Part of the Oregon Fellows orientation is a series of workshops on professional development, networking, and career counseling. The lead career consultant for the group, Cathy LaTourette, takes an interesting approach to her student consulting–she does virtually nothing (no resume, cover letter review, or interview practice) without first having the students “know their strengths.” She helps students discover these strengths through an online assessment tool called StrengthsFinder. This assessment was developed by Donald Clifton, who is considered the father of strength-based psychology, to reveal a persons “natural talents.” He believed that people found the most success by focusing their energy on growing these natural strengths.
I actually encountered StrengthsFinder almost exactly one year ago when I attended the Oregon State University’s Natural Resources Leadership Academy. Because of this I had already taken the assessment and knew my top five strengths. However, in the Oregon Fellows workshop we were able to spend much more time talking about these in a smaller group. As mentioned in my last post, my Oregon Fellowship cohort better fit the quantitative, analytical classic MPA profile than me, this became blatantly obvious when we looked at a matrix displaying everyone’s top five strengths. Virtually all of the cohort had one (or more) of the following four traits: achiever, analytical, input, and learner. I don’t have any of those.
In contrast, my five strengths (according to StrengthsFinder) are: Activator, Self-Assurance, Individualization, Relator, and Strategic. Also interesting, these five strengths are spread across three of the four strength categories: influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking. And if you consider Activator to be the most “executing” of the influencing strengths, then I actually demonstrate strength across all categories. Not sure if that makes me well rounded or what, but it is interesting. Below you can see the description of my five themes as provided by the StrengthsFinder software.
For me, these five strengths make a lot of sense considering my career aspirations and my NPCC project. First, my most prominent strength: strategic. I came to graduate school because I felt that the litigation and lobbyist approach to public policy was not strategic when judged from a community solutions perspective. Likewise, unlike many of my CRES colleagues, I often find the family, neighborhood, and small claims-type mediation frustrating and short-sighted because it doesn’t approach the structural, policy issues that frequently underlie or at least influence these conflicts. In terms of project on the Lower Columbia Solutions Group, I believe (in the long run) a video is going to be many times more impacting than a potentially dry, academic white paper–although sorting through all the footage certainly makes for a long run ahead!
My second and third most dominant strengths are relator and individualization. As someone who values individualization, I don’t believe in generalizations and blanket assumptions. Instead I believe that all people have unique strengths and challenges, and I enjoy helping to discover and cultivate these attributes, often bringing them together “strategically” to make good teams. This plays right into my relator strength, which suggests that I enjoy close relationships, but am uneasy around superficial ones. I think I am a great connector, but put me in a classic meet-n-greet, mingle situation and I instantly transform to a wall flower. As someone who wants to facilitate groups and bring people to the table, I believe this combination of valuing deep relationships and seeing each person as their own person (not, per se, as just an extension of a group or agency) makes for a winning combination. Considering my internship project, these strengths played out as I individually interviewed 21 stakeholders, helping to pull out their unique perspectives on the situation and now relating them to each other to tell one coherent story.
I will comment on my fifth strength of activator before returning to my fourth most dominant strength. As slow and intentional as individualization and relator make me, activator balances this and brings out my impatience for seeing change take place. The Official Clifton description of this strength says that “people strong in the Activator theme can make things happen by turning thoughts into action.” For me conflict resolution is all about finding the common ground not simply to celebrate shared interests, but to find a place to act from to make change for the better. This Lower Columbia Solutions Group project epitomizes that, this group has found much difficulty achieved common ground and they have not sat on the laurels of that for one moment. Instead they have evolved for a cerebral consensus-building process to on-the-ground adaptive management activities. Likewise, I had no fear (as my supervisor Lauren noted in my 2014 internship evaluation) in jumping into this project, driving all over Oregon, interviewing engineers and biologists and other specialists whose specialty I know little about, and learning to operate a camera. Activator seems like it should be in the executing category, but it is in the influencing category. I guess this fits when I read the influencing description: “A dominant strength in this category marks an individual who can take charge, and is the one willing to speak up to ensure that the group is heard.” Yup, that’s me.
Now to that fourth trait, also in the influencing category: self-assurance. This trait strikes so true that it actually bothers me some. Although both StrengthsFinder trainers I have worked with and all the material I have read clearly states that self-assurance is not the same thing as pride, arrogance, or ego, it does come across that way a bit. The official description states: “People strong in the Self-Assurance theme feel confident in their ability to manage their own lives. They posses an inner compass that gives them confidence that their decisions are right.” I have to watch out that this strength doesn’t keep me from hearing others or making hasty decisions, but in the last few years I have seen my ability to believe in myself and advocate for myself certainly pay dividends. And yes, I do actually believe in my other strengths, which probably comes across as pretty obvious in the above paragraphs.