Entries in Knowing Yourself (16)


Get an outside assessment of your strengths

It’s notoriously difficult to view yourself objectively from the outside, and the ability to do so is highly prized.  As the poet Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

While complete objectivity may be hard to achieve, there is a simple exercise you can do that goes a long way towards it and can give you some useful insights into how you are perceived by others.

Make a list of your top three strengths, and ask five other people to list what they consider your top three strengths.

Ask people who know you well, and include a mix of co-workers and friends.  Once you have all the lists, compare them – you may be surprised at the result.  A major business school where I consult has its students perform this exercise, and they are often shocked at how different other’s opinions are from their own.  The shock is sometimes unpleasant, when students learn that what they consider their greatest strength doesn’t even make the lists of outside assessors.  But the shock can also be pleasant, when they learn that something they considered unimportant or easy is perceived by others as a major strength.  What they learn about how “ithers” see them helps as they position themselves in the career marketplace.

I had one client at Core Allies, LLC who was a wiz at coming up with creative financing for deals.  But he didn’t think of it as an important skill because it was so easy for him; he assumed it was equally easy for everyone.  I had him do this exercise, and he learned that on the contrary his skill at financing deals was highly regarded.  This new information changed his work life.  By focusing on his strengths, both in his projects and his yearly review, he became much happier at work.


Go where your skills are valued.

When I started working in the business world, I quickly learned that one thing I loved doing was mentoring my co-workers, both those who reported to me and others in the company.  I would help them develop their skills, advance their careers, and generally increase their contributions to the company.  I quickly became quite good at it.  The only problem was, the company I was working for didn’t put much value on developing its employees, so when it came time for my performance reviews, all the hard work I had done mentoring wasn’t taken into account.  My mentoring skills were helping the company, but the company didn’t recognize their value.

Once I realized what was happening, I began to take this problem into account as my career progressed, and steered my future job searches towards companies that valued and rewarded mentoring.  And eventually I founded Core Allies LLC, which is all about mentoring and helping people with their careers.  Finally, I had found a company that put a high value on my strongest skills – even though in my case I had to create the company myself.

Find a company or client that values your skill set.

Different companies and clients value skill sets differently, even in the same industry.  Consider your own position, and ask yourself what skills your company or customers value.  Look at the people being promoted, and observe what got them the promotion.  Examine who is being hired, and figure out why.  Does your boss and other people in management respect or value your skill set?

If you find there is a disconnect between what you contribute to your company, and what your company values, you might be happier finding a new company that puts a higher premium on your skills.  And certainly when you are looking for a new job, you should find out if a potential employer really values all your skills before accepting a position.  Even if you don’t go as far as creating your own company, if you can find a good fit you will have a happier and more successful career.

I had one client at Core Allies LLC, a software engineer, who came to me after constantly being passed over for promotion.  As we reviewed her fit at her current job, it became apparent that her company did not value her greatest strengths.  She was highly talented at tackling difficult programming problems and coming up with elegant solutions.  Unfortunately, her company just wanted her to write code quickly, even if the result was sloppy – they valued speed over quality.  With this insight, she researched other companies that would value her abilities.  After a hard search, she found a new position in a company that didn’t put a short-sighted value on speedy coding.  In her first year at her new company, she earned a valuable employee award.


Is Consulting for You?

I love to take photographs.  Where ever I travel, I always carry my camera with me, and take pictures of everything – Masai warriors, Haitian shanties, Jamaican beaches, and  Serengeti wildlife.  There’s a real joy for me in taking the pictures, and that joy comes through in the pictures themselves.  So when a friend asked me to take the pictures for her wedding, I leapt at the chance. 

But when I started photographing the event, a funny thing happened.   Usually when I’m taking pictures, I lose myself in the process, shooting intuitively without conscious thought, creating photographs with a strong sense of composition and content.  Now that I was taking pictures for someone else, I was constantly worried about what my friend wanted, as if there was another person looking over my shoulder through the camera’s viewfinder.  The resulting pictures lacked my usual joy and spontaneity, and in the end pleased neither me nor, I suspect, my friend (though she was too polite to say so).  I learned that just because I’m good at something in one context doesn’t mean that I’ll be as good (or as happy) using the skill in a different context.

The same principle applies to business.  Many successful business people decide to take their considerable business skills and become consultants, making their skills available to a variety of clients.  For some, becoming a consultant is exactly the right decision, as it constantly exposes them to new challenges (and can be quite lucrative).  But others aren’t cut out to be consultants, and soon become dissatisfied with their careers.  As with my photography, the problem usually isn’t that they don’t have the necessary skills to be consultants.  Rather, being a consultant forces them to use those skills in a different context, one they don’t find as satisfying.

Clients bring in consultants when they have a business problem, and once the consultant has provided a solution, that’s often the end of the consultant’s involvement.  The client may shelve the consultant’s solution in favor of an inferior one, or may implement only half of it, or may implement it fully.  In any case, it’s out of the consultant’s hands.  Some people aren’t bothered by this lack of involvement and control, but for others, who are used to following through and overseeing the implementation of their ideas, it can be a rude shock.

If you are a person who likes to see your ideas carried through to their successful conclusion, consulting may not be for you.

I had one client at Core Allies, LLC who had been the CEO of a successful start-up.  Looking for new challenges, she decided to try consulting.  However, she was unhappy with her first couple of projects as a consultant.  At first, she thought the problem might be that the subject areas of the projects were outside her previous experience, or that she didn’t have quite the right set of skills.  But in going over the projects with her, and also looking at what had made her happy as a CEO, we discovered that a key ingredient for her was seeing her ideas come to fruition.  Not having that ability as a consultant was incredibly frustrating for her, and resulted in her dissatisfaction with consulting, and it wasn’t going to change if she could just find the “right” project.  So instead, she started a new venture, where she is successful and happy.


Track Your Accomplishments

It’s easy to tell what a baseball player has accomplished.  Baseball fans love statistics, and everything a player does on the field – every hit, every strikeout, every walk, every stolen base, every run, every catch, and every error – is recorded.  When the Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz comes up to bat, the bottom of the screen will show his batting average, total home runs and RBI for the season; much more information is easily found in reference books or online.  All this data must be a great help for Ortiz when it comes time to negotiate a new contract; he can easily demonstrate how much he’s contributed to the team.

It isn’t so easy for the rest of us to measure our accomplishments, and most of us don’t even try.  Because we don’t record them, our accomplishments can fade from memory over time, as we turn our minds to new challenges and forget the details of what we’ve done in the past.  Where a baseball player has a permanent record of exactly how many hits he got two seasons ago, we may only remember the broad outline of the big project we worked on two years ago, and have a hard time recalling everything we contributed to making it a success.  And if you can’t remember your own accomplishments, you can be sure your boss and co-workers won’t remember them either.

That’s why you should start keeping a running list of your accomplishments.  Start the list today, and every time you accomplish something, add it to the list.

You can keep the list in a day planner, a notebook, a Phone, or a computer – whatever you find easiest.  Write down not only what you accomplished, but the measurable result for your employer or client, the more specific the better.  How many “runs” did you bat in?  How much money did you save for them?  Exactly how much did you increase their return on investment?

Accomplishments can be big, special projects – your home runs – but they can also be your normal, day to day work – your singles.  For those, just keep a running record of what you’ve done (“balanced company check register to the penny – 5th month in a row”) and how it’s helped the company.

This list of accomplishments will be invaluable during your next performance review, or when you seek a promotion, or when you need to convince someone to hire you, either as a consultant or employee.  It will give you a huge head start when it comes time to write or update your resume.  And when you’re feeling overwhelmed and useless, you can read your list to remind you of how much you’ve done.

One of my clients at Core Allies followed this advice and maintained a list of his accomplishments.  Three years into one job, a friend called to tell him about an opening in another company that would be his dream job.  The catch was that he needed an up-to-date resume by the next day.  No problem.  Using his list, he quickly updated his resume by adding three key accomplishments.  He got the job, but still maintains his list.  As he says, “You just never know.”


Do You Know Your Superpowers?

I believe that everyone has superpowers. For me, superpowers aren’t the powers in comic books, like flying. Instead, they are the set of activities and tasks you really enjoy and are really good at. Some superpowers appear to be innate, like someone born with the love of puzzle-solving that makes her a great software developer. Other superpowers are developed, such as a musician whose “genius” comes in part from tens of thousands of hours of practice.

Knowing your personal superpowers can be the secret to a happy and successful career, making you a better leader and helping you find a job where you will thrive. But discovering your personal superpowers can be difficult. Since your superpowers are activities that you are especially good at (and thus, might find easy) and enjoy (and thus, might not think of as “work”), it can sometimes be hard to realize that others don’t find the activities as easy or enjoyable, and that you bring something special to such tasks.

One of my favorite exercises to help people discover their superpowers is to ask them to write a Top Ten list of when they have enjoyed an activity. The activities don’t need to be work-related, and I suggest including at least two activities from childhood. Why don’t you try it now? 

Start finding your superpowers by making a list of activities you enjoy.

Once you have your list, the next step is to look at each item and ask yourself some questions about why the item is on the list. You can do this step by yourself, but you will often find additional insights if you share the exercise with another person. The questions you should ask include: What did you enjoy about the activity? What skills did you uniquely bring to the activity? And what made you uniquely able to succeed at the activity?

If you answer these questions for each item on your list, you may start to see patterns and repetitions that can point you towards your superpower. And even the answer to a single question can start you in the right direction. For example, three different people might put “riding a bike” as one of the activities they enjoy the most. On the surface, they might seem similar. But when asked why they like riding a bike, there might be three quite different answers. One might say “I love the competition, I love to win, I love practicing every day to get better and better.”  The second might say “I love the feel of the cool rush of wind on my face, hearing the crunch of the pine needles under my tires, and range of smells in the outdoors.” Finally, the third might “Well, actually all my friends love riding bikes and I love hanging out with my friends and so I ride my bike.” 

These three different answers to a single question gives three different areas to investigate in the search for each person’s superpower.  The first likes mastery, and will do well when challenged to get better and better, and needs tangible goals.  She might want to look at project work where she can get those needs met while developing mastery of a subject.  The second person speaks of experiencing the world in a very kinetic way.  So he should look for tasks that use his five senses, and should avoid sitting at a desk all day.  The third person is influenced by the people around her.  She needs to make sure she chooses a workplace with people she will enjoy.

While looking at a single answer isn’t enough to discover these people’s superpowers, it is already giving insight into the careers they need. Looking at the answers for all ten activities, and seeing the themes that develop, can often provide the insights you need to discover your superpower. And once you have that, you can start putting it to work, by looking for a career path where you can be a superhero and shine.