Strengths Rising: A First-Person Account of a Strengths-Based Staff Retreat

Emily Austin

In this guest blog, Emily Austin, Director of Advocacy Services at CALCASA, shares her perspectives on attending a staff retreat focused on a strengths-based leadership approach and how it can be used within her organization. CALCASA began exploring and implementing the StrengthsFinder leadership framework in 2016 as part of the Blue Shield of California Foundation's Strong Field Project, a program for domestic violence leaders that CompassPoint provides the leadership development component for. As part of the program, CompassPoint has worked with participants to facilitate retreats centered on strengths-based leadership. The article “The Four StrengthsFinder Domains” provides more details on the full inventory of strengths, a number of which Emily references in her post. We highlight these strengths names in italics in the text. 


I wasn’t sure what to expect at my organization’s strengths-based staff retreat. I’m pretty new to CALCASA and haven’t even met everyone in person yet. I entered the room with my strengths at the forefront of my mind (none of which are in the category of relationship building or relator, by the way). I took the StrengthsFinder assessment to determine my strengths when I was hired for the position. I was curious to find out about all my other co-workers (because I’m fascinated with ideas, or ideation). And I have a lot of verve for action (I’m an activator, too). I had a lot of energy at the thought of doing this work for a whole day. I was ready to learn (learner is another of my strengths) and be open to the new experience.

White Triangle BuildingI had quite a few “aha” moments during the day, like when I recognized my ideation strength showed up so early in my childhood with a young fascination with books. Or when I saw my activator strength as the core of a lot of my interest in shaking up the status quo. But I feel the value of spending time developing this framework with my organization is really two fold—I have a better understanding of me and what makes me tick. And I have a better understanding of my co-workers.

For me, the might of the retreat came from a unique opportunity to build on a shared, positive language about how we as individuals view the world. I walked away with more ways to build on and be strategic about the strengths of individuals (I also have a strategic strength). During the retreat we developed a shorthand in understanding how each of us looks at information, does our work, balances our lives, and upholds our core beliefs. This time together allowed me to share deep and driving aspects of my personality in a way that was positive—while acknowledging the shadow-sides but not focusing on the shadows. It allowed me to see to the hearts and motivations of my co-workers and is fostering a better understanding of the tapestry that makes up our organization.

It is powerful to know your fellow co-workers’ strengths. It takes a lot of time to build relationships and figure out how others view the world. And even then, with that time and space, you may just be seeing what they want you to see. Sharing strengths gives us the ability to get into relationships with each other quickly. And sharing strengths has allowed me to better understand why I’m working so well with some people. It isn’t because we share strengths as much as the fact that our strengths complement each other. I see diversity in strengths as a strength, and recognizing that is incredibly powerful for our work.Colorful Thread

I’m already using what I learned at our strengths retreat. When I ask a certain person to join a team, communicate about a project, or develop strategies or materials, I’m trying to keep strengths as part of the conversation. I want to diversify the strengths on teams so that all the broad categories are included. The day revealed not only the strengths in our organization and our selves, but the strength in diversity. Success is not having all the strengths housed in one person. The same things cannot motivate us all—and that is a good thing. Diversity and diversity in strengths allows us to have a larger, more comprehensive and thoughtful impact. And that is already shaping how I think about my work, the strength of our organization, and the future of the movement to end gender-based violence. The way forward is through acknowledging and incorporating a diversity of strengths.


Emily Austin is Director of Advocacy Services at CALCASA, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. CALCASA provides leadership, vision, and resources to rape crisis centers, individuals, and other entities committed to ending sexual violence.

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