Many years ago, a trusted mentor said to me: ‘Neil, you have a lot of strengths, and you keep playing to them. How will you develop new strengths if you are constantly focusing on what you are already good at?’. He went on to explain that what I was doing was very common, but it was also a very common way of standing in the way of my own development. What he encouraged me to do was to be clear about what areas I was not so strong in and look at how I could improve in those areas. From this discussion emerged the idea of turning weaknesses into strengths.
It is easy to feel embarrassed about what we are not very good at. The fear of being looked down upon, or even mocked is a strong and understandable one. So, it is not at all surprising that we have a strong attraction to sticking to what we are good at. Our self-esteem can suffer if we stray too far into the territory of ‘I’m not very good at this’. But, if we take it step by step, keep the process manageable and not overwhelming, then we can have a lot of success in ironing out weaknesses and, where possible, actually building them up into strengths.
One useful tool for doing this is a SWOT analysis. This involves identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This can be done in a helpful and straightforward way by taking a sheet of paper and dividing it into four sections, with Strengths and Weaknesses across the top and Opportunities and Threats across the bottom. Begin with the positives (Strengths and Opportunities), then balance this out with the negatives (Weaknesses and Threats). Once you have completed this your next step can be to look at how you can use elements of the positives to address elements of the weaknesses. For example, if you are good at communicating in writing, but tend to get nervous and tongue tied when communicating face to face, you can start to think about what it is that makes you good at communicating in writing (for example, being clear about what point you are trying to put across) and seeing whether you can adapt that to how you communicate in person.
This is just one example of what can be achieved through a SWOT analysis; there are, of course, many more. It is a case of seeing what works for you. If a SWOT analysis does not appeal to you, then there is no need to use it. You can simply identify what areas you feel you could improve on and see what steps you feel you could take to develop your abilities.
Whether or not you use a SWOT analysis, what can also be helpful is to learn from others. Who do you know who is good at something you struggle with? Watch them carefully. What is it they do that makes them so good? Is there anything you can learn from that? If you know them well enough, and trust them, why not talk to them about what it is they do so well? See if they have any tips or suggestions that may be of value to you.
But, an important rider is that you should not simply copy what they do. What works for them will not necessarily work for you. So, unthinkingly just aping their behaviour may cause you some difficulties. But, if you look more reflectively at what it is they are doing and how they are doing it, there may well be some very important lessons you can learn.
Turning weaknesses into strengths is not compulsory, of course, but it can give you new opportunities, new avenues for making progress and a real sense of achievement.
For more information about SWOT analysis and other useful ‘tools’, see Thompson, N. (2012) The People Solutions Sourcebook, 2nd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.