What's *just absolutely wild* about the work we do every day is that we get to wake up and answer the question: What should my contribution be? Think about that. Whether you choose to answer that question in the moment, or on an assignment, or in a job, or over an entire career ... you (we) get to make that choice! Every day!
Yeah, what's possible is bounded by the situation (the circumstances of the job, the organization, the problems, the projects, etc.) ... but inside of that there is an awesome opportunity to decide what your contribution is going to be.
And! If you don't like what's on offer, or it isn't a match for you, very little is holding you back from a different situation that is offering the contribution you're seeking. There are many, many, many situations out there. Find the right one for you. Better yet: create the right one for you.
And! This situation, the work you're doing right now, regardless of what it is, offers the best opportunity to develop your skills so that you provide yourself the opportunity to decide what your contribution is going to be tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that. And the day after that.
Peter Drucker called this Managing Oneself. It’s a necessity in The Transforming.
To manage oneself is to put yourself in the best possible situation to make a contribution. That's where we find professional success—and frankly, it's where professional satisfaction hides, too.
To do that, Pete the Great says, we need to know our strengths, how we work best, and our values. So let's get to it.
What are your strengths? Identify strengths; use strengths; improve strengths.
In other words, work and grow from strengths. "Most people think they know what they are good at," Drucker writes, "They are usually wrong.” I share Pete’s negativity only to encourage you to reflect.
Bad habits can get in the way. So we must remedy those. And—this bit is also not so good—each of us tends to develop an intellectual arrogance in our subjects of specialty ... because we're human. Something to be aware of. And something to overcome when present.
“Think strengths, not weaknesses,” as Dan Pink writes and captures what has become common advice. That’s because it works. Doing (more of) what you do consistently well is energizing, rather than the opposite which can become an on-ramp to burnout.
How do you prefer to work? Or: How do you do your work? Or: How do you get things done? Or: How do you perform best?
Our work methods are often just inherited from former jobs, colleagues, organization norms, bosses ... and sometimes they are not all that effective. One of the great mysteries of the modern workplace is just how little attention is given to *how* we perform our work tasks.
Rarely has anyone used a process of deliberate discovery to find what work methods "work" best for them—how we focus, how we set objectives, how we learn, how we decide, how we think, how we collaborate, work environment, etc. etc. etc.
We all perform work in different ways. Something that works for you can be a non-starter for someone else. So ensure the conditions that put you at your best are present as often as possible. It will help you to make the contribution you desire … while understanding flexibility is required, whether because a situation requires a different approach or colleagues have different performance needs.
What are my values? When it comes to doing the work you do, and how work fits in with the rest of your life, what do you value? What’s important to you?
"Personal values are the measuring sticks by which we determine what is a successful and meaningful life," writes Mark Manson, author of "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.”
Our values are often obvious upon reflection. Because values are right there in our day-to-day behavior and the choices we make each day. We very literally do what we value. And there's friction when what you have to do because of your job isn't aligned with what you value.
Finding the best opportunity to make the contribution we desire requires finding a workplace culture aligned with what’s important to us. As in, very truly and actually aligned. We all know the values posted on the website aren’t necessarily representative (nor comprehensive) of what the people in charge (whether of a team or at the tippity top) actually value.
So let’s summarize and multiply. Managing oneself—the practice of putting your answers to these questions to work—helps you to take control of your work and career in The Transforming by:
- Identifying the contribution you seek to make—either right now, and/or as far as into the future as you desire; and the results you expect to deliver
- Positioning yourself in the best work situations to make those contributions, and exiting those that appear to be contribution-limiting
- Establishing a point-of-view and direction for your personal talent development efforts (aligned with your sought-after contributions, strengths to build on, values to stay true to, and desired work situations)
- Becoming more intentional and deliberate about *how* you work—as in actually how you carry out the tasks that comprise “work", and the methods, tools, conditions, etc. that help you to do your best work
- Accepting responsibility for communication (collaboration and cooperation) with co-workers through a) the knowledge that each person has their own answers to these questions and b) sharing your answers with each other to establish understanding and improve trust
Here it is. Managing oneself gives us the power to make a subtle flip: rather than merely accepting (or not) the conditions of the job (or project, relationship, etc.) as it exists, we can move ahead with creating the conditions (for us and those we work with) to do our best work. That’s how we can take control of work and our careers in The Transforming.
These questions (nor the advice) are not Earth shattering in any way. It is, in fact, exactly what you might expect the output to be if a random group of knowledge workers were tasked with identifying the three best questions to find purposeful work.
What’s important about that, in my view, is this: 1) it’s good advice and 2) the challenge is in operationalizing the insights. How active are you in applying your strengths, your values, and preferred work methods?
The answer for most of us: not very. So there’s the opportunity: putting the advice into practice ... and seeing what happens as a result. Further thoughts on strengths, values, and our preferred work methods below.
Further Thoughts on Strengths
The internet is awash in advice for identifying your strengths ... and I have a few thoughts to add.
For the most part, we know what we’re good at. I’m not sure a rigorous strengths-finding exercise is going to illuminate some unknown set of strengths … other than to provide language to talk about your strengths. That’s important though, even if that talk is just self-talk, because the language to talk about strengths is important to develop the ability to apply strengths.
So identify ten. Just do it. Think broad. Very broad. A strength is any personal attribute that makes you better at the work you do. Document them.
Here are a few strength-identifying questions I like:
- What do other people come to you for?
- Why did your current employer hire you? Why will the next?
- What work tasks do you enjoy spending your time on?
- What comes especially easy to you right now? What have you done especially well in the past?
- What personality characteristics account for your greatest successes?
- What elements of your job do you perform better than others?
- At what do you have the ability to become excellent?
- What are you doing when you forget that you are at work?
- What would your boss or colleagues say you’re skilled at?
Capping the list at ten is pragmatic. When you get on a roll, you may not stop, and yes, by all means identify all 100 strengths you have. But then get the list down to ten. Having a list of a hundred strengths does little to help us apply those strengths in any meaningful way.
Come back to the list regularly and reflect: how have I used these strengths in my work since the last time I looked at the list? and what’s happening in the next couple of weeks where I can use (and build on/improve) these strengths?
Once you have a list, and if diving deep with strengths identification is something that excites you—by all means: dive, dive, dive away.
Gallup’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 is an interesting diagnostic. I’ve found the exercise to be more affirming than illuminating, but then that just may be what you need. Generally: I’ve found it to be more valuable to think about strengths beyond Gallup’s 34-strength classification.
A guide like this one from 80,000 Hours can help you identify strengths in a variety of ways.
A couple more things.
One activity that could prove surprising in identifying strengths you didn’t know you had is to ask other people what your strengths are. Friends and close colleagues are good relationships to lean on for this one; they are especially good at helping to identify strengths we may not have on our list because they come so naturally. Another idea: present a list of strengths to these folks and ask them for examples, feedback, and additions. More fodder for the noggin.
Two potential additional lists to consider adding:
- A list of not strengths—the work stuff you’ll avoid at just about any cost. This is good information to know. Perhaps even more important than your strengths. Hmm.
A few questions to ask for your not-strengths list:
- What would you prefer never to have to do again?
- What work tasks make your skin crawl?
- A list of future strengths—some people have career plans and know what roles are coming next. If that’s you, and something that needs to be a strength in that future role isn’t a current strength, well then it’s going to be good for you to know about it so you can start developing it.
A couple of thoughts on a list of future strengths:
- For the rest of us just figuring out the career-thing as we go: it’s important to understand strengths are developed. Even if an attribute comes naturally, there’s still opportunity to improve.
- Sub-advice for strengths: Say yes to new work experiences. These could be opportunities to identify new strengths. You can always say “not for me” once you know.
Anyway, all that to also say this: One strength we should all start developing straightaway is figuring out how to use our strengths more often. So much of work just … happens to us. Figuring out how to apply our strengths … and doing so … is one path to taking control of our careers in The Transforming.
Further Thoughts on How You Work
There are infinity answers (and infinity follow-up questions) to the question “How do you prefer to work?” I believe whatever comes to mind is worth your consideration.
The intent of the exercise is, yes, to identify your Personal Work System—but even more so to become aware of the idea that how we perform our jobs is comprised of numerous methods, tools, practices, patterns, ideas, behaviors, etc.—and all of which can be adapted to fit our and purposes within the “rules” of the work environment.
(I’m working on a simpler way to illustrate this idea, so if you have any thoughts, send me a note! … it sort of comes down to this: know how you prefer to do your work, be open to the idea that adjustments could make you even more effective, and realize every work environment is going to require certain personal concessions for collaborative and cooperative aims.)
So often we just accept the existing work environment as it is, instead of approaching the environment as something open to our influence and shaping the environment to help us do our best work.
This is about preferences, and includes ideas like these (and far beyond them as well):
solo versus group work—then the models and processes used to do that work; the technology tools we use; how we achieve focus; how we organize our day; the methods we use to manage meetings; how we learn; hybrid work; how we use email—or any communication tool; when we decide our workday is complete; the types of projects we prefer; preferred pace of work; how we participate in meetings; taking notes; music or talk radio in the background; best time of day for meetings; management philosophy; organization size;
hopefully it’s becoming clear just how endless this list can be … with the idea being that it’s worth reflecting on when/where/how/why/&who with you do your best work … and then being deliberate on cultivating those conditions as often as is possible (and on the flip: being clear about what conditions are most disruptive).
Here are five questions as a start:
- What work do you enjoy doing?
- What’s your ideal work environment?
- How do you get your job done? (Describe in detail at least one “process” you use.)
- What causes tension (irritates) for you at work?
- Where and what are your work boundaries?
Further Thoughts on Values
Like strengths, the internet is filled with advice on how to identify your personal values. Have at it. This guide from Mark Manson is good and entertaining.
For the practice of managing oneself, the value of ... ahem ... values ... comes through their application ... and so one statement and two questions about how you put your values into practice at work.
There’s the day-to-day living your work life “use” of our values. It’s in this somewhat-passive space that we don’t really think much about values because we’re already likely to have constructed an environment aligned with our values.
(I use the phrase "somewhat-passive” intentionally. It’s to account for the fact that we do what we value … which is to say that at work we either do what we care about, such as working autonomously, gaining experience to climb the corporate ladder, ensuring work/life balance ...
... or we don’t care much about what we do—which is just to say that we value something else more, such as a big fat paycheck. Nothing wrong with that.)
There’s a status quo as long as things continue as they are and as long as what you care about remains the same. That is, until we’re presented with a value-challenging situation requiring our response. This is the space where our values play out. And while it may be helpful in these instances to already Know Your Values, the context of the situation always matters, too.
So question one is: What now? You know the feeling. What do you do when a value is violated? Or when a situation creates tension with a value you hold?
Other than to reflect then act ... sometimes very quickly, I’m unsure there’s a universal response that guides what comes next. Each situation is situationally-dependent—(It just so happens that it is in these situations where our values are discovered)—and slight or momentary violations, extreme violations, and patterns of violations are all situations to be handled differently ... and then, of course, even within these categories of situations are situations to be handled differently.
Question two is a related question, yet separate in its own right: How do you outwardly express your values? Yes, you express them when you stand up for your values. And yes, you express your values in your day-to-day work. And also yes as a person in a management role.
It’s this last scenario that is, at least at work, your loudest expression of values, and perhaps with significant impact. It’s beneficial to know what your personal values are since you express them through your management interactions and responsibilities—(and you’re already expressing your values in this role, even if you haven’t put labels to what those values are.)
But I’ve found this to be more difficult than it might seem. Not because I’m not a values-driven human; but because I seem to have some level of affinity for *all* the values. I mean, you read this list and tell mehow easy it is to identify only the five most important values to supporting the work environment you’re creating. It’s a difficult task. I found myself muttering over and over again: “Yeah, I value that”.
"What differentiates the despotic from the beneficent leader is values; the moral, ethical, and spiritual content of the purpose and principles from which they derive their being." - Dee Hock
So if you’re a values-driven person ... which, I mean, you are human ... so even not expressing a value is an expression of a different value ... and don’t have the desire to journey on a values-discovering mission ... and haven’t yet put labels to the values important to you, I’ve got a less than 15-minute exercise to help.
Grab a pen and a piece of paper.
- Return to the aforelinked list
- Write down any value that resonates.
- Divide the values on your list into two categories: Yes, Definitely Important and Flexible. Add each value to one of those categories.
- Focus on the values in the “Yes, Definitely Important” category. Force rank them. Stop after 5 or 10.
- There you go. Review the list in thirty days. Still make sense? Adjust as needed.