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VIA's Impact on PricewaterhouseCoopers

August 18, 2015 by ·

Five businesspeople at boardroom table smilingWhether you run a small, family owned business or a large publicly traded corporation, much of your success stems from keeping your employees content, motivated and committed. So, what happens when you’re the person responsible for this very task, yet continually feel your efforts aren’t really working? 

“I found myself really frustrated for a while, the traditional command-and-control methods weren’t getting us anywhere. I was desperate to find something fresh, something that would truly resonate with our people. So, I took refuge in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart!” she laughs.

Finding the Right Mix

“One particular day, his show changed my world. He was interviewing Tal Ben Shahar, author of Happier, a book loaded with tools from the science of Positive Psychology that seemed applicable to my work. I bought the book and through it was introduced to Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness and the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. I felt the language of strengths could dramatically change discussions, make them far more relevant to the individual.” Michelle was so impressed with the potential of using the tools that she convinced her employer to help craft her schedule so that she could earn her Masters in Applied Positive Psychology at UPenn, under Seligman.

Tapping her own strengths of creativity and enthusiasm, Michelle immediately put the VIA approach to work with her teams. Although hopeful, she was prepared to meet resistance.

“PwC in Australia had made a commitment to unleash the potential of our people but were struggling to realize this goal.  I work with auditors, tax advisors and business consultants who generally pride themselves on their precise analytical minds that thrive on saving their clients from short-falls and risks. They are finely-tuned, fault finding machines whose identity and rewards rest on vigorously pointing out what’s wrong in a situation.  Of course, when you are hiring an auditor, this mind-set may be exactly what you need, but when it comes to managing your employees, cataloguing their weaknesses is unlikely to nurture success.”

PwC began using the VIA Classification to introduce a common language of strengths across the firm in its Diversity Training programs.  Its use of the VIA Survey soon grew organically due to the simple, easy-to-understand descriptors and the joy people found in discovering things they were good at.   Thanks to the new program, today more than 1,000 employees – individually and within teams – know and understand their character strengths.

Most employees who take the survey review the results in facilitated workshops that help them see themselves and each other with fresh eyes.  “I absolutely LOVE facilitating these workshops, “Michelle says. “It lights them up. It’s not an experience they expect to have. As a result, they bring new energy to what they are doing at work. I have people leave and say, ‘That was the best hour since I joined the firm!’”

Initial Impact

PwC has seen positive results in many areas:

  • A newly appointed manager struggling to find her own voice identified her strength of honesty and found the courage to begin truthfully speaking her mind and is shortly promoted once more in record time.
  • A creative subordinate challenged by a risk-averse boss with an endless list of probing questions learns that this leader’s top strength is prudence and comes to respect her careful decision making, removing the tension from their relationship.
  • A group of tax experts who had lost their esprit de corps discover a shared top strength of humor and begin finding reasons to laugh together at work and their engagement levels soar.

Increasingly leaders within PwC are electing to use the VIA Survey results to manage the performance, coaching and development of their teams.  For example, when PwC’s small brand team was set the considerable objective of repositioning the firm, their leader knew that traditional approaches wouldn’t get the job done.  She asked them to complete the VIA Survey and write their annual performance goals and development plans so that they would be capitalizing on their strengths every day at work.

Regular coaching was provided to help identify the best applications of the strengths, imagine what building on these would look like and when needed, temper any excessive uses that exposed a shadow side.  Performance evaluations and rewards were conducted around people’s ability to realize their strengths to help achieve the firm’s branding challenge.  By building on strengths, this small team was able to educate, energize and enable the firm to improve its brand position in every geographical market in just twelve months.

Unleashing Strengths – Sustainable Results 

Having come to recognize that strengths are indicators of pathways for which their people are already neurologically wired, emphasis continues to gradually shift in PwC to unleashing strengths rather than simply trying to fix weaknesses.  So, what does this mean? Take a look:

  • Performance systems now have a link directly to the VIA Survey and employees are encouraged to take the survey each year before committing to their annual plans.
  • Development pathways focus on unleashing potential rather than closing gaps and many of the development programs specifically address the identification and application of VIA strengths in the workplace.
  • Coaches are provided with training sessions and guidelines to help them understand how strengths can be built upon.
  • Recognition programs have been put in place to acknowledge and celebrate strengths in action.

As Michelle and her colleagues continue to take these initiatives across the firm, teams continue to invent new applications to draw on their strengths, from considering how to resource jobs around strength combinations to client workshops that help Australian business leaders discover what sets them apart.

“In tough economic times, addressing the deficits would only take us so far,” Michelle says.  “But we’ve found that putting our strengths to work has proven instrumental in maintaining the momentum and energy of hope across the firm.”

michelleMichelle McQuaid, former Principal, Pwc, Australia





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