I have always been an education junkie. I’m endlessly curious and constantly looking things up when I’m reading articles, having conversations, or listening to podcasts (the internet is both my friend and my foe). I am obsessed with online courses and constantly distracted by the skills that I know I could strengthen…and then there are the things I didn’t know I didn’t know (ifykyk). Let’s just say that educational rabbit holes are my downfall.
Last month I took a big leap. I decided it was time to level up my business acumen with formal business education, so I applied for the Executive Development Program at the Wharton School of Business. Even with my 20+ years of entrepreneurial, business, and leadership experience, my lack of official business education always made me uncomfortable. (My Master’s in Counseling served me well but for an entirely different kind of sensitivity analysis…and now I can make operational jokes. #winning)
Within the course, I was particularly excited to work 1:1 with a coach (shout out to the fabulous Eunice Carpitella) who observed us in our group simulations and provided feedback on strengths & weaknesses. During my initial session with Eunice, we started with an assessment report that included a self-analysis and detailed input from colleagues, peers, and mentors on their observations of me. In my typical self-flagellating style, I quickly glossed over the reported strengths and instead focused on weaknesses, citing the many skills and characteristics I wanted to shore up and/or develop. (Human nature, right?)
Eunice laughed, kindly admitted to our similar tendency to do this, and then dropped a bomb. She pointed out that while it is beneficial to learn and improve skills/behaviors, skimming over strengths is a vital error….and that in fact, I should lean into my strengths. Instead of brushing aside my strengths, I should embrace my natural skills and focus on the work that plays to them.
Embrace my natural skills. Not saying that there isn’t room for improvement, because there always is, but digging into where I naturally excel. Being aware of where my weaknesses would benefit from support but focusing my efforts on my inherent traits and talents. Don’t people gain more pleasure when we do something that suits our personalities and skills? Doesn’t it feel fantastic when we tap into our natural abilities and go with our internal flow?
Author and Management Consultant Marcus Buckingham thinks so. “Learning is like new buds on an existing branch,” says Buckingham. “If you want to win, if you want to excel, if you want to stand out, you’re going to have to take the few unique things about you that are beautiful and powerful, and take them seriously, and turn them into contributions.” In fact, in an article from your.yale.edu, the writer highlights Buckingham's point (as did Eunice) that "things that drain our energy, though we may excel at them, tend to inhibit our learning. Brain science indicates that we shut down our capacity to learn something new from the experience because we have a very low energy level to complete the exercise." Why fight science?
For me, this was revolutionary. I could still learn and expand my skills (growth is good!), but instead of trying to remake myself into someone I’m not, my *primary* lane should center on maximizing the things I naturally do well.
Are you interested in building a business but not sure what you might do? Or are you running a business and pushing yourself to learn all the things so you can be the best CEO/CFO/CMO/COO for your company? First, figure out where your strengths lie so you can move forward in a way that maximizes your inherent abilities (and then you can determine where you would get the highest ROI from bringing on complementary support).
Let’s say you *aren’t* taking a course that provides this assessment opportunity (although I highly recommend it). Do you sometimes struggle to figure out what you do well? Do you have some blind spots when it comes to your own talents? Here are a few ways you can identify your strengths:
Ask your friends
You may have friends who are endless cheerleaders and will tell you only good things about yourself (we love them). You may have others who can be relied upon to give you the down & dirty (we love them too). Both are useful! Ask your friends to help you identify your talents: When do they turn to you? What are you known for in your circle? When would they NEVER ask you for help? Gather all their data – whether it’s that you’re known for being a great negotiator or they would never turn to you if they discovered a spider infestation (I shudder to even write those words), you may start to see some common threads. You may even be enlightened by certain skills you never really considered.
Ask your family
Note: proceed with caution! Some people are close to parts, or all, of their family, others have relationships that can be kindly called works-in-progress. Be judicious. It is not useful to solicit information from someone who will seize the opportunity to put you down or who is known to be exceedingly negative. But if you have supportive family members, you may gain valuable long-term information from them. What characteristics have been consistent throughout your life? What was important to you when you were younger? What brought you joy as a child? What might you have pushed aside that you don’t remember? While these answers may not lead you directly down the right path, it may tap into some fundamental characteristics and deep-seated desires.
Ask your colleagues
Do you have work friends or mentors who might be willing to share their observations? You can gain incredible, objective insights on your abilities by those who see you in action. You may ask the same questions you asked your friends: when do they turn to you? What are you known for on your team? When would they never ask you for help? Different from performance reviews, hearing how your peers perceive your abilities can be illuminating. (Tip: asking a peer for a LinkedIn recommendation is a casual way to gather this intel.)
Do you have access to prior performance reviews? Can you remember the areas where your managers raved about your performance? Depending on how they are delivered, performance reviews can provoke anxiety or defensiveness in the moment (or maybe you were always a rock star!) but looking back over time can be useful. These can be powerful tools cumulatively to identify consistent strengths.
- Catalogue when you are in a flow (when you work on a project and completely lose all sense of time – that’s flow)
- Stream of consciousness journaling (don’t pressure yourself to write every day, just try periodically and see where your thoughts take you)
- Complete a values exercise (most companies recognize the importance of values to guide their decisions, it will likely help you clarify what’s important to you)
- Media consumption (your Netflix queue, podcast list, favorite songs, and book collection may tell you something about your tendencies and skills….maybe the fact that you watch KUWTK has some deeper meaning. You never know.)
- Read job descriptions (pay attention to your internal reaction to the description, not your qualifications – does it sound interesting?)
- Take aptitude tests (check out reputable sites for free aptitude tests or if there is an area where you would really like to dig in, contact a Pepperlane member who specializes in interpretation and implementation for tools such as the Enneagram)
- Attend an event to tap into your unconscious thoughts (we held a phenomenal event on this in May; subscribe to our newsletter to be notified of future events)
Whether you are interested in starting a business, or planning where you may hire to support your growing business, understanding, embracing, and leaning into your strengths is the first step towards growth. Need support from a community who gets it? Come to a Pepperlane Boost on us!