“I constantly feel like I’m not good at what I do; everything seems harder for me than for everyone else,” desperately sighed my client; let’s call her Samantha.
“Well, why do you keep doing it?” I asked.
“What do you mean? It’s my job. I have to. My team is counting on me.” Samantha almost seemed annoyed that I asked.
“I know that it’s your job, I know your team is counting on you, but no one makes you do this. There must be a reason you keep coming in day after day and chipping away at this. What do you like about it?”
She paused. “Honestly, nothing. I used to love my job. I used to wake up excited every morning, be the first into the office, and would get lost in the work.”
“Well, I guess it started when my team got bigger. I love managing people and working with them one-on-one. But as my team grew, I couldn’t really spend much time doing it. Now, I spend my time planning and running meetings. It’s exhausting. I hate speaking in front of groups, and I don’t feel like I can have the impact I was having when the team was small.”
Alarm bells began to flash for me. “Samantha,” I asked, “Tell me more about what it was like when your team was small and you loved coming to work.”
Her tone immediately shifted and she even began to smile. “It was amazing. Every single day I was helping someone on my team improve. We were tackling problems together. I didn’t need to micromanage anyone because I could trust everyone on the team to do what they said.”
“Samantha, what would it be like if you could do that again?”
“Amazing!” Her eyes got wider and she began talking a mile a minute. “I would love coming to work again, the team would thrive - I think - and we’d put out higher quality products.”
“What’s stopping you?”
She paused and looked down. Then I saw a smile starting to appear in the corner of her mouth. “Nothing.” She was beaming.
Samantha's Story is Not Unique
Samantha experienced what so many of us find as we grow into our jobs. What was once thrilling becomes overly stressful and unfulfilling. We get thrust into positions that play to our weaknesses and we are clamoring to keep up. We’re afraid that if we’re honest about how we feel - that the work isn’t playing to our strengths - we’ll get demoted, lose the confidence of our teams, or maybe even get fired. And so we justify the challenge: we have to grow, this is leadership, if we work harder, we’ll get there.
For sure, challenge is great and pushing yourself into the unknown is how we grow and develop. But when does it become too much? When will that boulder you’ve been pushing up the hill come tumbling down on top of you?
In Samantha’s case, it was clear. She was miserable and had been for some time. She had taken on greater challenges, but they weren’t getting easier, she lost her passion for the job, and most important, she wasn’t sure why she was doing what she was doing.
Start with Why
Pushing your limits is how you grow, but pushing your limits without a purpose is how you cause burnout and delusion. When I work with clients taking on a new challenge, we always start with why. Why take on this new challenge? What’s important to you? What do you hope to get out of it?
If Samantha had said that facilitating meetings had been a lifelong goal of hers because ultimately she wanted to enter a field where public speaking was central to the job, we would have dug into how she could grow there. Perhaps she would have attended a Toastmasters class or found some other low-stakes practice grounds. But she didn’t have a why. She didn’t have a reason to be pushing this boulder up the hill. Instead, it was depleting her and she was at risk of leaving or losing her job; she needed to return to her strengths.
Strengths-based is not sugar coating
Often when I talk about playing to your strengths, clients think that means sugar coating the truth. Just the opposite. A strengths-based approach looks at where your natural talents lay. And we do that so we can leverage those talents even more and so that we can choose how to approach your weaknesses. You may decide that you want to tackle a weakness because it’s really important to your career. Great! We’ll look at how you can use your strengths to do just that.
For Samantha, if she really wanted the position she was in, we might have looked at her mentoring strengths. It was clear that she was great at coaching people one-on-one. How could she leverage that talent in a large meeting? Instead of focusing on how hard it was for her to command the room, we might have explored how her ability to ask great questions could help her create a safe space for everyone at the meeting.
When you focus on your strengths, you are more productive, efficient, and fulfilled. Research shows that organizations that support employees in leaning into their strengths have increases in employee engagement, which ultimately leads to higher profitability, lower turnover, and greater customer satisfaction.
Four ways to leverage your strengths
All this strengths talk is great, but how do you actually do it?
1. Build internal awareness
Until you know what’s important to you, what your values are, and what makes you feel purposeful and fulfilled, it will be pretty hard to answer the why question above. I work with clients on this topic all of the time, and it’s amazing what’s inside of you if you bother to take the time to look. Working with a coach or on your own, reflect on a peak experience, a moment in time when life was particularly poignant. What made this a peak moment for you? What is important about this moment? Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? As you think about this moment, what values stand out for you? Do this exercise a few times and begin uncovering what is really valuable to you. How much are you honoring those values today? What changes do you need to make?
2. Develop external awareness
As researcher and author, Tasha Eurich writes in her book, Insight, it turns out that the more aware we think we are, the less aware we actually are. She calls this the Feel Good Effect: we tend to see ourselves with rose-colored glasses. There’s a reason we have mirrors: we can’t see ourselves without them. We need other people to reflect back to us how we are perceived. By gaining feedback from your trusted advisors, you’ll likely learn where others see your strengths and weaknesses, and you may be pretty surprised at what you find out. You can do this by soliciting feedback regularly from teammates (try: What’s one thing I should start doing, one thing I should stop doing, and one thing I should continue doing?) or by having a coach conduct a 360 assessment for you.
As you do this, one thing to keep in mind is that no feedback is the truth about you. Make sure you are open to the feedback, that you really listen, and then you choose carefully waht to take on and integrate into your work, life, and how you show up. There’s almost always helpful information in feedback, but make sure you reflect deeply and choose what makes the most sense for you to act on. Working with a coach to sort through feedback can be really helpful.
3. Crosswalk your strengths with your activities
With a greater awareness of your strengths, you’re ready to take a look at how you spend your day and find opportunities to lean further into your strengths and make conscious choices about how to manage your weaknesses.
Start by creating a list of your major responsibilities - what you thin you should do, what you want to do, and what you actually do. Then note which of these areas leverage your strengths and which tap into your weaknesses. None of this is black and white, so allow for some gray. You can do this using rating numbers or just journaling about what you notice.
When you notice areas that are forcing you to lean away from your strengths, consciously choose what to do about them. Here are two ideas:
If this is an area you have a good reason for developing, ask what strengths you can rely on to grow here and who can help you develop these skills.
If this is an area you’re not interested in developing, think about how to delegate it to someone who might be better and perhaps more interested in this area.
4. Share your strengths
While this work can be challenging in and of itself, it’s important to share it with others. By naming and claiming your strengths, you’re letting others know what you’re really good at and where you want to be spending your time and efforts. You create some personal accountability by doing this; now you really have to lean into your strengths. You also open possibilities for others to support you in leaning further into those strengths. They’ll think of you as opportunities arise.
Uncovering and leveraging your strengths can be the work of a lifetime. And just by setting the intention to begin this work, you’ll start noticing opportunities to immediately lean further toward your strengths. People who do more of what they do well and are intentional about where and how they choose to challenge themselves are more productive, happy, and enjoyable to work and live with.
So what happened to Samantha?
Our conversation forced Samantha to answer some hard questions. She had to really look in the mirror and return to her values. Once she knew what was important to her, the answer was clear. She went to her boss, told her what was going on, and asked if she could join a different team, one that was just getting off the ground and hadn’t built the rapport or structures that her current team had.
Samantha successfully built that team, and she also knew when it had reached the point to pass off to someone else. Eventually, Samantha went to work for a smaller company focused less on growth and more on sustained impact.
I use Samantha’s story not to say that if something is hard, back down and go toward your comfort zone. Rather, the point is to know your strengths and weaknesses, be clear about what’s really important to you, and be intentional with your growth and development.