Big Picture Question 2: What Do Others See?

If I asked my colleagues, what would they say is my greatest strength?

Today’s big picture question invites us to look at ourselves through someone else’s eyes. My guess is that you—all of us—have a pretty clear idea of what our weaknesses are, where we fall short of our goals, or what we haven’t crossed off our to-do lists. Being in touch with your weaknesses and focusing on them, even with the stated aim of working to overcome them, can have the perverse effect of magnifying those weaknesses, both for ourselves and others.

So this week’s prompt and challenge is to step into a colleague’s shoes and examine who you are from the outside. Of course, this is an imperfect exercise, but I guarantee that, with a little thought, you will come up with some interesting insights. For example, what sorts of tasks, committees, projects, or outreach are you consistently called upon to participate in? What does that tell you about how your colleagues perceive your skill set? Are you always the minute taker? Do you run the meetings? Are you good with external audiences, or better “preaching to the choir?” Do your colleagues want you to write the report, or deliver it to the boss? These sorts of workplace interactions can indicate where others perceive our strengths to lie.

I always volunteer(ed) to take notes at meetings. I am a fast typist and an Olympic-caliber note taker (I made money selling my notes in junior and senior high; they were things of beauty). For me, this is a simple way to contribute to the work of a committee; for others, it is a godsend to have someone else take on an odious task. So, I learned that colleagues valued my organizational and note-taking abilities and saw them as an asset to group work. I had always thought of myself as taking the easy road with this task, but that isn’t necessarily the case when viewed through someone else’s eyes. But, I’ve figured out that if I want to challenge myself and push my leadership skills to the forefront, rather than my behind-the-scenes organizational ability, maybe I should take fewer notes and offer to run the meeting, or dedicate myself to participating in the discussion rather than recording it.

Sometimes, the things we are particularly good at—like note-taking—are things that we chronically undervalue but others place a high premium on. If strategy meetings with department heads and deans or the provost are pleasant conversations for you but agony-inducing ordeals for others, you’ve identified a low-cost-to-you way to contribute to your department by doing the things you like to do. . . and that others dislike.

Identifying the ways in which your colleagues appreciate your work can help you not only identify where you’re succeeding on the job, but where you might want to direct your efforts in the future. If your co-workers recognize your leadership abilities and you want to move into administration, or put your name in for department chair, you’ve learned that you have allies as you plan your next steps. If, on the other hand, you want to take a back seat for a while, then you’ve identified how your leadership impacts your colleagues and can be proactive about informing them of your change in plans.

For some people, it might be interesting to ask a trusted colleague what they think you are particularly skilled at and where your skills are most valuable for your department or organization. If you have someone who will share this information with you honestly and constructively, it would be interesting to compare it with your own assessment. However, even if you do this in the privacy of your own office, it can be an interesting way to look at yourself as a member of a team and see where you shine.

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