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Self-Assessment: Use Strengths to Overcome Weaknesses

In my last post, I shared the story of my good friend “Steve” who was able to improve his lot when he lost his job by doing an honest gap analysis. This deep, introspective look at his key strengths and weaknesses formed the skeleton of how he would move toward his short- and long-term career goals. Assessment tools helped him identify the specific hard and soft skill gaps he needed to address. A self-assessment can do the same for you – but how do you do it?

While assessment tools can be informal -- honest conversations with your peers and even meditation and mindfulness -- I’ll focus on the more formal tools. Many companies offer testing that identifies strengths and weaknesses in hard and soft skills. Your HR department can point you to some they subscribe to and searches will turn up other assessment tools available online (too many to list here). But what do they do? Some are focused on your quality of life; others are specific to the abilities required to address business, leadership and interpersonal challenges that would identify you as a "high potential." I recommend considering the assessment tools that focus primarily on strengths.

Taking the path of most resistance – that is, putting all of your energy into improving weaknesses – can be  an exercise in futility and frustration. Concentrating on strengths arms you with unbiased information to guide your choice of professional direction. It can accelerate and solidify your change journey because being successful activates reward centers in our brain and “feel-good” chemicals that reinforce desired behavior. But focusing only on your strengths limits you to who you already are. Be sure to address career-limiting behaviors and gaps that could be holding you back.

Once a Lawyer, Always a Lawyer?

Suppose you’ve been a copyright lawyer for 10 years. But for the past five years, you’ve been bored with the tedium of voluminous patent applications and the endless paper trail to prove a client’s right to his own idea. You’re thinking about doing something else, as far away from law as you can get – maybe teaching, maybe opening a garden shop.

But the self-diagnostic test you take points elsewhere: You rank high in empathy, you love harmony and consensus. You are analytical and introspective and like to be around people, not paper. However, you’re impatient with individuals who don’t grasp your meaning immediately and you’re risk-averse. In other words, you’re not a great candidate to inspire slow-learning students or to take the chance on retail.

But your ability to spend long hours considering all facets of a problem before coming to a logical conclusion does fit well with the law. Perhaps, rather than running from the career that you chose originally because you were attracted to its intellectual heft, studiousness and rationality, you should consider an aspect of the legal profession that feeds your desire to be around people and your need to be empathetic. A job as a labor lawyer or counsel in Human Resources might be just your thing.

Pinpointing the Skills You Lack

Isolating the talent holes you need to fill is best done by backwards engineering. Write down the five hard and soft skills most essential to excel at the job you hope to attain.  Pick a skill you lack. Be honest with yourself, and ask your mentors and peers to weigh in. This is important – closing the hard and soft skill gaps will ensure you reach where you want to go in your learning quest.

Bob, who works in the medical instruments division at a large company, is a good example. His unit is a design and development team, a “skunk works” for new diagnostic healthcare equipment. He wanted to be a supervisor, but something about the way he did his job shook management’s confidence in his ability to lead a group of workers. Yet when he took a strengths assessment test, his perception of himself was borne out: He ranked high in command – in having presence, taking control of a situation and making decisions. Bob also scored well in being able to turn thoughts into actions.

So Bob interviewed his supervisors about their jobs and spoke to mentors and advisors who worked in similar settings to see if they could help identify the skills he lacked. He found out that to be a supervisor in a dynamic, fast-moving industrial design setting, he needed excellent time management skills. Keeping track of schedules for a team of 20 working on different projects in different time zones was tough. Moving between development meetings and strategic management sessions while keeping new ideas percolating could be a daunting task for anyone not well-organized – which, unfortunately, described Bob to a “T” (even he would admit). So time management was clearly the soft skills gap he needed to work on. As for the hard skill, it was closely related: He decided to learn Microsoft Project, a project management program that he uses as a collaboration tool for everyone on his team. And, yes, his team: Within a year, Bob got the promotion that he had long wanted.

Bob’s case isn’t particularly unique or rare. Recognizing his career goal he took the necessary steps to find out what he had going for him and what he was missing. If you're realistic about your own capabilities – you’re not trying to become a Broadway musical star despite being tone-deaf and possessing two left feet – it just takes hard work to achieve it. And overcoming a weakness can be just as satisfying and just as significant as amplifying a strength.


*This story is an excerpt from the forthcoming Ferrazzi Greenlight book tentatively titled The University of You. To make it as impactful as possible for organizations intent on moving to intentional, self-directed learning for their employees, we plan to customize the book with stories and examples drawn from the learning paths of the leaders and individuals in each organization. Contact us at for more information.

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