When my daughter was small, she took great delight in swimming underwater and struggled, much to the frustration of her teachers, to learn to swim with conventional strokes on the surface. Swimming lessons became a chore; she learnt enough just to get by. One day her class was invited to see how far they could swim underwater. My daughter, the smallest in her class, was the only child to complete two whole lengths in one breath, and was thrilled to discover this strength in her and, through the feedback of the class challenge, realise how rare this natural gift was! She had discovered one of her true strengths and then found more opportunities for more underwater exploration.
What are “strengths”?
So how many of our unique strengths do we recognise in our career? By strengths I mean those activities that energise us, increase our sense of satisfaction, well-being and flow. And how many of us set our strengths aside to fit in with the cultural norms around us – the equivalent of swimming on the surface, when our strengths lie in diving deeply?
From over 25 years of coaching and developing leaders and their teams, I know that most people are unaware of their unique strengths, or, if they are aware, take them for granted. After all we’ve grown up using our strengths: it’s just what we do! And why would we value ‘just what we do’? We are far more likely to be attracted to the bright shiny things that others are doing and being lauded for, and maybe seek to emulate them or quietly retreat with a thought that we may never be as good as they are…
Valuing, manifesting and communicating our unique strengths
Maybe that’s true. Maybe we won’t be like them. What’s important is that we are like us – that we are – and value – our unique selves. Knowing our strengths enables us to value those aspects of ourselves that we have taken for granted, undervalued and, also, under-communicated.
For example, as a young manager I would assert that I was strong on analysis. Well, at one level I was analytical – having had my abilities in that area recognised through my MBA from London Business School, and previously through literary textual analysis. However, in drawing attention to this aspect of myself, I omitted to say that I loved supporting individuals and building teams, harnessing people’s talents to craft both business results and learning – especially where innovation was required. As you can imagine, these two ways of describing myself point towards very different career journeys, with very different levels of enduring satisfaction.
Experience, qualifications and performance. Not the whole story
When we are unaware of our strengths we can talk about our experience, qualifications and often those aspects of our performance that have been rewarded in previous organisations but miss describing who we are, what we uniquely can bring to a team, and what it’s like working with us. We can, correspondingly, also miss out on the opportunities that bring us the most joy in our working lives, and in which we could potentially make the most impact.
One senior woman I worked with recently felt pleased and validated to have been invited into a new role. It was a promotion and brought increased line responsibilities. However the more established she became in the role, the more drained she felt and more questioning of her competency. Reviewing her strengths we discovered that she flourished using her core strengths well in her previous role, which involved bringing disparate parts of the business together, creating new levels of stakeholder engagement and succeeding in ways that brought her recognition and the invitation to promotion.
Her new role however required different sorts of strengths – greater focus on deliverables, implementation of strategy, defending her ‘turf’, development of ongoing teams. Whilst she could achieve these things, the personal cost for her was great, and excitement gave way to fatigue. Through understanding her strengths and observing herself with new awareness, she identified a new career track for herself based on what she loved doing.
Knowing our strengths leads to appreciating others’
Because our strengths represent a combination of how we think, feel and act, we can often assume that other people operate in the same way as we do.
When we discover that they don’t, we may feel disappointed or frustrated and this dynamic can lead to massive organisational waste and personal underperformance. Knowing that we have our unique ways of working underpinned by our strengths can release our curiosity about each other so that we seek to learn more about each other and how we can collaborate. In one senior team I worked with, a couple of vocal people would swiftly respond to a new proposal from the team leaders with enthusiasm. They would immediately plan and take action. At the same time, another team member would go quiet and thoughtfully evaluate the risks of the proposal and course of action. This person saw the two enthusiasts as impulsive, while they saw the reflective person as disengaged and uninformed. Over time, their positions had hardened into mutual disrespect.
Bringing a strengths analysis into the team transformed the situation. Everyone now had a lens through which to see their own and each other’s behaviour in a positive way. And through exploring each team member’s attitude, mindset and behaviour, a vision grew of how they could progress together, combining enthusiasm and reflection in ways that drew on the best of everyone, and led to better outcomes.
Three tips to help you identify your strengths
1. Ask three friends or colleagues what they value about you. Notice the words that repeat. This will indicate the areas in which your strengths lie. Observe how you do the things they mention.
2. Listen to the language you’re using yourself when you’re energised about what you’re doing. For example, if you’re saying ‘let’s get going’, this would suggest you have a motivational strength. Or if you’re saying ‘I need some time to think’ you may have a more reflective strength
My final tip focuses on how we can develop our own and other’s strengths through our relationships.
3. Is there someone in your life that you find irritating? Look at their behaviour and see if you can identify a strength in what they are doing. It may be a strength inappropriately used (that’s a different question!). See if you can give them sincere recognition for this strength and observe to see how this recognition affects both of you.