THE BLOG
07/11/2014 12:57 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

Loving Your Job: Are You a Starter, Builder, Fixer, or Runner?

You spend the majority of your time at work solving problems. It makes sense then that your long term career success and happiness depend on knowing -- and selecting roles that focus on -- the type of problems you enjoy the most. Use that to guide your career and you will be one of "the lucky ones" who love their work.

The opposite is also true.

I see this over and over again coaching execs and aspiring leaders: Each of us is pulled toward one or two categories of problems, and prefers to avoid the others. For example, some people love solving the problems of starting new things. Others seek out the issues of growing something from small to large. Still others prefer to fix big problems or turn around something failing, and get bored once that's done. Finally there are the Steady Eddies who are happy solving the incremental issues to keep things on track.

Which one or two is/are the most you? It's simple to figure out: Look back on the happiest times in your career or life, and the least happy times, and you will see your own pattern.

If, for example, you are a "starter/builder" in a "fixer/runner" role, things are going to be painful for you and the organization. If you're a starter/builder in a startup situation you're going to be in the zone.

Similarly, it's helpful to understand that the types of problems an organization NEEDS solved vary with business cycles and level of maturity of the enterprise. A turnaround situation is simply not well served with a starter/builder at the helm. There needs to be a match.

That's not to say a fixer can't be a starter and vice versa -- over time our careers will call for every one of these things. Yet to be at your best and do your best work consistently, you need to understand your natural preferences and align / realign with a matching job or organizational need.

Looking at the Four Preferences

As you consider each of these preferences, ask yourself: Which one or two is/are the most "you" at this point in your life? Which of the challenges give you your biggest thrill, or sense of fulfillment? Which would you rather avoid? Which would you like to spend the majority of your time doing? Are you doing that now? If not, what needs to happen?

1. The "Starter" loves the challenges of the blank whiteboard. S/he sees it as an invitation to innovation, invention or creation, and will take the steps needed to turn that clear vision into action. They probably have more than ten domain names, patents, or trademarks at the ready. They have the soul of an entrepreneur/ instigator and the energy and skills to go with it. Once it's off the ground, interest tends to move on to the next big idea.

2. The "Builder" loves the challenges of growing something from formative to fruitful. S/he will be at peace when the dials of volumes, sales or other growth metrics are spinning up - with their hands on the wheels. They love applying cleverness and skill to balancing resources versus constraints versus high demand, and are happiest when that results in the "great to have" problems of significant growth. Over time, as the growth line inevitably begins to flatten, the Builder will be ready for a change.

3. The "Fixer" loves the challenges of something or someone in need, and the promise of making a big difference. S/he wants to get into gnarly issues -- the tougher the better. They believe in their ability to instigate change, even when others see a wall or puzzle of human or organizational nature. They are happiest when applying their smarts and skills to make a big impact that leads to lasting change. Once done with the remarkable feat, it's time for the next new challenge.

4. The "Runner" loves the challenges of the long game. S/he enjoys ongoing responsibility through thick and thin, ever keeping a steady hand on the tiller. They are less likely to want to change things significantly over a short period of time, but want to make more subtle adjustments that keep things on track. They see the long haul responsibility not as a burden, but as a blessing.

Not only is it critical for a leader or executive to know themselves, but it's also important to understand your team, and anyone you may hire.

The secret here is that it's not "luck" that guides us into doing the work we love - it's simply knowing ourselves, and making choices that turn that knowledge into a direction that fits us.