To Build Your Team, Identify and Leverage Personal Strengths

By Christy Cates and Katrina Onderdonk

We recently celebrated five years working together at Caltech, so we have had the opportunity to reflect on our journey of building an advancement organization comparable to the best in American higher education. The key to our success has been leveraging our team members’ strengths.

In 2016 when we launched our Break Through Campaign, recruitment had taken center stage. We increased our advancement staff by 33 percent over two years and kept up with regular turnover. While this alone was a huge accomplishment, we soon learned that finding and onboarding talented people was just the beginning.


Exploring Strengths

It was a heavier lift to begin to build a new culture and shift our management paradigm. We needed to create an environment in which team members would have the opportunity to be engaged: managers would have the knowledge and understanding to coach their staff and individuals would have the opportunity to use their strengths every day. To help us with this part of our journey, we started looking at ways to measure and improve employee engagement. We found Gallup and the StrengthsFinder instrument (now called CliftonStrengths), and this is where the fun started!

Through Gallup’s research, we learned that doing what you love every day is the backbone of both engagement and performance. Growing your understanding of yourself can bring purpose and intention to your job and directly correlates with improved performance.

Gallup has found that people who focus on using their strengths are:

  • 3 times as likely to have an excellent quality of life,
  • 6 times as likely to be engaged at work, and
  • 7.8 percent more productive in their roles.

During the past three years, we have learned, trained and coached our teams on the value of using a “strengths-based” approach to the workplace. By incorporating the StrengthsFinder assessment into our team-building efforts, we have helped our team members identify and leverage their own talents and deepen the talents and potential of their teams. As a result, managers who focus on their team members’ individual strengths see improvement in their team’s overall engagement and productivity.

Strategically Using Our Talents

As enthusiastic practitioners of the strengths philosophy, our small talent management team of three has benefited. Our understanding of each other’s strengths allows us to use these talents strategically. For example, Christy’s strong influencing talents rally our partners for their commitment and support while Katrina’s strong executing talents ensure projects are well planned and efficiently executed. Our colleague, Lilli, has strong relationship-building talents and guarantees our partners and constituents are fully considered.

As members of our team, we all have strategic thinking talents that help us envision and prepare for what is ahead. We pride ourselves on being a high-performing team where we use our talents every day and rely on each other’s strengths to tackle challenges, reach new heights and achieve success.

Christy Cates in the executive director of advancement services for development and institute relations at the California Institute of Technology. Her areas of focus include prospect research, prospect management, reporting, prospect analytics, talent acquisition, professional development, staff engagement and performance management.

Katrina Onderdonk is the director of talent management for development and institute relations at the California Institute of Technology where she specializes in executive search, employee engagement, individual coaching and team building.



Learn more about leveraging your team’s strengths. Join conference chair Katrina Onderdonk at the CASE Strategic Talent Management conference, March 6–8, in Chicago, to address the challenges facing your organization and implement talent management solutions that fit your needs.

Early-bird savings end Friday, Jan. 25.


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