Executive Careers Blog

Tip for Success: Know Your Strengths

Paul Hellman

"It was all luck . . . and nothing else."

David Lees | Digital Vision | Getty Images

That's Mario Cuomo, talking to The New York Times on April 10 about how he became the governor of New York.

You've probably had the same thought, perhaps not about Mario Cuomo, but about yourself.

There's charm to downplaying your success. But if you truly regard your accomplishments as lucky, that's dangerous.

It means you don't know how you did whatever you did. Therefore, you can't repeat it. Or teach others.

Also, not knowing your strengths and skills, you feel like a fraud.

Do you know your strengths? You certainly know your weaknesses—not all of them, but at least the ones other people have been telling you about for years.

Take me:

1) I have no sense of direction. If you ever get lost in a car with me and I advise you to turn right, don't.

2) Filing. I'm awful at it. Every few months, I resolve to de-clutter. Then I re-clutter. That's been going on for years.

3) I can't swim three lengths of a pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes. This one doesn't come up much. But it might, according to NASA, if I decided to become an astronaut, which I won't.

You can't build a career around repairing your weaknesses.

Strengths are more solid. Unfortunately, your strengths are often invisible, at least to you.

Strengths come so naturally that we take them for granted, like a fish that never needed swimming lessons.

How do you identify your strengths?

1) Self-assess. One useful book: "Strengths Finder 2.0," by Tom Rath. It identifies 34 strengths. Skim the book in 10 minutes to find a few of yours.

Some have strange names, like "woo" (acronym for Winning Others Over).

"All my taxi drivers," said one woman, quoted for woo, "propose to me."

I've been in a lot of taxis, both as a passenger and, years ago, as a driver (hopelessly lost). Nothing like that ever happened to me.

Obviously, I need more woo.

Another good resource: Richard Bolles' "What Color is Your Parachute Workbook," based on his best-selling "Parachute" book (disclaimer: I'm briefly mentioned in that book).

Bolles lists 69 skills, arranged in three categories: People (there are 25 different people skills), Information (20 skills) and Things (24 skills).

He suggests taking one of your accomplishments, from any age, and checking off the skills you used. Do that five to six times, for five to six different accomplishments—suddenly, you see a pattern.

2) Ask others. Ask a few people to write you a letter about your strengths. Ask your friends, your family, your manager.

Got woo? Ask your next cab driver.

Tip: Know your strengths—you're more likely to get "lucky."

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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