Power play: Build on your strengths

My son is a special-needs kid. When we first heard the news about his disabilities– a neurological disorder and several gastrointestinal ailments that kept him from talking and eating– we were not composed enough to use lingo like "special needs." We found ourselves saying, "Our kid is messed up."

Now that I've taken my son to months of therapy, I've learned a lot about the world of special-needs kids. The most striking aspect is that therapists don't strive to change the kid as much as they strive to encourage the kid's strengths.

As an overprotective, paranoid mother, I challenged this tactic. "You know," I informed my son's speech therapist, "I'm a big fan of noting my weaknesses and attacking them."

But after a few sessions of sitting on the floor with the therapist, playing with Elmo dolls and toys he had mastered long ago, my son started talking. The other therapists worked with him the same way– playing up his strengths to help him achieve more.

 I plan to show how playing with Elmo dolls relates to managing a career. But first, another bit about therapists.

When my pediatrician first told me my son was having major problems, my husband and I were in denial. We didn't realize how bad things were until a New York State health-services representative called to say that we qualified for free social work because "Parents of children in such dire condition usually need outside help." It wasn't so much the phrase "dire condition" that convinced us; it was the fact that the state of New York was chasing us down to give us free services.

After watching health professionals use the play-to-the-strengths approach, I'm amazed that more people don't use this in their careers.

It's the Elmo factor: If you're good at making Elmo pop up out of his box, then build from that. If you're great with details, don't go into sales or be a big-picture manager. Consider accounting or detective work.

In the Elmo-level world, therapists help kids build small-motor, large-motor, verbal, and social skills, starting with the best skill and going from there. If a kid is good at large-motor coordination, he'll learn to be social through sports. The corporate world has detail mongers, relationship builders, and leaders. If relationship-building is your best skill, try to excel in sales, then acquire the leadership and other skills needed to reach become CEO.

If you're mid-career but can't move further, examine the skills you used to start your career to see if they've given you a foundation to move up. I started my career, for example, with work that involved writing, and then I moved to marketing management and then to running my own company, where I learned to sell. I wouldn't have succeeded if I had started out in sales– I didn't have the raw talent.

If your base skills aren't strong enough to hold you, your forward momentum may stall. Think about strengthening your base. Develop a specialty that caters to your core talent; then expand on it. This may mean making a lateral career move to a spot where you can excel.

And if you're good at nothing else except making Elmo pop up, remember my son, and build on that. After all, it may lead you to a seat in the CEO's office.
Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new things.