The question “Tell me about your greatest career strength?” is, without doubt, an interview question we all love to hate. Perhaps your line manager will ask you the question in your next performance review. Or a recruiting manager will slot it into the conversation in a future job interview. Of course, we generally have no problems at all discussing our weaknesses (especially if you are British), but talking about what we are really good at is a different matter. Needless to say, there are those that have no problem at all telling us how brilliant they are. Though how objective is this information? Is it an accurate reflection of their strengths or are they just a puffed up blowhard?
Depending on who you listen to, books you read or web pages you look at, most will give you a different answer to the workplace/career strengths question. That’s not to say they are right or wrong of course, just a different way of looking at the problem. Thing is, all this can be confusing for anyone with an upcoming interview and wants to answer the strengths question accurately. Whenever the question is asked, to be forewarned is forearmed is the best place to be. In this article, I hope to draw together some of the most useful definitions of workplace/career strengths and how to answer that age-old question with confidence.
So what are workplace or career strengths?
Workplace or career strengths are sometimes defined in terms of competencies, such as leadership, problem-solving, creativity or teamwork for example. On the other hand, some suggest – a workplace strength is something that you find enjoyable, applicable, and just better at than most of your peers. Jack Bergstrand (2016) suggests that we may have “envision strengths (visionaries, “where do we intend to go and why?”), design strengths (what do we need to do when?), build strengths (how to best get jobs done) & operate characteristics (focus on the who). According to Bergstrand “These are essential strengths to getting work done in today’s knowledge age, where work is interdependent, somewhat invisible, and ever-changing.” With so many different definitions and believe me that are many more, how can we start to drill down on a solution to the question?
Clearly, it is important to know what our workplace strengths are and how they fit into the big picture of our career strategy. When we know our workplace strengths, the strengths of others, we tend to work in a “sweet spot”. By being in the sweet spot we focus on the bigger picture of our careers. We focus on the added value we bring to the organisations where we work and want to work for. Thus not be diverted into areas where we don’t add a lot of value to ourselves and the business/organisation.
Moreover, when we are looking to advance our careers, finding the workplace/career strengths is perhaps the most important and progressive action to take. Your strengths, purpose, drivers, and motivated tasks go hand in hand and will help to define your career progression. However, if you are stuck in a position that does not utilise your strengths, then your drive and performance will probably suffer, along with your career progression and development. Hopefully, by now you can see how important identifying your workplace/career strengths are.
Identifying your strengths
Clearly, the lists of strengths you see online are very general and kind of difficult to apply to the question. You could take any number of strengths assessments online that will help you gain greater insight. However, as mentioned before, there is no absolute definition of workplace/career strengths. Many of the assessments are free and some not, so be aware of what information they are giving you. By all means, find an assessment that helps you define your strengths and the VIA Character Strengths Survey is as good as any place to start.
For the benefit of clarity, Dave Francis (1994) in his book “Managing your Career” suggests that strengths have four defining characteristics:
- The skill to perform well
- Can be personal skills (ambitious, creative, flexible etc) transferable skills (communication, team worker, analytical etc), as well as the knowledge-based skills learned over time (marketing, accounting, engineering, carpentry etc)
- The willingness to perform well
- The motivation and ability to perform the tasks
- The confidence to perform well
- Knowing that the skill can be performed and performed well
- Recognition by others that you perform well
- Feedback from others that skill is performed well and of value gives the licence to for you to perform
Making sense of your strengths
The first three (skill, willingness, confidence) are within a grasp of the individual to define. However, we need to gain feedback to understand how others recognise our strengths. To gain access to this information we will need quality feedback from people we trust. It can be a more tricky way of identifying your strengths consists of the validation from others. When others ask specifically for your competency or you are praised for a job well done, it’s usually a good sign that you have recognised a workplace strength identified by others. As a result, helps the feedback loop necessary to objectively define your strengths. Being recognised for these elements of our work is vitally important as it gives us “license to perform” (Francis 1994 pp71). Francis goes on to say that “our poor career decision-making is increased if we either underestimate or overestimate our strengths”. So an accurate appraisal of your strengths is an important facet of your career or workplace development and should not be underestimated.
Going back to Jack Bergstrand’s (2016) definition, we clearly start to break down strengths into their component parts. Having envisioned, design, build and operate characteristic strengths we can categorise where exactly we can pinpoint the specific areas of business we add real tangible value. It’s this value statement of what we have to offer that we can start to make sense of our core workplace & career strengths.
Start to gather feedback on your strengths
Another more subjective way to identify your workplace strengths is to focus upon your emotions or how you feel when you are working. For example, what activity do you look forward to doing and get you up in the morning? It might be problem-solving, leadership or being creative for example, or provides satisfaction and fulfilment at work? This subjective feedback will help us clarify our strengths and to put them into a framework we can use to answer the big strengths question. In one sense your actions at work speak for themselves. You may enjoy organising events, leading teams, dealing with conflict or selling. If so do you get the feedback necessary to suggest you are right in the assumptions of your actions at work? When you are good at something you will enjoy and be motivated to do it, it is then a true strength that is to be beneficial in the workplace.”
How to answer the “so what are your strengths” question?
Here is the $64 million dollar question, how do you answer the question about your strengths? One way is to view strengths and weaknesses as a continuum, therefore, you can answer both in one fell swoop. You could suggest that you are a visionary leader with the ability to establish a positive future for people that may not exist today. However, the weakness or challenge might be that you have recognised that you become overly focused on the creativity of the vision and perhaps miss the bigger picture. As a result, you might ask for mentors feedback on your performance to keep you on track with the organisational vision. This highlights your insight into both your strengths and weaknesses/challenges and how to keep working within your strengths for performance. Do you subscribe to Jack Bergstrand’s viewpoint of strengths for more knowledge-based workers or to the broader perspective from Dave Francis? You decide and make the case to your employer or prospective employer.
Another way might be to define your strengths in terms of the value you bring and the processes you improve. If you are a salesperson, then what range of strengths do you have to improve sales? Is it your skill to communicate, to build trust and loyalty or perhaps a different strength to build lasting sales? Can you quantify your strengths in terms of sales improvements? Again being able to categories the strengths, drivers, skills, knowledge, experience and talent you can bring to the business, is a vital component of your ability to articulate your personal career brand and reputation.
Summing up your strengths answer
Other ways to answer the question may be to –
- Clearly Identify your key strengths and match them clearly to the requirements and skills of the job description and person specification.
- Think quality and your value, in terms of your achievements and what you can improve. Focus on a few key strengths and explain can explain this aspect clearly and succinctly. That will be much more memorable than a lot of waffle.
- Use concrete examples of your key strengths and skills and where you have made an impact
- Be clear about your value proposition and your personal career brand. This will help you know what you stand for, “why” you do what you do, your purpose, your values, your reputation and what you are known or acknowledged for.
- Practice how you articulate your strengths. No one wants to be a blowhard and overconfident to the point of arrogance (a good example of an overplayed strength to a weakness). Be objective and use the research you have done beforehand to feel confident in your strengths package.
Knowing your workplace strength(s), having a framework and a process to maximize their impact, is a great way to enjoy work and to progress your career. It will help you work with others more productively, and get better results.
Being specific about your strengths and the value you bring is a far better way to identify and further enhance your strengths. Thus avoiding an unnecessary focus your weaknesses and challenges. The benefit of understanding your workplace/career strengths enables us to add weight to our careers, drive toward a clearly defined career development strategy and progress with full knowledge of the value you bring.
With time and effort, your strengths help to make the most of your time at work and in your career to help to drive career forward. So when that question inevitably gets asked in your next interview or appraisal, answer it with the full confidence of knowing your strengths, what you bring to the party and how you change things at work for the better.
Bergstrand, J. (2016) “The Velocity Advantage” Brand Velocity, Incorporated USA
Francis, D. (1994) “Managing your own Career” HarperCollins, London