Asking Not Asking #23: King of None
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
What I want more of in my work life is profitable short-term contracts with companies working in environmental/regenerative solutions. My biggest challenge is not being able to quantify and expose my strengths. Jack of all trades... King of none.
The opportunities that exist for me right now are that I'm working on a few creative and consulting projects while developing an agency focused on regenerative systems to help businesses develop into climate-ready investments within the new economies.
What I’ve learned about myself in the past year is that I'm always willing to get out of my comfort zone, but after a while, I need to find it again to recharge (and start the cycle all over again!)
King of None
Dear King of None,
Your letter is a great follow-up to the last one I answered from Jack of All Trades. This seems to be a common theme as of late with letter writers, but it’s not unique to you. Many of my coaching clients also come in with this question: How do I know what I’m good at? And beyond that, what do I highlight when it comes to my strengths? So let’s explore those two questions in the context of your situation.
There’s a great book called StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath that offers an assessment of your strengths. You take an online assessment and it gives you your top five themes. What I like about the approach in this book—and, no, I’m not being paid to promote it—is the book identifies what you naturally gravitate toward as themes and encourages you to take action to turn them into strengths. I’ve taken the quiz two separate times with years in between and gotten the same themes, but in a different order.
I’ll briefly share my strengths with you so you have an example: 1) Connectedness: I see the links between all things 2) Empathy: I can sense the feelings of other people by imagining myself in their situation 3) Developer: I like to recognize and cultivate the potential in others 4) Belief: I have core values that are unchanging 5) Strategic: I’m good at recognizing patterns and themes and identifying alternative ways to proceed. Now, enough about me. What I want you to think about for yourself is that strengths can be hard skills, but they can also be soft skills, like the ones represented above.
When we think about updating our website or résumé or writing a cover letter, we often jump to hard skills, but the soft skills can help us stand out. What’s the difference? This is a good explanation of both with examples. Hard skills are teachable and easy to quantify, like proficiency in Adobe Photoshop, speaking a foreign language, and knowing how to develop iOS apps. Soft skills are harder to quantify and can be things like being able to adapt when challenges arise, resolving differences of opinion about how to tackle a project, or being able to communicate in a way that brings people together under a common vision.
Grab a notebook and a pen. I’d like you to do a writing exercise. Draw a line down the middle of the paper to separate the plane into two. On the top left, write “Hard Skill” and on the top right, “Soft Skills.” Now spend at least 8 minutes brainstorming for each side. Write down whatever comes to mind. Hard skills would most likely be skills you’ve learned through school, formal training, or on the job experience (remember, they are measurable). Soft skills are less easy to define, so if you’re unsure of the words to use, you can explain using scenarios that highlight patterns. For example, maybe there are multiple examples of times you’ve come up with a solution to a complex problem that stumped your peers—perhaps that’s a skill related to strategy or critical thinking or ingenuity.
Once you have your list of skills, hard and soft, go through each list and put a star next to your top five hard skills and top five soft skills. These are the skills you use the most or that present the strongest for you. Once you have your top five skills from each list (ten total), go through each and make an inventory: Is this skill reflected on my a) website b) portfolio c) how I talk about myself/my work? Another important question to ask is, do these skills help me stand out or are they table stakes? Table stakes are the minimum required to play a hand of poker—and also the minimum requirement to compete at work.
According to table stakes, there are minimum skills required to even play the game, to even interview with a potential employer or client. What are you doing that is table stakes and what moves you beyond table stakes so that you can stand out? A good way to answer that is to look at what others in your field are doing as the point of entry. If everyone is doing it, it’s table stakes and you’ll want to highlight another aspect of your professional self. For example, for most employers, table stakes could include employees who show up on time, deliver the work they promise to deliver, contribute to the value of the company, and manage their time and workload.
When you are thinking about how to present your strengths, remember that it can be fluid. If you have your top ten list that you made earlier, you can pull from that depending on the potential client or conversation. Your strengths won’t be stagnant. You won’t present the same way in five years that you do today. It will change. Think of your work in seasons. For this next season, what strengths do you want to focus on and highlight with clients? What stands out? What do you enjoy? What are you exceptionally good at? Take all of those things into account.
You mentioned that you like to get outside of your comfort zone, then go back into what’s comfortable to recharge before you do it all over again. That’s an advantage for you because it means you can use the skills and strengths you currently possess as a foundation to continue to learn and grow. I’m not very familiar with your field of environmental/regenerative solutions, but it seems like there could be opportunities to push yourself professionally as the industry continues to develop.
You said you want more profitable short-term contracts with companies. What companies would you like to work with? I’d encourage you to make a list so you have something to aim for. Better yet, do you have any connections to those companies to get an introduction? Is it possible to begin a relationship with them to tell them about your work and what you’re excited about? Or could you inquire about their mission and their goals for their business. Sometimes hearing what others want to achieve can help us match up what they need with the skills and strengths we can offer. Knowing your ideal client can help you think about how to position yourself to best help them.
Once you’re done reflecting on your strengths and what you offer, which I outlined above, you can begin to reach out. Most of us think that we should sit back and wait for work to come in (build it and they will come), but many people who I know, myself included, have scored great projects through reaching out to friends, colleagues, and potential clients. If you are clear about what you have to offer, you will feel more confident in pitching your work.
Know who you are. Know what you offer. Know the kinds of companies you want to work with. Make sure your professional collateral communicates your strengths and supports your goals for this season. Then reach out to people with excitement! None of us will ever feel 100% confident, but the more you do something, the better equipped you’ll feel. Know that you have real skills and strengths to offer and now you just have to do a little detective work to uncover which strengths you want to highlight during this season of your career. I’ll let you get to it!
Go beyond table stakes,
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Asking Not Asking is a bi-monthly column written by Tina Essmaker, a New York City-based coach, speaker, and writer who helps others live into their possibility. To be considered for the column, send and email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a short note about where you're at and where you want to be, and make sure to include the following:
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