Oregon Fellows Orientation: StrengthsFinder (week of June 15)

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.

Acton_StrengthsFinder_MyTopFiveThemes

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Oregon Fellows Orientation: Meeting My Cohort (week of June 15)

I have been fortunate to receive the endorsement of an Oregon Fellowship to help pay for some of the completion of my project with the Lower Columbia Solutions Group. The Oregon Fellowship program is a competitive, nation-wide program that recruits students pursuing graduate degrees in public policy issues (including urban planning, public health, and in my case, public administration) to Oregon for a summer “internship” with a hand-picked public agency based on the student’s unique interests and skills. This year hundreds of applications were received and only 14 students were selected. Student representation this year was from University of Kansas, Duke, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Georgia, Harvard University, University of Iowa, Berkely, Carnegie Mellon, and representing the northwest one student from Oregon State, University of Washington, and me from University of Oregon. To say this is a talented, prestigious group of students would be an understatement–and I felt both honored and a bit out of my league to be considered in such a group.

My cohort found placements in agencies ranging from audit divisions to housing services to a community college to designing interpretative services for a future Willamette Falls park. It was a diverse set of assignments, however, there was a clear underlying theme of analysis, specifically quantitative-based analysis. Although I was deeply immersed in this during my MPA core year, I feel like I don’t remotely have these skills for these public sector positions. However, I don’t think many of my Oregon Fellow cohort mates had the people and process skills that I brought to the table either.

For me this observation really underscored how unique my path is going to be–is going to have to be. I likely am barely qualified for many of the positions that are advertised to MPA-holding young professionals. And while there are more conflict specialist positions than compared to when my elder colleagues started 20-30 years ago (as discussed in my last post about the Affiliated Practitioners Retreat), there are still few and far between advertised positions for CRES-holding young professionals. This is still a career field where you must blaze your own path–which ironically is how I received my Oregon Fellowship placement back with NPCC. This experience in the Oregon Fellows coupled with many conversations with my recently graduated CRES Cohort 9 friends makes me wish that part of my education thus far was to prepare me for being an independent contract, such as a private consultant, since that is the most fruitful route I have seen practitioners in this field take.

Affiliated Practitioners Retreat (week of June 11)

Once a year, Oregon Consensus hosts an Affiliated Practitioners Retreat that brings together the facilitators, mediators, and other project support contractors (aka “affiliated practitioners”) that assist on Oregon Consensus projects. On the whole, there is little difference between Oregon Consensus and Oregon Solutions–both falling under the auspices of the National Policy Consensus Center–and thus this year those affiliated with Oregon Solutions were also invited. Because of my internship status I was invited to the Thursday portion of the retreat which was geared specifically at the future of this field. The title of event I went to was “Turning Mentors into Colleagues: Working Across Generations in the Field of Collaborative Governance.” In attendance for this session was a wonderful cross-section of practitioners ranging from young 20-something students like myself to mid-career professionals to recent retirees.

Facilitating the session were three facilitators from Triangle Associates out of Seattle: Bob Wheeler, Cherie Wheeler, and Claire Chase. They did an excellent job of setting up a meaningful time for minimally-structured small group discussions (had it been a longer time period I would have classified it as even a dialogue) through a fun (slightly ridiculous) skit and a review of their own coming-of-age/coming-to-this-field stories. I ended up in a small group that included Mary Forst, who I had worked with as a moderator’s assistant during last summer’s Citizens Initiative Review. She was very sweet to sing my praises as a “natural” to this work–it was quite a compliment, one I hope is true, but also know that it takes lots of work to be a “natural.”

Stepping away from my own prideful moment, our small group had an incredible conversation around generational differences of expectations within the broad conflict resolution field. At the time many in our group got their start, there was no conflict resolution degrees and basic mediation trainings were even few and far between. These individuals–who ranged from having no education to having law degrees–literally blazed the trail for conflict resolution and facilitation processes. They had no constraints, but also no support; they made little money, but also had few student loans to pay back; there was little competition, but there was also little demand. As the conversation progressed, the group noted that the challenges facing young, aspiring professionals have dramatically changed. AND perhaps they were no less daunting than before, just different.

I was most struck by the awe and almost jealousy my elders expressed at the diversity of my educational interests and opportunities. They marveled that I am being exposed to everything from neuroscience and implicit bias and cross-cultural dynamics to strategic planning and organizational development and group theory at such a young age. These apparently were topics that were incredible “aha moments” for these veteran professionals much later in their careers. They also noted that such a diverse curriculum and breadth of experiences could prove to be yet another challenge for our generation as it may lead to a lack of depth in practical skills and a sense of indecisiveness about what path to follow. This observation resonated deeply with students like Wesley Lucas and myself, who indeed have followed many paths in the past two years, some even attached to concurrent degrees and certificates. It articulated a fear we both have experienced, the thought that having more and more credentials and diversity of experiences was not in fact going to lead to a job when we graduate. I guess time will tell. In the meantime, I have agreed to serve as a student liaison on a potential new cross-generational dialogue series for conflict resolution practitioners that will ideally be a collaborative effort between NPCC and Oregon Mediation Association. I do hope that this effort happens, I know there is much wisdom to soak up from my more elder and experienced mentors, peers, and colleagues.