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Managing Oneself

The Idea in Brief

We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity: If you've got ambition, drive, and smarts, you can rise to the top of your chosen profession--regardless of where you started out. But with opportunity comes responsibility. Companies today aren't managing their knowledge workers' careers. Rather, we must each be our own chief executive officer.

Simply put, it's up to you to carve out your place in the work world and know when to change course. And it's up to you to keep yourself engaged and productive during a work life that may span some 50 years.

To do all of these things well, you'll need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself. What are your most valuable strengths and most dangerous weaknesses? Equally important, how do you learn and work with others? What are your most deeply held values? And in what type of work environment can you make the greatest contribution?

The implication is clear: Only when you operate from a combination of your strengths and self-knowledge can you achieve true--and lasting--excellence.

The Idea in Practice

To build a life of excellence, begin by asking yourself these questions:

"What Are My Strengths?"

To accurately identify your strengths, use feedback analysis. Every time you make a key decision, write down the outcome you expect. Several months later, compare the actual results with your expected results. Look for patterns in what you're seeing: What results are you skilled at generating? What abilities do you need to enhance in order to get the results you want? What unproductive habits are preventing you from creating the outcomes you desire? In identifying opportunities for improvement, don't waste time cultivating skill areas where you have little competence. Instead, concentrate on--and build on--your strengths.

"How Do I Work?"

In what ways do you work best? Do you process information most effectively by reading it, or by hearing others discuss it? Do you accomplish the most by working with other people, or by working alone? Do you perform best while making decisions, or while advising others on key matters? Are you in top form when things get stressful, or do you function optimally in a highly predictable environment?

"What Are My Values?"

What are your ethics? What do you see as your most important responsibilities for living a worthy, ethical life? Do your organization's ethics resonate with your own values? If not, your career will likely be marked by frustration and poor performance.

"Where Do I Belong?"

Consider your strengths, preferred work style, and values. Based on these qualities, in what kind of work environment would you fit in best? Find the perfect fit, and you'll transform yourself from a merely acceptable employee into a star performer.

"What Can I Contribute?"

In earlier eras, companies told businesspeople what their contribution should be. Today, you have choices. To decide how you can best enhance your organization's performance, first ask what the situation requires. Based on your strengths, work style, and values, how might you make the greatest contribution to your organization's efforts?

Copyright 2004 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Further Reading


The Post-Capitalist Executive: An Interview with Peter F. Drucker

Harvard Business Review

May-June 1993

by T George Harris

Drucker explores the importance of self-management in the world of work. Corporations once built to last like the pyramids are now more like tents, he says. Thus individuals need to take responsibility for their own careers. Instead of assuming a traditional career trajectory up the corporate ladder, think in terms of a succession of professional assignments or projects.

In today's organizations competence is measured less in terms of subject matter and more in terms of abilities--for example, empathy and stamina under pressure. So it's up to you to help others understand what you're able to contribute to the overall project.

Drucker also notes that your role as an executive or manager has changed. You no longer manage a workforce; you manage individuals with a variety of skills. Your job, then, is to combine these skills in a variety of configurations to create the best results for your company.

How to Play to Your Strengths

Harvard Business Review

January 2005

by Laura Morgan Roberts, Gretchen Spreitzer, Jane Dutton, Robert Quinn, Emily Heaphy, and Brianna Barker

Like Drucker, the authors of this article emphasize the importance of understanding and leveraging your strengths. They present a feedback tool called the Reflective Best Self (RBS) exercise, which offers a feedback experience distinct from performance reviews (that typically focus on problem areas). RBS enables you to tap into talents you may not be aware of and use them to enhance your career potential.

To begin the exercise, solicit comments from family, friends, colleagues, and teachers--asking for specific examples of times when your unique strengths generated especially important benefits. Next, search for common themes among the feedback, organizing them in a table to develop a clear picture of your strong suits. Then write a self-portrait: a description of yourself that distills what you've learned from your feedback. Finally, redesign your personal job description so you can better shape the positions you choose to play--both now and in the next phase of your career.

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