As a New Year begins, Anne Elder-Knight outlines in a 2 part article how we can identify the best use of ourselves in our careers and beyond. She outlines first the questions we need to answer to find the best use we can make of ourselves. She’ll follow up next time with how to use those answers to make it clearer for others how we can add value to an organisation.


We can spend a lot of time trying to identify our purpose. I’d suggest it’s often time wasted. This is because as humans we effectively all have the same purpose: to figure out our unique User’s Manual and put ourselves to best use. This addresses the nagging question “Why am I here?”.

On the surface it seems simple enough to identify our purpose. Problems arise because too few of us devote enough time to knowing ourselves adequately. Put another way, we never get to know our own particular User’s Manual.

Not surprisingly, HR practitioners and managers frequently lament that their people don’t take responsibility for their own development. That’s because it’s not easy to identify both where we shine and where we don’t. As a result, we don’t see where the opportunities are for us to develop, especially opportunities aligned to the organisations we work for.

So where do we begin? It’s by answering for ourselves the following four questions.

What do I have to offer?

This question sparks an inward groan when we come to write or update our CVs. It sits behind interview questions about our strengths and weakness and others’ assessments about what roles we’re suited to. However, unless we take control of the messaging and own what is ours, the answer inevitably gets shaped by others. That can lead to uncomfortable and unsatisfying outcomes.

To identify fully what we have to offer, we need to be able to articulate three pieces of information, namely our:

  1. strengths – as defined by us
  2. weaknesses – defined by others
  3. derailers – also defined by others.


Most of us have allowed the views of parents, teachers, coaches and managers to define our strengths for us. We also default to assessment tools to answer this question for us. And, while the insights that come from these can be helpful,  on their own they can’t tell us what we really need to know.

As Marcus Buckingham states in his well-known work on strengths, we are the only ones who can really identify our own strengths. Other people can spot activities we’re successful at, but only we can determine the ones we’re also instinctively drawn to and that make us feel competent and confident.

Using these additional criteria,  we can recognise that what others see as strengths are simply things we happen to be good at. For example, I have a knack for small talk so friends like me to come to parties. Problem is, although I can do a reasonably well-honed impression of a raconteur, I’d rather be home on the couch with a book.

Understanding our strengths requires us to get to the heart of the activities that bring us true satisfaction.

Weaknesses and derailers

But simply knowing what we’re good at isn’t enough. It would be naïve to think we don’t also have weaknesses. Ignoring them does us and those we work for a disservice.

In her thought-provoking book Insight, Tasha Eurich argues that our self-perception of how we come across is less accurate than others’ perceptions of us. Ironically, our laundry list of our weaknesses is usually decidedly longer than others’. However, what feedback on our weaknesses does offer us are clues to are our potential derailers. Derailers are the weaknesses that in action, are likely to cause performance, career, or relationship issues.

According to research by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman, only 10% of managers have true derailers. What the rest of us have are a few areas of weakness that we may need to address (recognising that these are unlikely to be strengths) either by dumping, delegating or finding work arounds, including making our foibles part of the charming package that is working with us.

How do I work?

Having figured out our ‘what’, the second question is ‘how’ do I work? Again, this is a question that few of us spend time answering. Our ‘how’ encompasses our work preferences – are we best as the lead or the trusted second? Are we better with people or projects? Do we check stuff or send it? Understanding our working preferences helps us identify where we can add the most value and those situations where we can shine. This is not just about learning styles but also our relationship to time, our energy, the way we organise ourselves and what we focus on.

Who do I work best with?

Most of us are good at doing due diligence on the organisations we want to work for.  Few of us, however, expend the same diligence on researching the leaders and colleagues we’ll be working with. Yet the oft quoted adage that we join organisations and leave managers is true.

Those we work most closely with have a huge influence on how we feel about our work and our ability to add value. Too often in my work with senior leaders I hear stories where a leader’s focus and the expectations of those they work with are so conflicted they may as well be speaking different languages. For example, a manager can be painfully aware of the need to focus on the nuts and bolts to get results, yet those she works for (and who evaluate her performance) are more interested in the big picture and future direction. The manager is usually on a hiding to nothing when attitudes are so mismatched.

Where do I like to work?

The fourth and final question deals with where we are best suited to plying our trade. Big or small organisations? Corporate, government or not for profit? Close to home or lots of travelling? Home alone in track pants or with a team? Can you concentrate with background noise or do you need to be away on your own to focus?

Given the current preference for new ways of working, it’s important for us to identify where and how we work best and, within the confines of organisational expectations, to find ways to make environments work for us. There’s no point putting all that effort into getting the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘who’ working for us if the ‘where’ bleeds our souls or means we wake up every morning with a bone numbing weariness about the commute ahead of us.

My needs, my organisation’s needs

Of course, taking the time to explore these questions for ourselves is only the beginning. We also need to be able to express our answers in language that connects with the needs of others. In part two, I’ll explore more about your value-add and how to build it into an offering that does some of the work of helping you sell yourself to an organisation.



Anne Elder-Knight works with teams and individuals to help get out of their own way and realise their potential. In 2018, she is offering her self-perception-changing group mentoring programme Growing Greatness in each of the main centres. This six month programme unpacks your user’s manual to enable you to be truly great. To find out more or receive a brochure email


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