Episode 84: Never Try to Be Something You're Not

You wouldn’t think that word could cause such discouragement and frustration.


It was the Women’s Leadership Retreat in early January, and my first experience on a board of a community organization. I was that year’s Vice President, and my primary responsibility for the year was to organize, coordinate, and host the annual conference that fall.

Episode 83: Your Strengths are Your Stories

Lisa was promoted and knew she would work hard to be a great manager. She had enough experiences, good and bad, to know what she didn’t want to do. But she had an immediate challenge in one of her employees, and had almost decided to find a way to let her go, to fire her. Something about having that kind of power, the ability to make a decision that would at least temporarily have a big impact on a person’s life, made her question her decision, thank goodness.

Episode 62: Missed Opportunities in Leadership

…and Opportunities Taken

I’ve had a handful of good managers in my career. I consider them good when a manager trusts me to get my work done, cares about me, doesn’t micro-manage, and does their best to advocate for me and provide the resources I need to do my job.

What’s missing here?


Early in my career, I was offered an incredible opportunity to be a branch administrator in Washington DC as the branch transitioned to a new owner, a company based in Vancouver, Canada. It was probably beyond my experience and skills, but the branch manager interviewed me (in a coffee shop, one of the best interviews of my life), hired me on the spot, and generally trusted that I could figure out my role and be successful. In other words, he trusted his instinct that I could make him look good to the new owners.

I did.

He didn’t micromanage me. He gave me full authority to make decisions, while making sure I knew I could talk to him and ask for guidance at any time. Over the course of about 10 weeks, I negotiated a lease for new, raw office space, 3x larger than the space we were in, worked with an architect to design the interior (layout/offices, paint, carpet, etc.), negotiated data and phone system installation, and even purchased artwork.

When the time came, I organized, coordinated, and managed the move of our employees and the contents of our tiny office space into our new location in about 24 hours, losing only about 4 hours of productivity for those employees. I was 24. It felt like a huge accomplishment, especially because I had never done anything like that before.

After I set up and trained staff in A/R, A/P, payroll, benefits, and basic processes and procedures of the new company, I settled into my position… and promptly got bored. Six months after the move, my boss saw the minor mistakes I was making, called me into his office, and asked me about them. I honestly didn’t know how to answer him, so I got defensive. He figured it out before I did, thank goodness, and within a few weeks, he hired a new branch administrator and transitioned me into a junior consultant role.

I enjoyed every client site I worked on, moved around enough to keep me interested and constantly learning, and was appreciated and valued by our clients. But I still hadn’t figured out exactly what my unique skill sets were, so I simply moved between tasks, learned a lot about everything I touched, and moved on again.

I look back now and think:

Thank goodness I had a boss who basically understood me, so I could learn and grow in that position. What incredible opportunities I had, despite my age and lack of experience!

I also think:

What if my boss had a tool back then so he could coach me, mentor me, to guide me in the direction of applying my unique strengths to a specific role? I made him look good because he gave me the tools and challenges I needed to succeed, but how much better could I have made him look if he had the ability to see into my future and guide me to my best self, using my natural talents?

I’m not one to look back with regret; I look back because I love to learn lessons from my experiences, and apply them to help others. So when I look back at that time, I am grateful for what Melvin Sassoon did so early in my career. He trusted me and saw skills in me that I didn’t know were there. I also look back and think about what we both could have done differently to have different, even better outcomes.

What if you had a tool that would transform your relationship with your employees from manager to mentor or coach?

What if you had a language to speak that would help your employees understand their role and value in your company, and would help them understand their own strengths and how to apply them to be more productive and happier at work?

You can even begin with selfish intentions: When your employees are successful, productive, effective and happy, they can make YOU look REALLY good.

The end result is that you will find more satisfaction in your relationships at work, even if you don’t start with that intention. It would be almost impossible for you not to improve on your success, leaning into that style of management.

Here’s the good news:

There are tools to help you mentor and coach your employees to bring their best selves, their greatest talents to work. The difference in the tools is simply how you manage to apply them to improve communication.

I could have focused my attention on a number of assessments and tools to help me in my communication coaching; StrengthsFinders is simply my tool of choice because I find the concept to be so positive and easily applied to the workplace.

Whatever assessment you use - whatever tool you use to help uncover the natural talents of your employees, take the time to coach them to apply those talents to their role in your organization. Think about your own career, and how it could have benefited from having a manager who truly understood your strengths, and could have helped guide you to lean into them and use them in every aspect of your life.

Those strengths don’t always show up in positive ways, especially in relationships with people who have very similar strengths, and those who are on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s as if you’re speaking different languages when interacting with people with different strengths.

When you coach with a tool like StrengthsFinders, you can help your employee understand every aspect of their talents, and how those can be negatively perceived by the people around them. In time, that employee will start to be more self-reflective, and will be able to adjust how they present their strengths to others, basically finding ways to get out of their own way (their heads), and move past obstacles. And when they truly understand their natural talents, their career will gravitate to roles that they will find great success and satisfaction.

At that early stage in my career, if my boss had access to a tool like StrengthsFinders, and understood how to use it, it’s likely he would have steered me in the direction of sales for the company. I love people, and I love to share information and tools that help people improve their daily lives. My natural, unique talents would have made me an excellent sales person in that industry, with just a bit of training and guidance.

Who really knows what might have happened?

I could fill my days with alternative futures based on those “what if” questions. What matters at this point is that I now understand how my natural strengths have helped make me successful in the past, and how they’ve created obstacles when I haven’t known how I was being perceived by the people around me. I also know how I can apply them to improve my future, and the lives of the people I have the honor of working with.

If you had a tool to help transform your relationship with your employees from manager to coach, would you use it?

Think about it this way:

When you coach your employees, rather than manage them, when you understand their strengths and what motivates them, your relationship improves. If you can coach your employees by helping them apply their strengths to their role, and encourage them by acknowledging their work, they can make you look really good.

And when you micromanage your employees, undermine their confidence and trust, withhold information, and allow whatever insecurities you have to impact your behavior, knowing you’re somehow threatened by their competence, you make it absolutely impossible for them to make you look good. You make it absolutely impossible for them to do their job well, and to make you look good.

Whatever tool you use, make sure you understand your employee’s strengths and what motivates them, and help them apply their strengths so they succeed. Because when your employees are empowered to learn, grow, and improve, they’ll make YOU look GOOD.

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Episode 59: Old Stories Create New Pathways

What Stories From Your Past Still Color Your Present?

Old Stories Can Create New Pathways.png

His mother went to answer the door while his family sat at the supper table. Chris heard a man's voice, and watched as his father went into the living room. A demonstration and 40 minutes of answers to every objection later, that Electrolux vacuum salesman in the brown polyester suit with bad breath left with an order for a $3,000 machine.

Chris was 10 years old, and his image of a salesman was set for decades. Not only did his family have a vacuum cleaner they didn't need and couldn't afford, his parents bickered over it for months afterward.

Fast forward to Chris as a young adult with entrepreneurial aspirations and the realization that he'd have to get more comfortable with sales if he was going to be successful. He hired a coach who was able to peel back the layers of Chris's experience to find that vacuum salesman and his impact on how Chris saw the word "salesman."

80s Style: Friendship Pins

80s Style: Friendship Pins

In the beginning of our conversation, Chris mentioned his love for heavy metal music, particularly in the late 80s and early 90s. He spoke about wearing his Metallica jean jacket to church, and about having the opportunity to play guitar with a band on Sunday evenings in the same church, and blowing away the senior women with the sound. We made a few references during that part of our conversation, one to a scene in Back to the Future with Michael J. Fox, and another about my friend Ranjith Abraham, and his musical projects, Miles Apart.

Connect with Chris on LinkedIn, and check out his book, It’s Time to Sell. Learn more about Chris and his gifted approach to sales and leadership by visiting his website.

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.

Sarah's Top Strength.png

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