Continuing my series of posts on what I thought were the “key themes” from the sessions I attended at SLA 2011 (first post is here – had a small break from blogging to go camping in Wales, so sorry for the gap in posting!), one point which came up in a few sessions was the need to focus on your strengths.
This thought was triggered by something Stephen Abram said during the LMD marketing breakfast. He talked about being told by his managers at one point in his career that he really needed to improve his skills with spreadsheets and budgets – to which his response was to ask if there was suddenly a shortage of accountants! Stephen’s point (I think) was that you really shouldn’t waste time working to improve something that doesn’t come naturally to you, that you are unlikely to ever shine at, and that other people within your organisation are more than capable of doing. Instead, focus on what you are awesome at, and make sure everyone knows that that’s the thing which you, of everyone in the organisation, can do best.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should shy away from things you aren’t so good at altogether – it’s important to keep trying new skills and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. I think though it is important to draw a distinction between things that you aren’t comfortable with but could be given time, and things that you are never going to get along with. One suggestion that the panel made was to keep a list throughout the week of where your energy is going: fill one column with things you’ve done (work-wise or other) that have energised and inspired you, and things that have just drained your energy. It’s possible that doing things that are difficult and outside of your comfort zone can still inspire you – I feel that way about public speaking – whereas something that is just never going to be a good fit for you will always feel draining.
An interesting example of how knowing your strengths can be beneficial throughout your career came from a session on “The Corporate Library in Turbulent Times”. Jim Matarazzo and Toby Pearlstein were discussing what to do if you find out that your department is in line to be outsourced. They pointed out that although outsourcing is something of a dirty word in corporate libraries, it can actually be a sustainability tool – and libraries are already engaged in a type of outsourcing of certain areas of our work, such as using a subscription agent. Part of knowing your strengths means honestly evaluating where you are actually adding value, and what parts of your work (or your departments’ work) perhaps could be better done externally. Corporate libraries have to be aligned with the values and costs of their parent organisations, so if that means targeting parts of your own service for cost savings then there is little you can do but make the best of the situation. The speakers also pointed out that if you are going to be outsourced, better that you have some control over the process rather than it simply be something that happens to you. Librarians have a wealth of experience in evaluating services and products, and calculating value for money, so if your information service is likely to be outsourced then you are best of positioning yourself to advise on how this could best be handled and drive decisions as to what stays in-house and what is handled externally.
One of the last sessions I attended at SLA, Bruce Rosenstein on “Creating your future the Peter Drucker way”, was also one of the most inspiring. Rosenstein was discussing management consultant Peter Drucker’s ideas and philosophies, and how they can be applied to managing your professional and personal life and planning for the future. I felt that most of this really came down to knowing yourself, learning where your strengths lie and capitalising on those. For example, in a video interview with Peter Drucker (filmed not long before he passed away in 2005), Drucker argued that the most contented people are those who have multiple goals, and “live in multiple worlds”. He stated that the unhappiest people he’d known were those that had single-mindedly pursued one goal, whether that be money, political influence, or otherwise – because either they never obtained their goal and couldn’t be satisfied, or they did obtain their goal and then had nothing to reach for. Rosenstein suggested applying this idea to your own life by developing parallel careers, e.g. in writing or teaching – not only will this give you extra options if your work situation changes, it will also allow you to build on and develop your strengths in different areas which can then feed into and support each other.
My most valuable takeaway from this session was the idea that not every opportunity was created equal. Rosenstein stressed that you don’t have to take the first opportunity that comes your way, even if it initially looks great, if upon reflection it doesn’t fit with your goals and/or values. I think that knowing what opportunities are actually worth taking comes back to the idea of knowing your own strengths – if you don’t really know what is likely to motivate you and what will just make you miserable, how can you really judge what paths you should follow? Rosenstein suggested making a “total life list” as a tool to help you understand your strengths, goals and motivation. He only sketched over this briefly (I believe it is described more fully in his book) but as I understood it, this seemed to include listing everything that is currently important in your life (he split this up into People, Personal and Professional) alongside everything you aspire to achieving or just having in your life. I saw this as being complementary to the idea suggested in the LMD marketing breakfast about listing everything that motivates/demotivates you.
All of this gave me a lot of food for thought, and fed back into much of what I’ve been thinking lately on what I should focus on and what I should do less of (for more on this, see Joeyanne‘s excellent post on when to say no). I’d love to hear from more people about this – do you have a clear idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are? If so, did you make a concerted effort to find those out, or do you just have a general sense of what you’re good/bad at? And if you do have a solid idea of where your strengths lie, has that helped you in your career?