Work from Your Strengths

Amy (names throughout have been changed) had a problem. Her team was getting frustrated with the way she worked, and she didn’t know how to make them happy. As she explained it, her team explicitly asked her to explore problems they didn’t know how to solve. In Amy’s mind, this meant she would come back with answers when she found them — and not before. While her team always appreciated the answers she found, they also complained that she went dark on them while she was out exploring. Amy didn’t know what to do.

We talked about Amy’s strengths and how they showed up for her at work and in the other parts of her life. Then we guessed at her colleagues’ strengths. Now we had a framework to talk about the way she had been working and how that seemed to be experienced by her colleagues. We also drew a picture of what their ideal experiences might be, given what we thought their strengths were. This led us into a conversation about how she could change the way she worked while still being true to herself. She decided to try sending periodic “newsletters” back from her explorations. In each one she would highlight a few discoveries, draw connections to the questions her team had asked her to answer, and estimate when she thought she’d be back with a full report. Amy left our session happy that she had found a way to help her team get what they requested without working in a way that didn’t suit her strengths.

While Amy could have changed how she works to be exactly what her team was asking, it would have cost Amy a lot of energy to do so, energy she would then have not been able to apply to her work. Working out of our strengths is where we are most comfortable, where we are strongest, where we have the most potential. Why ever do anything else?

Just because something is a strength for us doesn’t mean we have developed that strength. Paula was a principal researcher. Her strengths indicated she could be fantastic at thinking through problems, wading through vast amounts of information, and seeing connections other people didn’t — exactly what she needed to do every day. As we talked, however, she realized that she had never set out to explicitly learn how to do these things. We identified several situations where her natural talent was proving to not be enough. Then we developed a strategy for Paula to school herself in her strengths and leverage her natural talent into new areas of growth.

Just because something is a strength for us doesn’t mean we apply it to our entire life, either. Paula also excelled at asking questions that uncovered the underlying causes of things. As we worked through the reasons why she had never sought out training in her strengths, Paula realized that she hadn’t been applying this skill of getting to the bottom of things to her own problems. We found specific ways for Paula apply her strengths to every part of her life — starting with using them to highlight where she needed to learn to better apply them.

Just because something is a strength for us doesn’t mean we’re going to enjoy everything that might make use of that strength. Paula knew that simply getting to engage her strengths at quickly coming up to speed on new areas and identifying the root causes of issues wasn’t enough motivation for her to willingly investigate issues reported by customers…until something piqued her interest was piqued, at which point she would dig in and dig deep and identify and resolve the customer’s issue. But she didn’t understand what piqued her interest. As we talked about this Paula decided to track her interest level as she worked on her next several customer issues to identify when it changed. She would also attempt to identify what caused it to change. As she does this I am sure she will see she is applying her strengths in ways she doesn’t realize.

While we are strongest when we are working out of our strengths, sometimes we can have more impact by flexing out of our strengths. When my friend Leon is at work he explicitly leaves behind his strengths of building structure and instead implements strengths of flexibility and spontaneity because he believes that’s what his team most needs. He and I talk about what his team gains and what it loses when he does this. We also talk about what might happen if he invested his energy into fueling his strengths rather than flexing out of them.

A more sustainable way to flex out of our strengths is to do so in specific situations. Flexing into the strengths of the person we are presenting to means they can focus all their energy on hearing what we are trying to say. Playing the part of a strength our team doesn’t have means we can provide a viewpoint our team is lacking. Working from other people’s strengths lets us experience the world from a novel point of view and gives us insight into how we apply our own strengths. Leon does all of this when he flexes into flexibility and spontaneity at work.

As we have talked Leon has realized the toll flexing out of his strengths takes. He has started keeping track of when he flexes out of his strengths and how it depletes him. He is also experimenting with ways to rebuild his energy in compensation. As Leon is discovering, we need to rest in our strengths to have the energy to work outside them.

Our strengths motivate us and drive us. Our strengths indicate how we prefer to work. They aren’t an automatic head start, nor are they a straitjacket. We can ignore them if we want to. We can let them atrophy and build other skills instead. We can help them grow or we can leave them malnourished.
Imagine what the world would be like, what we would collectively accomplish, if we only ever worked out of our strengths. If we never feared the strengths of those around us. If we always take advantage of what everyone else freely desires to do.

That is the world I am helping people make. Those are the people I am helping make it. We are the world you will be living in soon. Join us!