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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 kid's strengths.

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 more.

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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 me.

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 work.

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 CEO position.

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 days.

-- Posted: March 29, 2004

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