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Finding Your Strategic Advantage

By Marge Watters, Published on without a date (Dowloaded: 2011-09-02, Link no longer works) 

Whether you're looking for your next step inside your own organization, thinking of moving on to another  company or making a radical career change, you need to understand where your strategic advantage lies

If you want your career to develop and grow, you can't stay where you feel like a square peg in a round hole. You need to find a square hole. Your strategic advantage is where your style, skills, knowledge, interests and values intersect. It's the combination of characteristics that makes you unique.

Take the time to define your strategic advantage clearly, and then you'll be on your way to finding an employment opportunity that integrates what you do with who you are. To create a concise and understandable description of your strategic advantage, include each of these five areas:

Your personal style

Your personal style is the summation of your distinguishing qualities. It describes the characteristics and attributes that you bring to your work and your interactions with others. It governs how you work. When you understand your personal style, you have the option of choosing tasks and relationships that will engage your strengths. You can also avoid unsuitable situations and adjust your style to accommodate others.

You are likely to be aware of your dominant characteristics because you know yourself, and you have been praised for your strengths and criticized for your weaknesses. More subtle aspects of your style will be somewhat hidden from you. Look for clues in past performance reviews and informal feedback. Ask trusted colleagues for input.

If you are considering a major career change, your personal style will go with you even if you leave everything else behind. How you operate won't change significantly regardless of what you choose to do. In fact, it is often a person's most striking personal characteristics that lead the way into new territory.

For example, an altruistic, pragmatic manager with a persuasive communication style might use his skills to run a charitable foundation.

Your key skills

This part of your strategic advantage comprises the professional skills you have acquired through formal education and training plus the functional skills that have grown out of your practical experience. Skills constitute what you can do.

To create a complete inventory, start by recording all of your credentials and core skills. Include any processes, methodologies, systems or programs in which you are qualified or where you have substantial experience (i.e. ISO quality registration, project management systems, etc.). Add your functional skills, which are most easily identified by considering the areas of responsibility in which you have gained expertise (i.e. budget control, reporting, raising capital). Include the skills you have acquired in your volunteer and community work as well.

When your list is complete, think about which ones you enjoy using and which ones you'd rather leave behind. Being good at doing something doesn't necessarily mean that you like doing it. Many people enter the workforce without a clear idea of where their interests lie. They develop expertise in an area that is not a good fit and stay in a role because the cost of change is too high. The result is career stagnation and dissatisfaction. Many skill sets transcend boundaries and provide the credibility to move from one industry to another. Focusing on your skills gives you an independent identity, based on your capabilities rather than as an employee of a particular organization.

Your knowledge base

Your knowledge can be separate and distinct from your formal education and your professional skills. It consists of everything you have learned about everything. It includes your understanding of various industries, companies, products, market segments, regions, regulations, culture and special interest groups, for example. It is the combination of information, exposure, experience, savvy and acumen about people, places, things, activities and ideas.

You have gained knowledge about many things that can be useful to other people and organizations. Ask yourself these questions to surface some of your most significant areas of knowledge: What industries do you know well? What products or services do you understand in depth? What types of organizations are familiar to you (i.e. associations, public companies, family businesses, consulting firms or institutions)? What market segments or geographical areas do you know well? What languages do you speak? Who do you know? Where are you known?

Think expansively about your knowledge base. It often happens that an individual's highest value lies in what and whom they know.

Your interests

Your interests can be a significant component of your strategic advantage. They are a large part of what makes you unique. If your work allows you to be involved with something that genuinely fascinates you, you are fortunate. People who are curious and passionate about their product, service or market have a natural enthusiasm that is unmistakable. If you can, expand your work to include your interests. For people considering a career change, your interests can guide you to ideal employment opportunities.

What holds your interest? Whatever your answer, chances are good that you know a lot about it. Think beyond your hobbies and athletic pursuits. Interests include ideas, or issues and philosophies that fascinate and attract you. Some may be lifelong interests, others may be emerging and evolving.

Your values and motivators

Values are your personal guideposts. They go hand-in-hand with the motivators that drive you. Ideally, these principles exert enormous influence over your choices regarding work. Upbringing, role models, expectations and experiences form your values and motivators, and comprise your unique inner rationale. They create commitment, and following them generates a sense of fulfillment. Values and motivators determine why you work.

Thinking about values and motivators is very important to career growth. They can be a powerful part of your strategic advantage. The highest degree of job satisfaction is found where your principles align closely with the requirements of your role and the expectations of your organization. Success on the job usually follows.

Values and motivators are not necessarily lofty ideals. Being an expert in your field is a value held by many, and the desire to earn a lot of money can be a powerful motivator. Be honest with yourself, and be clear about your priorities for this time in your career and life.

It can be bard to keep a clear view of your values and motivators for two reasons. First, they change and evolve as you move along your career path and through different stages of life. Second, they are often conflicted within you and with those of other people who are important to you. Some people spend a lot of time thinking about this aspect of their lives. Others have quiet confidence in their values. Neither approach is right or wrong.

To get some clarity, look at your preferences and needs in the workplace separately from the responsibilities and values of your personal life. For the purposes of identifying your strategic advantage, consider only what is important to you in the work that you do. Think of your present needs and expectations on the job. Later, you can bring your personal responsibilities and needs into the picture, and examine what really matters to you in terms of the whole picture.

Career assessment testing

After you have done your own work in identifying your strategic advantage, consider taking advantage of the many career assessment tests that are available. These tests can affirm your thinking and surface things that you have not considered. They cannot tell you exactly what to do with your career. They categorize the interests, abilities and attributes you report and provide lists of the careers in which people with similar profiles report success and satisfaction. The more sophisticated instruments explain the reasons that specific careers match your profile. Don't expect miraculous revelations; expect a helpful analysis that complements your own work.

It's best to work with a professional who is qualified to administer the testing. These would include career consultants, psychologists, executive coaches and many therapists. They will help you understand the results and integrate them with your self-assessment work. However, you can do this on your own, by using tests that are available in books or on the Internet.

Get input from others

As you think about your career, it's important to talk with other people who know you and how you work. Without asking for input from others, you might overlook some of your most significant strengths because you don't think of them as anything extraordinary. Before going into an interview or starting a career discussion with your boss, get input from others. Your colleagues from the workplace, former bosses, friends and anyone from your volunteer and community work may have invaluable insights.

Putting it all together for presentation

With all of the data that you've collected while thinking about your strategic advantage, it might be a challenge to narrow it down and explain it clearly. But it's worth the effort. Presenting yourself in terms of your skills, knowledge, style, interests and values is a powerful way to communicate to the marketplace. This verbal synopsis breaks away from the use of titles and names of employers. It expands the possibilities for your future, and positions you as an individual with a unique and independent set of talents and attributes seeking opportunities to add value.

To create your script, select a few key points from each component of your strategic advantage and think about how you want to present them. Use this example as a template for putting it together. It packs a lot of information into very few words:

I'm a retail operations executive with extensive experience in managing a nationwide chain of over 100 franchise stores that sell specialty kitchen items. My particular strengths include inventory and cost control, merchandising, and the provision of training and development support for store managers. I understand the challenges facing small retail franchise owners in Canada. I am at my best when handed a mandate and the flexibility to do it my way. I am a manager, not an innovator. My creativity emerges in finding solutions to very practical problems.

Your strategic advantage brings together who you are with what you do, what you know and what you care about. Once it is clearly identified, this powerful combination can give you the leverage to find an employment opportunity that meets your needs.

Merge Watters ( is co-founder of Knebel Watters & Associates and co-author of It's Your Move: A Personal and Practical Guide To Career Transition and Job Search for Canadian Managers, Professionals and Executives, from which this article was adapted.

RELATED ARTICLE: Describe Your Personal Style

Choose a few words that describe you in each of the following areas. Don't limit your choices to the examples given.

Thinking Style -- This is the way that you approach a problem or opportunity. Adjectives might include  realistic, visionary, strategic, analytical, logical or perceptive, for example.

Communication Style -- This might elicit words such as enthusiastic, cautious, comprehensive, persuasive, inspiring or straightforward.

Management Style -- Here you might describe yourself as fair-minded, authoritative, caring, democratic, or non-directive. You might write, "I delegate tasks and give minimal specific direction."

Subordinate Style -- How do you like to be managed? Are you self-reliant, consultative, a conscientious task implementer, a questioner or a loyal follower?

Team Style -- What role or task usually falls to you? Are you the innovator, the detail monitor, the implementor, the communicator, the relationship caretaker, the organizer or the leader?

Work Style -- Are you the planning type, spontaneous, meticulous, process-oriented, a team player, a loner, results-focused, decisive or a perfectionist?

Resilience -- How are you hard-wired? Are you a worrier or are you relaxed? Do you take things too personally? Are you critical or accepting, optimistic or pessimistic, driven to achieve or non-competitive?

Think of a story to exemplify each of the words that you used to describe yourself. Is the picture accurate and complete? What else should be added?

Assess Your Interests

If you have so many interests that it's hard for you to narrow them down, or if you've been working so hard that you've lost sight of what truly interests you, work through these eight questions to help you:

1. What social, environmental, cultural, religious, judicial or political issues do you find the most compelling?

2. On the job, when you choose a course or read an article in a trade or professional journal, what topics attract your attention because you are truly curious?

3. What magazines, books, TV shows, movies or Internet sites interest you?

4. Who are your role models and heroes?

5. How do you like to spend your time outside the workplace?

6. At social events, what topics of conversation do you welcome?

7. If you were to return to school, what would you study even if it had no obvious practical application?

8. If money were not an issue, how would you spend your time?


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