Versatility and strengths

A recent Fast Company article argues that versatility not increasing use of specialisation is the way to get ahead in organisations. The ability to turn your hand to different tasks at short notice is becoming ever more important in an era with lean organisations and fast change. And the importance of this has increased significantly in just the last year. The article also refers to the recent book The Neo-generalist which I discussed recently.

In practice, Employers have always valued those that are flexible rather than just sticking to what is in their job description (whilst continuing to select and reward those that have specialist skills). The point is really that people now need to be more versatile but the question is whether they should be totally flexible and turn their hands to anything at all, or whether there are effective ways to be versatile.

We know from research that when people are using their strengths they are more engaged and productive so we need to be careful in moving them too far away from their strengths. However, it is important to recognise that strengths are not technical skills or domain knowledge but broader characteristics such as relationship building, strategic thinking, resilience and decisiveness. Strengths are things that you are both good at but also energise you, and you also want to learn more about and become better at; whereas non-strengths can be de-energising and you have little intrinsic interest in improving. Someone who doesn’t have a relationship building strength may be able to do it for a short time but after a while it is likely to become debilitating. The most effective way then to be versatile is to identify what your strengths are and then look for how to apply these to new situations and tasks, rather than trying to deploy weaknesses or non-strengths.

You can identify your strengths using one of the profiling tools on the market such as Strengthsfinder (buy Marcus Buckingham’s book ‘Now discover your strengths’ or Tom Rath’s Strengthsfinder 2.0 and use the code in the back to access the tool), Strengthscope or Realise2 (the last two require a licensed practitioner to administer but will give you more insight than the free version of Strengthsfinder accessible via the books). Or, you can ask yourself questions like:

  • What things do you do so well that you are very successful just about every time you do them?
  • What activities do you naturally look forward to? What is it about these that is attractive?
  • What do you find yourself wanting to learn even more about or learning very easily?
  • When do you feel in your element? What is naturally you?
You can then use this insight to think about how you can offer more value to your employer or clients. I use the I-DANCED model to help coaching clients think about using their strengths:

Identify your key strengths

Deploy your strengths to achieve goals by consciously considering how they can be used effectively, choosing when to use then and turning them up and down appropriately

A
void overplaying them so they don’t turn into weaknesses.

Find New things to use your strengths on by thinking about how else you can be adding value.

Work with people with Complementary strengths because sometimes you can’t do everything yourself.

E
ducate others about your strengths so that they know when to ask you for your help to do new things.

Develop your strengths further so that rather than accepting you are already good at them, you become outstanding.

The Fast Company article suggests that versatility is the way to get ahead but it is important to think about the best way to do this. Focusing on what you have to achieve and the value you can add whilst effectively building on and deploying your strengths allows you to be versatile whilst staying energised and engaged with the work on a long term basis. It may, of course, need you to learn new technical skills or domain knowledge as you do this but that really is just part of the modern world where existing skills and knowledge can date very quickly.
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