What are you great at?

By Matt Norquist on May 10, 2016

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I just couldn’t stick with it.

It didn’t work for me.

I need a better tool to automate this.

It’s easy for Jill; she’s just better at this than I am.

We’ve all heard them. We’ve all made them. Excuses abound for why many of us don’t stick to—or in some cases don’t even set—personal growth goals.

What if it were as simple as just changing the target? Often, I see leaders set targets that are based on someone else’s life and abilities, or based on the latest book, or based on fixing—once and for all—the weakness that is holding us back.

In their seminal book on the topic Now, Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton suggest that we will each ultimately realize greater success and satisfaction by focusing on the things that we naturally excel at. Buckingham expounds on this in Stand Out—and our research at Linkage, inclusive of data from more than 135,000 leaders worldwide, concludes that the most effective leaders encourage their teams to draw on one another’s strengths, while the least effective ones focus largely on adhering to a standard process to make sure that the right people are involved in a project. The winning combination necessary to achieve success is having the right people on the team and figuring out how to best leverage their talents.

Identifying the one or two areas where you and your team can become world-class is about more than just finding something you love. For instance, I love to golf. Love it. And I’ve shown flashes of being better than okay. But I’m reasonably certain that even if I dedicated every day to it for the next 10 years, I would not approach world-class.

And even if I did have the natural talent to be a PGA player, I wouldn’t one day find out or “discover” that ability. In fact, our work has led us to the conclusion that learning to use our strengths is partially discovery, partially creation, and partially making the most of what we have.

When it comes to discovery, there are some tried-and-true ways to help you uncover your strengths:

  • When you are performing an activity, do you achieve states of flow? This is also known as “the zone,” when you feel a state of full immersion, energized focus, extreme animation—where time almost stands still (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 1990). If you experience rapid improvement when learning something new, this is a good sign that you have natural talent in this area.
  • Take advantage of the many great assessment tools available out there. I like the Gallup StrengthsFinder and some of the tools focused on finding purpose developed by Richard Leider.
  • And last but not least, don’t discount the value of getting feedback from friends and family. Those who know us best can be a great window into our talents.

The development of our strengths can be a little less glamorous, requiring time and practice, practice, practice. This is where the 10,000-hours rule (researched by Anders Ericcson, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, disputed by many) comes in. Finding something that we are naturally well-suited for and then working like crazy at it year in, year out—for years, even decades—is where we have the potential to create our biggest impact and ultimately feel the greatest fulfillment.

If Michael Jordan was satisfied by merely playing casual pick-up games after school, he might have reached stardom in the local men’s basketball league, but he certainly never would have earned an astounding six NBA Championship rings.

There is no question that it takes toil to hone a talent into strength. But, with hard work and persistence, it is possible. And, it requires finding that extra drive from within—and following your passion.

It’s when your eyes wear out from trying to get five pages of your dissertation written in between your evening classes and a 7 AM shift at work—but you do it anyway.

It’s when your mind gets crossed trying to rationalize two conflicting pieces of data that you keep mulling over and then, all of a sudden, something clicks and what was once an unsolvable paradox is suddenly a brilliant solution that you’d never seen before.

It’s when you know you’re the only one up at 5 AM and you’ve successfully gotten to the gym and cleared out your email inbox before anyone else has hit the snooze button.

The third and final area to help us leverage our strengths is recognizing and making the most of what we have. The reality is that when it comes time to perform, we’ve got what we’ve got. There is a legend (I couldn’t verify if true or not) about famed violinist Itzhak Perlman, who started playing a concert in New York City, only to have one of the strings on his violin break. But, it’s what he did next that shocked his audience. He proceeded to do the impossible and give a master performance on a violin with just three strings. Whether true or not, the metaphor is hard to forget. He prepared his entire life to perfect music on an instrument with four strings—and yet when it came time to deliver, he had to play on three in front of one of the most demanding crowds in the world. And, he proceeded to play a masterpiece.

Maybe our job as leaders, as individuals, is to get out our three-stringed violin (let’s be honest, most of us are playing with three strings) and play the best music we can. Right here. Right now. And keep playing.

How did you discover your strengths as a leader? What advice would you add to this list? Please share your thoughts and reflections below, or with me at mnorquist@linkageinc.com.

Posted in Blog, Executive Development, Leadership Development, Talent Management

About Matt Norquist

Matt Norquist is President and CEO of Linkage. He has a passion for driving business change at the leader, team and organizational levels. Through his experience working with elite athletes and business leaders, Matt has identified that peak performance can be accelerated by taking a disciplined approach of planning, preparation and practice.
2 comments on “What are you great at?
  1. Shirley Walker says:

    I discovered my strengths as a leader by pushing my limits. I was not quite sure what career I wanted to pursue, but I did understand the brand I wanted for myself so I decided to use my internship to find my best fit. The “submitting an application online” deal was not working for me. I had submitted over 30 applications with no luck. From there I pursued all the avenues that I could take with a business degree, narrowed it down, began cold calling, and using my limited network of professionals I knew. I struck gold!

    On a graduate school visit I took with my college I became interested in economic development. So I made contact with the closest economic development authorities two near me. One was looking for an interns and we set up an interview. I received that internship! Shortly after, one of the people in my small network received a call from a store manager interested in hiring an intern for the firs time. The store manager visited our school and we had the chance to meet and we exchanged information. We kept in contact and I asked to shadow her. Little did I know it was one of the busiest days of the month! I spent 12 unpaid hours in that store doing everything she did. Needless to say, after that she was impressed and I also received an offer for her internship!

    What did I do?! Accept them both and take an online class, of course! But, there was a problem: the internship at the store was a two hour drive one way for me; a combined four hour round trip. I was terrified! I was not sure how it all would work, but I wanted to take every opportunity to gain experience and learn so I figured it out. I negotiated my first internship and took on the second immediately. For 11 weeks I drove those four hour round trips, working up to 14 hour shifts. I completed that internship with referrals to become an Asset Protection Manager and I was also offered full-time employment as an Manager-in-Training. My second internship lasted for a whole year where I am currently a Project Manager and CFO in training for the airport. Most importantly, I made an A in my online class!

    During this chaos I discovered my strengths and what I was truly capable of. I pressed the best out of me and I found that I only scratched the surface of my potential. My advice to add to the list would be to try new things. Put yourself out there and press your limits. The worse thing that can happen is failure. The best thing that could happen is you expose your strengths. Good luck to everyone!

    • Sarah Breigle says:

      Dear Shirley,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to write in. We’re thrilled that Matt’s blog post resonated with you and we appreciate the addition of your great advice. Matt is currently out of the office on vacation, but I will be sure to pass your note along to him when he returns next week.
      Warm Regards,
      Sarah Breigle, Editor

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