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Understand your strengths

Do you really know what talents make you special? I’ll bet you don’t. Sometimes people who have incredible talent don’t always recognize what they’re best at. Long ago I gave up the idea that I am a well-rounded leader. I have huge weaknesses, but I have some great strengths. I know enough about my weaknesses to find people who are truly strong in areas where I am deficient. Together we can make a great team, a well-rounded team. I can be comfortable joking about where I’m weak, and confident when I am playing to my strengths.

All it takes to understand your strengths is to get a well-rounded view from people that you trust. Speak to the people who know you well and ask them to give you their view on your strengths. You will soon see a consistent pattern emerging. You might also be amazed at what they say. One of the reasons this is so important is because very often your strengths are closely linked to your beliefs and can provide clues to your deep-seated values. More importantly, when you focus on trying to mitigate your weaknesses rather than playing to your strengths, people will quickly realize that you are uncomfortable and not being true to yourself. They won’t necessarily know why, but it could well lead to them not trusting you and finding you insincere. Your strengths are what make you unique. When you lead from your strengths you are more authentic.

Very often you are happiest when you are in a strength zone and it doesn’t feel like you have to make much effort. Others will ask how you manage to do something so well, and you will say: ‘Doesn’t everyone do it that way?’ Watch out! You could well be playing to a strength.

What are the things you naturally do regularly – at work and at home – and why? When are you happiest? What are you doing when you’re happiest and who are the people you’re with? What else contributes to your happiness?

Let me give you an example of leading from your strengths. Many years ago, while working for British Airways as Director of Communications, I was asked to host a weekend in Dubai for 20 employees and their partners. These employees had been selected as the very best of the best over the previous six months. All of them had gone well beyond the call of duty to deliver excellence in customer service, backroom operations or essential duties that kept the airline running. My role was to be very visible and ensure they enjoyed the weekend and that they recognized that the airline valued what they had done. For the first two days of the weekend, all I had to do was mix and mingle as we were given a fantastic tour of Dubai and its many wonders. On the last night, at a glittering dinner that was the culmination to the weekend, it was my job to make a speech and hand them their cheques and trophies.

I was brand-new in the airline and lacked confidence talking about the operations of the company, and I certainly lacked an understanding of the roles of the various prize winners. I dreaded having to make a speech – especially one that would be so important to all of these people and their partners – and feared that I would fail to make them feel proud.

After a while, I remembered that my strengths included listening, curiosity and storytelling. (Also, as you have just read, these are deeply held values of mine.) I decided that I would lavish them with praise at the event by utilizing all of those strengths. During the two days preceding the gala dinner I spent a lot of time quizzing them about themselves. I wanted to find out all about them, what they had done and why they had gone the extra mile for customers or the airline. I made sure I understood how this had affected their families and partners. On the night of the big event, I decided not to make a speech. Instead, I simply presented each of them with their money-laden envelopes and their trophies after giving them a ‘This Is Your Life’-style account of the amazing things they had done.

They loved it. They would. It was all about them, so why wouldn’t they? Afterwards, several couples came to me to remark on how well the evening and gone and marvel at how I had managed to turn their deeds into such good and entertaining stories. Some of them were such good employees that they had been to these awards weekends before. They commented that no director had ever attempted to do it the way I had. They had enjoyed this event far more. There was no talk about the airline, no platitudes about the importance of customer service. It was simple, journalistic storytelling about what each and every one of them had done. They felt hugely appreciated and not patronized. I hope they went back to their jobs inspired and prepared to rise to the occasion again if ever the need arose.

For someone who is hugely interested in people, is naturally curious, knows how to ask good questions and listen hard to the answers, and then tell some good stories, this was an act of leadership that really was quite easy and very, very authentic.

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