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Business Journal

What's in the Way?

by Kathie Sorensen and Steve Crabtree

Having offered a general description of the nature of talent and presented Gallup's taxonomy of strengths as a useful framework for considering and capitalizing on your own particular talents, we turn now to a few potential obstacles you may face in that effort. Following are three topics commonly raised by participants at Gallup's Leadership Institute as barriers they have met in looking for ways to play to their strengths at work or in other areas of their lives.

Example 1: Soaring over incompatible managers
The first obstacle is simple: bad management. Shortsighted managers can create boundaries for their direct reports that seriously undermine the talent resources within an organization. Nancy R., for example, was a supervisor who was overflowing with imagination and creativity. Strong in the Futuristic theme, she produced a steady stream of ideas about the direction and potential of her department. However, she lacked detail-orientation, a strength that characterized her own manager. For months, her frustration grew as her ideas were sent back to her covered with corrections -- it was evident that her manager was too distracted by her grammatical errors and lack of precision to focus on the value of the underlying ideas. Her personal leadership consultant at Gallup helped Nancy explore possible strategies for resolving the situation. She left with both a short-term tactic and a longer-term strategy -- the former was to find an assistant or partner with strong proofing skills who would review her presentations and fine-tune the details so that her supervisor would be completely satisfied, while the latter was to seek opportunities to work with a new manager who would better appreciate her creativity.

Key questions to ask when addressing this type of obstacle: Does your manager see your unique talents? How can you help him or her appreciate those gifts and position you to make greater use of them?

Example 2: Maneuvering around organizational barriers
Often the very nature of the work environment itself can lead individuals away from activities at which they are best-suited. A compensation system that "promotes" top performers into managerial roles, for example, can force people to forsake positions which play to their strengths in order to attain higher status in the organization. Though such a hierarchy may appear to promote fairness, there is actually a great deal of injustice in requiring employees to leave jobs they find fulfilling in order to address other aspirations, such as increased levels of pay and responsibility.

At Gallup, we commonly work with employees like Bill N., a Leadership Institute participant who had recently been promoted from sales to management. He was a competent manager, but with all the drive and command at his disposal, he was better suited to working directly with customers as a sales representative. Bill had accepted the management job because of the implied rise in status. However, the move considerably reduced the day-to-day satisfaction Bill felt for his work, because it eliminated the parts of his job that he most loved and at which he was most successful. Upon realizing that his "promotion" had actually diminished rather than raised his odds of success, Bill resolved to regain his sales territory.

Organizational barriers can be particularly daunting to those seeking entry into a particular company or position. It's the old chicken-and-egg question commonly faced by job applicants: How can I acquire work experience if I'm required to have some in order to get it in the first place? It's a sort of Catch-22 generated by the disproportionate focus society places on skills and experience, often to the detriment of respect for talent. David G., a young man serving in the Coast Guard, recently expressed his frustration about such a situation, saying he had been ruled out of consideration for opportunities he knew would allow him to excel.

It's a tricky situation, but there are certainly approaches to help find the best solution. First, David shouldn't assume he can figure it out by himself. Gallup encourages its associates and clients to make frequent use of mentors and "career boards," to develop relationships with people further ahead on career paths similar to one they themselves would like to follow. Those are the best people to help David figure out how to get from Point A to Point B. In the process, David should try to identify natural Developers, mentors who will be able to see his talent and make suggestions about where it might best be applied. Second, David should be sure to consider alternative sources of experience; volunteer organizations, for example, frequently provide opportunities to explore one's talents and gain know-how without demanding any prior experience.

Key questions to ask when addressing this type of obstacle: What's the best long-term career path for me, regardless of immediate benefits or short-term impediments? What is my overarching passion, and is my current course in line with it?

Example 3: Dodging misguided advice
Our recommendation to seek mentors comes with a caveat. Often the impulse is to approach close friends or family members for advice. But one of the problems most commonly discussed by Gallup seminar participants is that they too readily accept other people's definitions of who they are. Keep in mind the possibility that even those who know you best can "miss" key areas of your potential because their perception of you is highly subjective. They may be looking at you through the window of their own talent. A longtime colleague may fail to appreciate your gift for Empathy, for example, simply because he or she doesn't share your relating talent and therefore doesn't tend to think in those terms.

Close personal relationships may put a slightly different spin on this type of obstacle. Psychologists have long noted that spouses often tend to idealize their perceptions of one another according to their conception of how the other should be. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does imply that even those closest to you may not always be in a position to know you as well as you know yourself. We're certainly not saying you should ignore the advice of those who care about you, but when making important life decisions you should also look to means of self-discovery that don't require seeing yourself through the eyes of others.

Key questions to ask when addressing this type of obstacle: When you receive feedback from people, ask yourself, "Does this surprise me? Does it fit who I am? Does this input say more about the person giving it than it does about me?"

Other frequently expressed concerns are not really "obstacles" at all. Perhaps the most common of these is age -- the idea that you "missed the boat," that the path you chose, though it doesn't play to your strengths or fully engage you -- is the one you're stuck with. That's simply wrongheaded thinking. It's never too late in life for self-discovery -- consideration of your talents should be a continual, lifelong process. When talent is given the attention it deserves, almost any obstacle can be overcome.

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