Playing to Your Strengths

I want to rewind the tape a little to my very first corporate gig.

About 25 years ago, I was running a workshop in Toronto on how to improve your recruiting process. At the end of one of the sessions, I was approached by a business consultant who asked if I would be open to bringing this same workshop to one of his clients – a big international company. His name was Barry, and he said the company’s engineering department – and specifically, its management team – would get a lot from a program like mine.

With some apprehension, I agreed to have lunch with him the following week to discuss the details. In the meantime, however, my mind was racing. I had never done a corporate event like the one he was describing. I seriously doubted whether I could pull such a thing off – or if I was even qualified.

As Barry and I sat down across from one another on the day of our lunch meeting, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to say. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I couldn’t really imagine saying yes, either. Then, he told me what they were willing to pay. It was equivalent to three weeks’ salary of the job I was doing at that time – for a 90-minute presentation that I’d already developed.

Contrary to what you might think, I did not do a little happy dance at the sound of this news. In fact, my reaction was the total opposite. That doubting little voice in the back of my head kept whispering: am I really worth all that money?

Still, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I attempted to gulp back my anxiety, and said yes.

About three weeks later, the big day finally arrived. Let me tell you: I didn’t sleep one wink the night before. As I got out of bed and put on my suit and tie, I kept glancing at my home phone (this was, of course, long before the era of texting.) I found myself half praying for the call that would say: “let’s reschedule.” It didn’t come.

I arrived at the company’s headquarters and I was practically sweating out of my suit. When Barry saw me, he could tell I was nervous.

“What’s the matter? You’re really good at this,” he said.

“Sure,” I replied. “But the people in that room are all seasoned, veteran managers and engineers.” Who was I to try and tell them anything?

Then Barry said exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. He said: “Yeah, they’re all excellent managers and excellent engineers. And if you were going in there to teach them about managing and engineering, I would say you should be nervous. But you’re not.

“You’re going to talk to them about improving their recruiting practices, and when it comes to that topic, you’re going to be the expert in the room.”

I nodded, shook off my nerves, and walked into the room.

And it was awesome.

It went so well, in fact, that at the end of the session, the boss came up to me and asked if we could book more sessions. He wanted me to not only continue working with the same team, but to bring this workshop to the company’s other managing teams.

I ended up doing that workshop six times, and each time, Barry’s words rang truer. Each time, my confidence grew as I realized I was indeed the expert in the room on what I had come in to talk about. If I had just played it safe and refused to bet on myself, I never would have come to that invaluable realization.

At the same time that I was learning to play to my own strengths, I was learning about the importance of letting others play to theirs.

It was a few sessions into my work with that original group – the managers of the engineering department. I had gotten to know them quite well over the previous few weeks, and one day I noticed they seemed a bit down. After a bit of back and forth, I found myself asking: “what is that you guys really want?”

There was a moment where no one said anything. Then, one brave gentleman spoke up.

To my surprise, he said: “Shawn, we want our old jobs back.”

He explained that they were a group of engineers who loved engineering. They went to school to solve problems. They were good at solving problems. They were so good, in fact, that they got promoted to management. As it turned out, managing people was probably their least favourite thing to do, and now their unique engineering skills made up a very small percentage of their day-to-day lives.

He concluded his speech by asking, on behalf of the group, if I would be willing to speak to their bosses about this issue. They had tried advocating to have more of the things they loved incorporated into their workdays, but their pleas had seemingly fallen on deaf ears.

I wasn’t sure how, but I said I would try.

I went home that night and got to brainstorming. And brainstorming. And brainstorming. How on Earth could I get their bosses to see what was going on?

About a week later, I had a meeting with their bosses. As we all sat down, I asked: “is anybody in here a hockey fan?” Luckily for me (and lucky it was a Canadian company), everyone put up their hands.

“Just for fun,” I said. “Who do you think is the greatest hockey player of all time?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the consensus was: Wayne Gretzky.

“Okay,” I said. “Second question: what’s the most important position in the playoffs?”

Once again, everyone was in agreement: the most important position in the playoffs was that of the goalie. Strong goaltending was essential, especially at crunch time.

“Okay, cool,” I replied. “Would you ever have Gretzky play goalie in the playoffs?”

Everyone laughed. Of course not, they said. Gretzky played centre. Putting him into net would be ridiculous.

Before I could lose my nerve, I said: “So, why did you put all your engineers into net? You guys took a bunch of Gretzkys and made them goalies.”

There was a pause – one that was just long enough to make me wonder, “uh oh – did I overstep?”

Then – and I swear you could practically see it – the lightbulbs came on above their heads.

In the next couple months, the company made some pretty massive changes. I came back half a year later and those engineers were like different people, because now, they were playing to their strengths. They were allowed to do what they did best, and everyone benefited from it.

The simple fact of the matter is that everyone should be playing to their strengths – as often as possible.

Time and time again, I’ve worked with entrepreneurs who have reached a certain (albeit highly impressive) plateau with their business. Their problem is that they don’t know how to take things to the next level. They’ve spent the last decade hustling day and night, taking care of everything that needs taking care of. And of course, this is important. Especially in the early days, there can be a lot of long hours and a lot of busy weekends.

But there comes a point – which typically comes when things have been going really well for a good long while – when every entrepreneur needs to take a long hard look at how they’re spending all their time. They need to start thinking and acting a little differently. This is where it becomes so critical to identify your strengths, and to start investing more time in those strengths.

This can be a long process – figuring out what your unique strengths. But it’s absolutely essential if you want to get to the next level. And if you’re reading this book, it might be time to start figuring out yours.

To get my clients to start reflecting on this subject, I often ask some variation of the question: “what is the one thing that, when you do it, everybody wins?”

The answers I most commonly hear in response are things like: “investing time to think on the vision of the business” or “investing in key relationships” or “investing in my team and their growth.”

Deep down, they know what they’re really good at. And you probably do, too.

The real kicker comes when I ask: “what percentage of your time last week was invested in doing that thing you’re really good at?” The answer is usually alarmingly low – somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.

One of the quickest ways to improve not only your profits, but your health and your relationships – not to mention the profits, health, and relationships of your entire team – is to have everyone playing to their strengths every day.

That means saying no to things that fall outside of your strengths. And that can be a tough pill to swallow at first. But when everybody plays to their strengths, we all win. The sooner you and your team embrace this, the better.

Takeaway Tip:

Ask yourself: what are my top three strengths? If you need a little help, just fill in the blank: When I ______________________________________, everybody wins.

Then ask yourself: what percentage of my week last week was invested in playing to my strengths? What’s one thing can I do differently next week to increase that percentage?