Albert Einstein would've been a terrible event planner.
Claude Monet would've been a failure as an accountant.
Napoleon Bonaparte would've made people worse as a therapist.
...Because our natural wiring doesn't unconditionally fit everywhere. Talent only shows up as strength in the right context.
Your talent is made up of that wiring- your instincts and personal “common sense” which is actually quite different than most everyone around you. It's what you do well without really trying, and the distinguishing impact you create. You just can’t see that, because it’s unconscious for you- truly instinctual. Yet- all of that natural uniqueness can go one way or another- can be seen as genius or problematic, which completely depends on the situation- the context you're in. The key to leveraging your wiring of talent into strength is finding the right setting where they can shine and make impact vs. languish or cause problems. That impact option is actually possible for everyone, and should be our standard as individuals and leaders for others- the ideal role matches for our natural talents, so that individual instinct shows up and shines as brilliance and strength.
I've had both- the problem side and the impact side.
My talent themes are Activator, Individualization, Strategic, Ideation, Command, Woo and Relator according to StrengthsFinder descriptors, which are spot-on. As strengths, these make me a great coach, advisor, trainer, consultant and teacher. In doing that work which taps my core strengths continually, I hone them with use, and get more energized by them all the time. Sounds awesome, right?
Our strengths actually get stronger and more effective the more we use them in a context that welcomes them.
Except "strengths" don't always seem so awesome at all...
They caused a lot of problems for me and many around me until I found the right fit. Infuriating as a public school teacher where I couldn't change the whole system instantly the way I knew it had to be changed. Frustrating as a student in someone else’s class/program where I was distracted by all the ways I know it could be taught more effectively. Borderline insubordinate as an employee where I didn’t get to make calls about direction or policy. Frustrating as the youngest in my family, in every setting where I was too young or under someone else's wing to choose my own direction. In every one of those contexts my “strengths” actually caused as much friction, tension and stress for everyone involved as they did good. Yes- great questions, life learning and even some positive, forward change came out of those situations too, but painfully.
Admittedly, some of that was personality-based. Yet...I've seen this mis-fit of talent a lot as a coach who gets called in to help in these situations, and usually it goes one of three ways (you'll see I'm number #3):
1. Person deals with it, compromised. They can do the role but don't get to do what they do best everyday. So they find ways to exercise and leverage those talents outside of their work or role, and get fulfillment only there. This is the classic "work is just a job" situation, where they never really get fulfillment from it, but see it as a means to an end. And their career never becomes an expression of their talent.
2. Person gets defeated. They don't get to use their talent in their role, resign themselves to "that's just life- gotta do what you gotta do," don't find a place to exercise those talents anywhere else either and feel generally unfulfilled and wondering where/what their talent is. (this is sadly very common)
3. Person forces it. Their talents don't really fit the role, but they push them anyhow, which causes friction in the way they get things done or fit into the culture. Maybe the friction produces some results, but in a grain-of-sand-in-the-oyster-turns-into-a-pearl way which we know gets created out of irritation.
None of those are good options. YOU need the right fit for your talent, so it can strengthen you, the results and everyone around you.
So, let me save you some steps and some of that pain...
1. Find out what your Strengths are.
If you haven’t taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder, please do so. It'll give you an accurate reading and great articulation of how your natural talents bundle together into strengths. It's become the new standard by giving pinpoint specific language to talents and strengths we've bumbled through explaining vaguely and inconsistently before. For your teams, look at each person's strengths individually and how they complement/challenge one another (both good).
2. Check your strengths against your current situation/role with this quick question… Do I get to do what I do best every day?
Really think about it, and your answer should be YES. This was the original question which led to Gallup’s wide and deep research on talent and strength, and one that I use early in mapping areas to coach with clients. Ask the individuals you lead the same. We all have some things we have to get functional competence in, even though they’re not our core strengths- that's life. Yet the bulk of what we do has to leverage our strengths in order for us to ever be truly great or fulfilled. This is actually NOT about balance- you should have far more you're doing from your strengths than not. It's possible that you just haven't found a way to apply your strengths to what you are responsible for every day, so try that first. Then...
3. If you find yourself having to force what you naturally do well into the role, or worse- never able to do it at all, then change roles.
Otherwise, you'll be forever frustrated, become exhausted trying to be great at what's unnatural for you (challenges are great, but should be add-ons to your core strength) and miss the fulfillment of doing what you are pulled to do easily and better than most people every day. Some of the most heartbreak-turned-inspiration situations I've coached are with people in the wrong position, yet nobody had recognized it or knew what to do about it. We get someone who's "a problem," "struggling" in their motivation, or "underperforming," I do some strength-sleuthing, and we figure out what they could be doing to leverage their talents and benefit the bigger results of the team... as their new job. Sometimes we can find it in how they do their work, sometimes we do switch them/create a different role altogether. Every time there's a transformation in impact, performance, and outlook for everyone involved. Every time I hear about how "results turned around, life got so much easier, yet I feel so much more challenged and engaged in a great way," because their energy is being spent leveraging and building their strengths naturally and effectively rather than trying to force a square peg into a round hole. As a leader, think about where this could be happening for individuals on your team right now.
You know you're in the right place and tapping your strengths when you do what's instinctual without even thinking about it, and people around you marvel at it as "brilliant." That means you're in the right context, coming from your hard-wired strengths, where it makes impact.
Finally I got the hints in those settings that pushed my strengths to trouble, I got out, got much happier and solved for most of those "problems"…contextually. I've created a career role which leverages my natural strengths, and I’m able to easily contribute significantly and make impact every day by just doing what I do, thinking the way I think and pushing the way I push instinctually. You can do this too, by continually checking yourself in roles and situations with that key question applied to your core work: "Do I get to do what I do best?"
Then you create the holy grail of ultimate fit, where you can work in situations that expand you, and you realize your own genius of talent in action (maybe your new definition of strength)... because it makes all the difference.