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Finding your great gift

(MoneyWatch) At 32, I was associate dean of the USC Marshall School of Business, and on the first day of the job I knew I had made a terrible mistake. I realized that my new job took me away from what I did well -- teaching, writing, research, and consulting -- and made me a manager instead.

Almost immediately, my body told me of the error. At night, the noise of my teeth grinding would wake me up, the vibration still rattling my skull. I had a constant stomachache. Although I exercised daily, I could feel the tension growing.

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One of the big advances in leadership research over the last two decades offers a critical clue into the nature of my mistake: I was fitting myself into a job instead of looking to my natural gifts and finding a job that used them. Peter Drucker, the father of modern management theory, was one of many to sound off on the problem. If a person is average at something -- as I was with accounting -- he can spend his life in development and never get past "slightly above average." The same person can focus on a natural area of giftedness, spend the same development time, and become world class.

I ended up leaving that job about four years into it, and everyone is the better for the change. The question is: How do you do what I didn't and find your areas of strength?

Let's take the next step in this blog post -- how to find your "great gift" that is so strong and unique to you that it borders on being a superpower.

Think about it. What makes Batman, Batman? Wealth, fighting skills, and friends who can develop high-tech suits, cars, and other gear to aid his crime-fighting. His great gift -- the one that propels him and allows him to do what appears impossible -- is a belief: that he can become Batman, and that the world needs Batman. This belief is his great gift.

Sound far-fetched? Read a good biography of Winston Churchill or Theodore Roosevelt. They weren't that far from Batman in the grandiosity of their ambition and conviction that they could change the world. They knew their great gifts and used them, over and over. Their lives were up and down, but their great gift endured. (Yes, I just compared Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt to Batman.)

There are many approaches to finding your "core gift," "unique gift," "highest strengths," and they all have upsides and downsides. To see the results for ourselves, one of my consulting colleagues, Deirdre Gruendler, offered to be our guinea pig and try two different approaches, and comment on their effectiveness. She did this process when she was new in her current leadership role, director of the CultureSync Academy, in January of this year.

Question-Focused Process

Deirdre first went through a 90-minute coaching with Dan Kaufman. Dan asked Deirdre 19 questions about things like who she admires, what one thing she has always wanted to do, and so on. Dan followed up with questions, getting to what makes Deirdre feel most alive. At one point, Deirdre wrote down her answers to the 19 questions on pieces of paper and categorized them into themes, all under Dan's guidance.

Dan is an expert in education and psychology, with a doctorate in educational leadership. The process he took Deirdre through is one of the best that is focused on the unique responses of the person, rather than on the results of a survey. The upside is that this process isn't cookie-cutter. The downside is that it doesn't compare you to tens of thousands of others people.

Deirdre's greatest strengths, according to this process are: "Being present in the moment, given by being a conduit through which others can be connected to self and by providing freedom." Dan helped her identify three core areas.

The biggest takeaway, according to Deirdre, was a sense that she needed to become very serious about her gift and "not mess around anymore." She said the process focused her and that her strength statement, "had a ring of truth to it."

Dan helped her see that she has two strong drives that work against each other. One is highly focused on others, fun-loving, and bubbly. The other is highly focused on self, directed, and results-seeking. There was something about Dan Kaufman's work that integrated those," she said. "I could be attuned to others, fun to be around, and not mess around anymore, either."

While no substitute for a great strengths coach like Dan, Deirdre and I combined a lot of what we learned about finding your strengths into an activity we call The Seven Scenes. It's inspired by a lot of the best skill-discovery work out there.

Expert-Driven Process

On a December trip to Toronto, I had the good fortune of meeting Shannon Waller, who helped write "The Unique Ability." This book is based on Dan Sullivan's strategic coaching work. Shannon took Deirdre through two expert assessments: Kolbe and StrengthsFinder 2.0. After completing these assessments, Deirdre got feedback from people in her career and developed a list of the 10 things she always wanted to do.

Deirdre described the process as "back and forth, grounded in deep expertise from Kolbe and StrengthsFinder." Shannon pulled out key words from this dialogue, including: future, challenge, intrigue, facilitate, language, inspire, and impact.

From there, Shannon took a stab at Deirdre's "unique ability" statement: "My unique ability is paying attention to who people really are, making insightful connections, communicating an inspiring future, and playing with challenges so that people can have an impact."

Deirdre told me that the big insight was that people get energy from using their unique ability and lose energy when their focus drifts. She felt the unique ability process allowed her to see her gift relative to other people.

I should note that I have used StrengthsFinder 2.0 in my teaching and consulting work. As much as I am a fan, I believe its approach is a bit cookie-cutter. People get a list of overarching words, and often don't see the nuance in them. The power is in the specifics, and without someone like Shannon to help bridge the results, the insights are limited.

Still, as one of the automated, expertise-based approaches, it represents a small investment of time and money. In an attempt to go the last mile and get more specific with these gifts, the Seven Scenes tool mentioned above has a section on how to go from the output of a general survey on strengths to actionable insights about your gifts.

"No BS zone"

Deirdre said the question-based approaches, like the one Kaufman used, are ideal for individuals and teams. The expertise-based approaches, like StrengthsFinder, are good for organizational settings. In both cases, being able to talk it through with experts, like Dan and Shannon, made all the difference.

Seven months after this work, I'm happy to say Deirdre is flourishing in her new role. She recently told me, "When I'm using my gift, there's a sort of no BS zone that I love. It's no-nonsense, and also empathic to others, and safe." She talks more about it in her blog post, "What I learned, and didn't, from my personal assessment."

May we all be so fortunate to find and use our great gift.

Know your gift? Or ever try the tools referenced in this blog? If so, I hope you'll post a comment below.