THE BLOG
12/26/2011 08:56 am ET | Updated Feb 25, 2012

Career Advice for Women: Play To Your Strengths

Not a day goes by when I don't hear from someone unhappy in their job. So many of us are not in a role that honors our skills. We become disillusioned, frustrated and even burned-out because we are not playing to our strengths at work.

You Are Not Broken
There is a pervasive cultural phenomenon telling you how to improve upon your weaknesses and fix what you are not so good at. I'm here to tell you that you are not broken! You alone have the responsibility to stand up for yourself and seek out opportunities that play to your strengths because nobody else will do this for you. Think about using your strengths as a way to honor your career self. You should not be a guinea pig for your company to do jobs they need if they are not the best fit for you. If your organization wants you to improve and focus on something you don't do well naturally, then perhaps it's time to reconsider if you are with the right company.

It often starts with the job interview. The dreaded "Tell me your greatest weakness ..." question sets the tone for illustrating what you lack. I work in higher education where students obsess about their less than stellar grades and rarely celebrate what they do well. It's sad that we don't give ourselves credit for what we do well but spend so much time beating ourselves up for tasks and subjects we may not even like.

It's Your Responsibility
Imagine a work environment where each team member is playing to their strengths at least 80 percent of the time. Everybody fires on all cylinders, enjoys their work and time flies by because they are doing what they love and breathing their true career oxygen. It's not an impossible Utopian world to consider but you need to take back control and discover what makes you tick.

A wise mentor once told me that power is not given, but taken. As we approach the New Year, I encourage you to really get quiet with yourself and consider what you are truly good at -- this is your career power. Consider your strengths to be the oxygen of your career, the skills that you truly can't live without, the life blood of your professional world that you don't even consider as work.

Growth Strategy
In your next performance review, help your boss understand that your greatest potential for growth is with your strengths, not your weaknesses. Even though your organization may want to fix you, it's imperative for you to stand your ground and defend your right to play to your strengths.

I'm not talking about emotional intelligence competencies -- those are a necessity for all professional work environments and more behavioral in nature. I'm talking about skills that you do consistently and nearly perfectly on a regular basis. You should gain energy and satisfaction from doing these tasks but they are only considered a strength if you can fathom yourself doing them repeatedly, happily and successfully.

Talent Multiplied by Investment = Strengths
If you find yourself investing time in certain tasks because you love them so much, then chances are you have identified your strengths. The goal is to maximize your opportunity to play to your strengths at work and manage around, or minimize your weaknesses.

Realistically, unless you are your own boss calling all the shots, you won't have a job that plays to your strengths 100 percent of the time. But you should consider becoming an expert in what you do well instead of being a generalist that does a little bit of everything in a mediocre fashion. Better to hone your strengths to a sharper point than to try and do it all.

For example, not everyone will benefit from a Public Speaking class. Some will improve slightly and overcome a fear of speaking with the aid of practice and a class. But a true passion and proficiency for public speaking is a natural talent that can be nurtured and honed -- not everybody has this and that's okay. Don't force yourself into a skill set that doesn't honor your authentic self. Identify what you do well and work to strengthen those skills.

Grow Your Strengths
If you find yourself thinking in the future, anticipating the activity -- When can I do this again? -- that's a pretty good sign that you are using a talent and playing to your strength. If you dread an activity and can't wait for it to be over, you are probably not using a natural talent.

A weakness is any activity that leaves you feeling weak, an activity that bores you, frustrates you or drains you. We are all human and recognize our weaknesses, but learn to minimize them and maneuver around them so you are in control.

Your professional goal is to reduce weakening activities to 25 percent of your day.

What I Know For Sure
To borrow a coined phrase from Oprah, what I know for sure about strengths has revolutionized the way I work with my students and clients on their career & professional development journeys.

-You have wonderful and powerful strengths.
-You make your greatest contribution when you play to your strengths.
-Playing to your strengths should be as natural as breathing and fill you with energy.

As we look to 2012, I challenge you to own your strengths. Use your natural gifts and talents and make them even better. Playing to your strengths with energize you and give you more satisfaction in your career. Whether you are job searching, seeking promotional opportunities, or going through a major career reinvention -- it all starts with identifying your strengths. This is your career oxygen -- breathe deeply!

Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name (www.carolinedowdhiggins.com) She is the Director of Career & Professional Development and Adjunct faculty at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and hosts the CBS Radio Show: Career Coach Caroline weekly on Tuesdays at 5pm.

Subscribe to the In(formation) email.
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers.