judgment and that empathy. You really see each other, you get a lot more naked, really, really fast. People appreciate you for what you do and understand why you don’t want to do what you don’t want to do,” he says. “If Jim Collins talks about getting the right people on the bus, this is about getting people in the right seat. If a person belongs on your bus and they’re struggling, it’s probably because they’re in the wrong seat. Not because they shouldn’t be on the bus.”

It isn’t that Lencioni doesn’t want to be more helpful cleaning the garage with his wife (he does) or that his co-founders revel in being exhausted by his ideas (they don’t) or the senior leaders at the software company don’t want to think more deeply about the big picture (they absolutely do). They’re not lazy, stupid, bad hires or failed leaders. They’re just better at some kinds of work than others. Put another way: they’re human.

“That doesn’t mean every one of us doesn’t have to do things,” says Lencioni. “A parent can’t say, ‘Sorry, kids, I’m not good at tenacity, so we’re not going to pay our taxes or sign you up for school.’ But we all should be aware of what feeds us, what we’re naturally good at—and also what drains us. We should try to minimize that. Nobody should be doing a job where they spend a lot of their time in one of their working frustrations. That’s a recipe for their burnout, for failure for the team and for them as a person.”

Beyond that, understanding the gifts—and frustrations—of everyone on the team and sharing that information with one another can be transformative, says Lencioni, who reorganized his entire business based on what he’s learned from the Working Genius project. “This is what’s necessary in order for people to trust one another,” he says. “It allows people to say, ‘I am horrible at discernment. I need somebody to help me.’ That’s the essence of vulnerability, you know?” And the beginning of something great.

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