Career Coach

Taking Yourself Too Seriously? Remember Your Mistakes Fondly.

Choose a Cue to Keep it Real

It was my first day of my first real job out of college. My paid internship in Washington DC had ended and I spent the summer playing with my sister and roommate, waiting tables and hosting at a couple of restaurants.

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When my sister moved back home to Colorado, my roommate convinced me to join a temp agency. Shortly after my first placement, the company offered me a job. My appointment with Lori in the HR department was scheduled at 8am on a Monday morning.

It was December, and it was still dark when I woke up, eager to go to my meeting, fill out paperwork, and start my job with the Meetings Department at the American Chemical Society. I dressed in the dark and popped my head into my roommate's bathroom to say goodbye, she said "good luck, Sarah!"

It was still dim outside as I made my way from the apartment to Union Station to catch the train. I sat for the few stops to the Farragut North station and held my little briefcase, a graduation gift from my dad, on the tops of my feet. In my eagerness and anxiety, the long escalator ride to the surface seemed even longer than usual. As I stepped off the escalator, out from under the awning and onto the sidewalk, I glanced down at my feet.

Oh dear.

I looked back up and took a few more steps. I thought, "Oh no, I wouldn't have done that."

Looking back down at my feet confirmed my initial observation: I was wearing two different colored shoes. One was black, the other was navy. They were identical pumps -- except for the color, which, now in full sunlight, was obvious.

Walking into the first office building on my left, I marched with confidence toward the tall counter as the man at the desk behind the counter looked up.

May I please use your phone?

No ma'am. This is not a public phone.

Please? It's kind of an emergency. I'm going to be late for my first day of a new job and I need to call and let them know! Please? (Insert brightest, sweetest, Colorado-hick-in-the-big-city smile I can muster.)

Oh, ok, I guess.

Good morning, Lori. I'm on my way over now, only a few blocks away, but I have to run home so I'm going to be late. Why? Well... I just noticed... I'm wearing two different colored shoes. ... No, I know I can't come to work like that. ... Yes, just about 30 minutes. ... Yes, I'll be there. Thank you.

I hung up the phone and the man at the counter stood to pull the phone back down to the desk so he could peer down at my feet and grin.

Smiling back and thanking him, I ran back to the Metro station. I found myself grinning, feeling very silly, and trying to cover my shoes with my briefcase when I sat down on the train. I managed to get home, change a shoe, drive back to the office, pay an outrageous price to park the car near the building, and get to the HR office in 30 minutes.

When I told my roommate the story over dinner, we couldn't stop laughing. Our stomachs were sore from the deep belly laughs that night. She reminded me of a few other little details I managed to mess up over the previous few months and came up with a term for those, "Sarah-isms."

Those small details add up in similar ways to what I described in an earlier post about finding multiple Band-Aids on my hands. The difference here is that these little details are silly, not dangerous. Stories like these are great reminders that we are human, we are fallible, and that while it's important to take our jobs and responsibilities seriously, we should never -- ever -- take ourselves too seriously. After all, we are all human, no matter how high the pedestal on which we may stand or be placed.

Just a few years after the two-different-shoes incident, I was in Vancouver, Canada, for work. My colleagues and I took an afternoon to rent a car and drive up to Whistler to explore. It's a beautiful ski resort not far from the city; it reminded me a lot of Vail, Colorado. We were there in the spring and the hills were covered in beautiful green grass and wild flowers. A small boutique store back then, Joe Boxer happened to be open that day. Joe Boxer was the brand that got big and famous, thanks to Forrest Gump and his yellow smiley face. At the time, it was a higher-end brand (now you can find it at KMart) and all the rage. I picked out a watch with a brown leather band and smiley faces in place of the numbers on the face. For my husband, I picked a fancy silver one with the smiley face imprinted in the face of the watch. You could only tell when you looked closely at it.

Wearing that watch as a DC professional, as a consultant implementing a major software program in agencies like the Federal Reserve, World Bank, and NSA, kept me grounded. When I found I was taking myself too seriously, all I had to do was look down at my watch. A smile would begin from my wrist and work its way up to my face, guaranteed. DC has far too many people who take themselves far too seriously. They didn't need one more.

What is Your Top Strength?

Hint: It’s a Thing You Do Naturally, And Don’t Even Know It’s Unique

In March I was gifted a book and code to take the StrengthsFinders assessment. Because I trust and admire the person who gifted it to me, I took the assessment and read through what it meant. I’m not a big fan of personality tests and other assessments for a few reasons:

  1. They can be used in a negative, labeling way, giving people an excuse to not pay attention to the needs of the people around them.

  2. They often aren’t paired with coaching or clear strategies for applying what you learn about yourself.

  3. If they are done out of context, without a specific purpose or mission, they miss an incredible opportunity for self reflection.

I took the assessment and read the results - no surprises there.

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Again, because it was a gift from someone I trust, I decided to dig a little deeper and actually started to read the introduction for the book. It turns out that I was taking the assessment out of context, exactly what bothers me about most assessments! As I read the book, I started to realize the incredible value in the concept of focusing on our strengths to build and improve on them, as opposed to finding our weaknesses and trying to improve those.

The lightbulb went on in my head.

Regardless of the tool we use in terms of these assessments, we need to focus our attention on what we do really well, and build and develop those skills. When we work on those things we don’t have a natural ability to do, we not only miss opportunities to spend that time and energy nurturing our unique strengths, we miss opportunities to collaborate with people with complementary strengths, making it feel like we have to do things all on our own, when we absolutely know that strong teams are more effective than someone working alone.

There are some things we simply have to do in our lives, like basic math, reading, and laundry. But when it comes to other parts of our lives, especially professionally, knowing what we are really good at, what makes us feel confident, competent, and satisfied, focusing on our strengths simply makes us happier, more successful, and more productive.

When I finished the book, I checked out the website and clicked the button “become a Strengths coach”, and a few months later I completed the requirements and was certified through Gallup.

Thanks to the training, I am now exploring my own strengths more deeply as I coach others using this tool. And it was as I was hiking on the mountain behind my house that I finally understood how one of them really shows up in my life. I had some ideas about it, but most of what I was considering were things I believe other people (without Strategic in their top 5-10), could also do well.

You know those things you do every day, those things you do without thinking about them at all, but that make your life make sense? Think about what annoys you about someone you love and spend a lot of time with, and consider this:

  • It annoys you because you do it too, and you don’t like that aspect of yourself or;

  • it annoys you because you do it differently - better and more efficiently - and you can’t figure out why THEY don’t do it that way.

If the answer is the second one here, this may give you a clue about how a certain strength shows up in your life.

As I was walking up the mountain, I was thinking about exactly the path I would take, how I would get home, and exactly why one path might be a better option than another.

BAM. Strategic just showed up.

When I get into the car to go somewhere, before I even leave the driveway I’ve planned my route to be the most efficient way to get to point B from point A. And if it’s a variety of stops, I’ve figured out how to avoid turning left onto a busy street, whether I’ll have frozen or cold groceries in the car and what that might mean for which stops are first vs. last, and how much time each stop should take.

Do you do this before you leave your home? Strategic might be one of your top strengths.

I was riding with our older son yesterday; he pulled out of the parking spot in front of our house and immediately turned left onto the cross street. It was everything in me not to make a suggestion about how to get to where we needed to be.

That’s when I realized that he simply doesn’t think like I do. Strategic is not the first place he goes when interacting or solving a problem. This kid is really smart (of course I think so), and though he hasn’t taken the assessment yet, I know FOCUS will be one of his top strengths. EMPATHY will be another. Neither of those are anywhere near my top 10. As a matter of fact, focus is nearly at the bottom of my list.

In a perfect world, my family and friends would simply ask me: “What order should we run these errands, and what is the route to get to each?” That would mean they understood and valued how STRATEGIC shows up in my life. And when I need someone to help me with empathy, I would go straight to my son to ask for guidance.

But it’s not a perfect world, and I often choose not to say anything when my husband is behind the wheel… unless he asks. In the rest of my life, though, that strategic way of thinking has been a tool that my best employers have found incredibly valuable. It’s also a strength that was not so appreciated or valued by employers who didn’t understand it, especially when I didn’t know how to present the best, most efficient solution to a problem to them in language that matched their strengths.

Prior to reading the Clifton StrengthsFinders book and taking the assessment, I was sitting in a session about scaling our business at the No Longer Virtual event in Denver in February, 2018. I listened closely to Benjamin Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing, Inc. as he spoke about when to hire staff or a contractor to delegate certain tasks.

“You started your business because you feel passionate about ___ and you’re especially talented at ___, so when you’re spending time on other aspects of the business, you’re practically leaving money on the table. Focus on what you do really well, and outsource the rest.”

Damn that’s smart.

Now it’s your turn.

Here’s your challenge, should you choose to accept it: Find your top strengths. Use an assessment if you’re having trouble identifying those activities that you thrive in, those things that come naturally to you. Try StrengthsFinders, DiSC (ask Heather Younger about this one), or Stand Out if you’re struggling, or if you just love this type of thing.

After you have a good idea about your top strengths, take a few weeks to absorb them, to find the ways they show up in your life so you can really own them.

Next? Find ways to use those strengths in your everyday activities, and take a moment to email me to share your observations. I’d love to hear from you.

Want to learn more about StrengthsFinders, and Elkins Consulting can help you and your team apply the results of your assessment to improve outcomes and communication? Email Sarah at

True Leaders Know They Always Have Something to Learn

Stories of Learning and Growth as a Leader

Just like many bosses before him, Rich Gassen was offered a management position without having ever been a manager, and without any training. Fortunate for his employees, he knew what he didn’t know, and took it upon himself to find the resources he needed to learn to do his job and do it well.

In my experience, the worst managers are the ones who think they have nothing to learn, and who don’t see themselves as their employees see them. Many take on the management style of someone they worked for, even if they disliked that manager, and complained often about their poor management and the disconnect with their staff.

But not Rich. Not only did he take advantage of the training opportunities and other resources available to him from his organization, he joined a group of managers that met regularly to share what they knew - and to complain. The dynamic changed in that group when they realized there were many other managers there who didn’t know what resources were available to them, and they decided to open up their informal group to create a more formal, active agency to help all managers improve.

Rich Gassen, bottom left, an unplanned, unexpected rock star.

Rich Gassen, bottom left, an unplanned, unexpected rock star.

In our conversation, we had a chance to talk about music, one of my favorite topics, of course. Here’s the link Rich promised to share, a song recorded in his time as a vocalist in a rock band called Madcity.

Connect with Rich on LinkedIn, and check out the website he created and manages for the Campus Supervisors Network at UW-Madison.

Disruption Through Distraction: Adventures in Fighting Boredom

When Disruption Takes the Form of Self-Sabotage

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Tara Bradford had everything going for her business, and the majority of her clients came directly from the video marketing she had been doing for a year. Suddenly, she decided to stop doing the videos. She was bored. And instead of finding ways to change her videos, and exploring other options in addition to the successful video activity, she. Just. Stopped.

This is just one example we spoke about in terms of the choices we’ve made out of boredom and being too comfortable, that ended up taking us in completely different directions - and not always in a good way.

Some of us just don’t recognize when we’re bored early enough to change direction with intention, rather than as impulse. Eventually, though, with enough self-reflection, we can start to see the symptoms before they become overwhelming. That’s the first step. The next step must be to consider our own roles in the scenario. And then? We must make the decision to take small steps toward digging us out of the situation, rather than rushing off into something we’re not really sure will take us where we want to go. Tara’s brilliant strategy was to put herself into situations that a) made her uncomfortable, and b) had her interacting with people and industries she would never have otherwise experienced.

How many times have you made a rash decision because you were dissatisfied, bored, or simply in maintenance mode in your life and/or business? What lessons did you learn from those experiences, and how do you choose to tell the stories so you’re learning from them, rather than being a victim of circumstances?

Tara Bradford helps individuals gain clarity on their goals and objectives, communicate confidently about themselves and their businesses, feel more understood in their professional relationships, and reach a global audience with their message so they can become Best Selling Authors, TEDx Speakers and, if we dream even bigger, Nobel Peace Price recipients.

Visit her website to learn more about what she can do to help you move forward - without those lateral distractions! And connect with her on LinkedIn to keep up with her extraordinary contributions to our global community.

Choose Your Location, and the Job Will Follow

JeanAnn never really thought about what she wanted to do in terms of everyday work to make an income, instead, she decided where she wanted to live, and picked a career that would take her to that place.