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How To Play To Your Distinctive Strengths

Finding what you do better than anyone else and matching it to a problem that needs solving can be the key to success.

How To Play To Your Distinctive Strengths
[Photo: Flickr user DaveBleasdale]

Disruptors not only look for unmet needs, they match those needs with their distinctive strengths. A distinctive strength is something that you do well that others within your sphere don’t. Pairing this strength with a need to be met or problem to be solved gives you the momentum necessary to move into hypergrowth. Here’s how:

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Identify What You Do Well

1. What skills have helped you survive? What unique skills have you developed to survive and then applied within your career to thrive?

2. What makes you feel strong? Do you feel strong when you’re teaching or learning, when you’re buying or selling, when you’re leading a team or creating on your own?

3. What exasperates you about others? Where does your “genius” emerge?

4. What made you different, even an oddball, as a child? Is there something that made you peculiar when you were young? Could it be your superpower?

5. What compliments do you shrug off? What compliments do you repeatedly dismiss?

6. What are your hard-won skills? What skills have you worked really hard to obtain?

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Identify Your Distinctive Strengths

Once you’ve identified your underlying assets or your core strengths, you also need to spot your distinctive strengths, defined as what you do well that others in your sphere don’t, in order to set your hand and footholds along the curve.

Consider the story of industrial designer Adam Richardson. At age six, he was sketching designs for cars; by age nine, he was surveying neighbors about their driving habits and measuring their car interiors. Thirty years ago, this was a unique strength—no one was approaching design through the lens of research. When Richardson graduated from college, because he hadn’t yet keyed in on this strength, he took a fairly traditional industrial designer job at Sun Microsystems. He quickly realized that most of his design industry colleagues were brilliantly creative but not particularly attuned to customers’ needs. He, by contrast, wasn’t the strongest stylist but was enthralled with market research and good at capturing it.

“I’m a good listener, and I like finding patterns in chaotic qualitative data,” he explains. He looked for a graduate program to help him hone those skills, but because popular ones such as the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Stanford Design Program didn’t exist then, he ended up cobbling together a course for himself via the University of Chicago’s self-directed Master of Arts Program in the Humanities. Once Richardson was willing to veer from the traditional industrial design path to study anthropology, ethnography, sociology, cultural theory, and art history, he was able to make the leap to a dream job at design consultancy Frog, and is now a financial services disruptor at Financial Engines.

Match Your Strengths with Unmet Needs

Once you have a clear picture of your one-of-a-kind skills, you can match those skills to unmet needs. Consider jobs where you’d be the wild-card candidate. Or look for ways to combine your passions. Look at problems that the organization needs solved, and ask yourself: Can I fix that?

Greg Sorensen, CEO of Siemens Healthcare North America, was able to solve a problem for both Siemens and himself. As a former professor of radiology and health sciences IT at Harvard Medical School, Sorensen is highly credentialed. If Sorensen had raised his hand for a CEO role, however, it is unlikely he would have been a serious contender. But after Siemens Healthcare North America spent a year trying to fill the CEO position with a traditional sales candidate, one of the division CEOs, Tom Miller, and the CEO of the Managing Board, Hermann Requardt, came up with the crazy idea to hire Sorensen: someone who could comfortably converse with CEOs of hospitals and department chairs at major medical schools, speak knowledgeably to the Wall Street Journal, and influence the conversation in health care reform. Because his unique portfolio of skills met the company’s need, Siemens was finally able to fill a critical position, and Sorensen had the opportunity to embark on a new endeavor.

Say Hello to the Low End of the Curve

Now that you’ve got a handle on your distinctive strengths and have found an unmet need, it’s time to disrupt, right? Unfortunately, at the low end of the curve, you’re so overwhelmed by new tasks, new people, and new information that finding the right unmet need to fit your unique confluence of skills can be very difficult. It’s tough to discern between something that is difficult to accomplish and something that is just the wrong fit.

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There is no shortage of jobs-to-be-done and problems to be solved. But there’s only one of you. The right problems are those that you somehow feel called to solve, and are capable of solving, because of your expertise and accumulated life experience. As you consider making the leap to a new learning curve, examine the assets you’ve acquired, and focus on what you can do that others cannot. Then look for a job that no one else is doing. Just as Darwin’s finches developed unique beaks to effectively get access to food, when you recognize and apply your distinctive strengths, you’ll quickly move up the pecking order of your personal curve of learning.

Excerpted with permission from Disrupt Yourself: Putting The Power Of Disruptive Innovation To Work.

Whitney Johnson is a speaker, consultant, and author of the forthcomingDisrupt Yourself: Putting The Power Of Disruptive Innovation To Work(Bibliomotion; October 6, 2015). Follow her on twitter at @johnsonwhitney.

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