||The Brazen Careerist
Playing to your strengths
My son, it turns out, is a special-needs kid.
When my husband and I first heard the news about his disabilities
-- a neurological disorder and several gastrointestinal ailments
that kept him from talking and eating -- we were not composed enough
to use politically correct lingo like "special needs."
We found ourselves saying things like, "Our kid is messed up,"
and asking questions like, "When he goes to school will he
be with the retards?"
Now that I have taken my son to months of therapy,
three hours a day, five days a week (speech, occupational, feeding,
etc.), I have learned a lot about the world of special-needs kids.
The most striking aspect of this world is that therapists don't
strive to change the kid as much as they strive to encourage the
As an overprotective, paranoid mother of a special-needs
kid, I challenged this tactic. "You know," I informed
my son's speech therapist, "I am a big fan of noting my weaknesses
and attacking them." The speech therapist smiled at me, as
if to say, "That poor mother. So overwhelmed and misguided."
But after a few sessions of the speech therapist
sitting on the floor with my son playing with Elmo toys he had mastered
long ago, my son started talking. The other therapists worked with
him the same way -- playing up his strengths to help him achieve
Naturally, I plan to show how playing with Elmo
toys relates to managing one's career. But first, another bit about
therapists. When my pediatrician first told me my son was having
major problems (as a first-time mother, I thought everything looked
fine), my husband and I engaged in rigorous denial, culminating
in our decision to have another child when our current child was
on the brink of being hospitalized for malnutrition.
We didn't realize how bad things were until a New
York State health-services representative called to say that we
qualified for free social work because, "Parents of children
in such dire condition usually need outside help." It wasn't
so much the phrase "dire condition" that convinced us.
It was the fact that the state of New York was chasing us down to
give us free services. Things have to be bad for this to happen.
Our social worker impressed us right away as being
more qualified than us to deal with our child's problems. I assumed
she would hang out at our home for hours criticizing all the things
we did wrong. Instead, she played to our strengths. Saying to me,
"You read to your son so well -- he loves books," was
her way of hinting, "Can you bring the same attention to feeding?"
This is asking a lot from a health-food obsessed mother who loves
to read and hates to gain weight, but I am trying, and it is working.
My son has chubby cheeks again, and they were hard earned, believe
After watching health professionals confront life-or-death
issues with the play-to-the-strengths approach, I am floored that
more people don't use this in their careers.
Use the Elmo approach: If you are good at making Elmo
pop up out of his box, then build from that. Whatever your strengths
are, build on them. If you are great with details, don't go into
sales or be a big-picture manager. Consider accounting or detective
In the Elmo-level world, child therapists help kids
build small motor, large motor, verbal and social skills. They start
with the best skill and go from there. If a kid is good at large-motor
coordination, he will learn to be social through sports. The corporate
world has detail mongers, relationship builders and leaders. If
relationship building is your best skill, try to excel in sales,
then acquire the leadership and other skills needed to reach the
If you're just starting out in your career, figure
out and cater to what you're good at. If you are a queen of detail,
you are likely to be most successful starting in a solitary role
that rewards perfectionism instead of in a sales position that requires
extensive relationship building. Don't be seduced by a career that
"looks fun." It may require skills in your weakest areas,
and you'll be discouraged from the start.
If you are at mid-career but can't move further, examine
the skills you used to start your career to see if they've given
you a sturdy enough foundation to move up. I started my career,
for example, with work that involved writing, and then I moved to
marketing management and then to running my own company, where I
learned to sell. I wouldn't have succeeded if I had started out
in sales -- I have little raw talent for sales.
If your base skills aren't strong enough to hold you,
your forward momentum may stall. Think about strengthening your
base. Develop a specialty that caters to your core talent, and then
expand on it. This may mean making a lateral career move to a spot
where you can excel.
One of the earliest jobs I had was writing marketing
brochures about joysticks for video games. I used to loathe that
part of my resume as a mundane and unimportant time, and I would
gloss over it in interviews. But the truth is, I did an incredible
job with those joysticks and earned a big promotion into management.
Now I look at my joystick time with nostalgia: They were my Elmo
-- Posted: March 29, 2004