Are you working to your natural strengths?

An image showing a woman freeing a bird

Source: © Roger Chouinard/Ikon Images

Harness your talents to let your career ambitions fly free 

If you are a Grey’s Anatomy fan, then you may remember this quote from Meredith Grey in season 16: ‘Just because you can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.’

This describes the situation I found myself in as a scientific project manager in 2015. A few years into that role, I attended a professional development residential. To prepare for the first session, I took a type of personality test called a Talent Dynamics profile. This is based on the principle that we each have an underlying talent. When we allow this to shine, we can improve how we work with others, find our ideal career pathways and create extraordinary results.

The profile I received was a shock because it sounded absolutely nothing like me. When we debriefed the report, I realised my mistake. I had answered the questions in response to my current job activities rather than how I would answer the questions if I had a choice. Looking at all the other profiles revealed that I was operating at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to my natural talents. I was in the capability trap.

Working beyond sheer grit and determination

We can all do things that are not our strengths but they will require much more of our time and energy. What I had been lacking in natural ability, I was making up for with sheer grit, determination and hard work. No wonder I was exhausted, while others around me were thriving in the same role.

That pivotal moment of realisation was the beginning of my journey of self-discovery. It reignited a spark of belief in myself – but I had no clarity on next steps. Then, alongside looking after my two children and my project management role, I commercialised some research into a spin-out company. As part of this opportunity, I was offered coaching. This experience was life-changing.

Coaching is all about having conversations that lead to transformation and doing things differently. We defined intentions for my future and I took micro steps towards them each and every week. Where I got in my own way, which was often, we explored the blocks, then dismantled and moved beyond them. It wasn’t easy to hold up a mirror up to myself and take ownership of the behaviours I was displaying but I rapidly regained confidence and no longer felt stuck.

On reflection, I realised I still hadn’t quite found my career niche. It wasn’t enough for me to know that somewhere in the world the research I was involved in was making a difference. To feel fulfilled, I needed to see the difference I was making every single day.

Breaking through

Like Lemony Snicket’s book, a series of unfortunate events happened: I was overlooked for a promotion, had another miscarriage and then eight weeks into my third maternity leave my dad had a huge heart attack. These events left me asking big questions of myself. What legacy am I leaving?

I had found coaching so revolutionary that I didn’t return to work after maternity leave. Instead, I took a huge bet on myself, did a twelve-month coaching qualification and started my own company, Breakthrough Talent & Skills, that helps scientific women restore their confidence and design a career that feels purposeful. I find that coaching is a very creative process, which perfectly aligns with my primary Talent Dynamics profile. As a result, I have noticed I am fully absorbed in my work, have more fun and get great results.

I was always taught that to progress faster, you must work on your weaknesses. The principle of Talent Dynamics is the opposite; to be of most value, leverage your superpowers. Become even more brilliant at your natural talents while simultaneously building mitigation strategies for your blind spots. For example, I am a big picture thinker but not detail orientated. Therefore, I need an overview of my business finances to make decisions, but preparing tax returns and checking invoices is not the best use of my time. I delegate and outsource as many out-of-flow tasks like these as I can. Of course, there are times when delegation is not possible. A great tip is to identify the type of energy required to do tasks, get into that state before you start (music can help) and try to batch together tasks that require similar energy.

If you have fallen into the capability trap, then you may have been moulded to fit someone else’s purpose. Start by reviewing your learnt skills versus your natural talents and align them with your vision, purpose, mission and values to create a life that has meaningful impact. What would the successful version of you who has escaped the capability trap five years from now whisper in your ear?