Today, fewer and fewer people work in an industry where there is a clearly defined path for career advancement. Especially for those in the humanitarian, development and charity sector the career path is often more likely to be characterized by loops and bends rather than a clear cut linear progression. If anyone had asked us 5 years ago where we would be today, the likelihood is that only a handful of us would have been able to pinpoint our current position.
As context changes, programs expand or reduce and funding cycles fluctuate we need to develop the ability to live with ambiguity and thrive in the face of uncertainty. But more importantly we need to become experts of ourselves, be adept at spotting opportunities for ourselves where we can put our best foot forward and where our strengths as an individual add the most value.
But how do we identify our strengths?!
According to Tom Rath, in his popular book, StrengthsFinder, our strengths are generally a combination of two elements; our natural talent and the amount of investment (time, effort, resources) we put into growing that talent. To put it in a basic equation:
Talent x Investment = Your strength.
We all have things that we are naturally good at or that come easy to us. Some of us are naturally better at analysing a situation or data and deriving meaning from it. Others find it easy to engage with and manage a myriad of stakeholders, seemingly connecting with communities and people the moment they are introduced.
You may have people on your team or observed colleagues who can easily improvise on the spot, are calm and collected under pressure or when placed in stressful situation or individuals that have the ability to turn the most messy donor report into a highly concise document.
Once you become aware of where you talent lies, invest in it. Surround yourself with people who are already doing what you want to. Follow conversations that help you harness your talent. Sign up to relevant newsletters or discussion forums. Enrol yourself in courses that help you turn your natural talent into a professional strength. Even if time and money are a concern for you, with the variety of free and short online courses that are available nowadays you have plenty of options.
Take a few moments to reflect on where you strengths lie? What kind of situations bring out the best in you? What kind of projects and activities provide you with the right balance between challenging you as an individual and allowing you to apply your competencies? Are you consciously aware of what you like and enjoy about your work and why?
If possible, challenge yourself further to narrow down your strengths and find the common denominator. Try to describe your strengths in 3 paragraphs. Then 3 sentences and ultimately 3 words. This will help you to find out how your strengths are interlinked and where to invest in yourself. It will also empower you to take charge of your career and have informed discussions with your line manager or HR department.
Don’t be a passive passenger in your career. Get into the driver’s seat and play an active role in becoming an expert of yourself and defining you professional path.
In the words of Tom Rath “you cannot be anything you want to be – but you can be a lot more of who you already are.”
For those wanting to engage in some reflection on whether your current career is right for you and is enabling you to build on your strengths, Dave Ulrich’s article “Should I Stay Or Should I Go? 5 Questions To Manage Your Next Career Move” may provide some useful food for thought.