Thursday, April 7, 2011

Leveraging Your Unique Ability – the strategic value of building leadership around your greatest gifts

“This above all: to thine own self be true.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet

There is a principle of personal growth and development that is far more potent than it is popular, let alone practiced. The concept is as old as humanity, but a new term to describe it is emerging: Unique Ability. This term has been trademarked by Dan Sullivan, founder of a Toronto-based company called Strategic Coach.

Sullivan noticed that a group of handicapped individuals showed varying degrees of contentment and contribution in direct proportion to the degree to which they understood and applied their Unique Ability. I have witnessed similar results after coaching and consulting extensively with over 90 professionals over the last eight years, I not only concur with Mr. Sullivan, I would say it is the point of greatest leverage for successful leadership coaching and development, not only for the individual , but for their team and organization. In my view, it is the single-most strategic decision a leader can make.

The description of a Unique Ability, as found in the book, Unique Ability, Creating the Life You Want, by Catherine Nomura and Julia Walker, is as follows:

Each of us is born with a potential Unique Ability that has four characteristics:

• First, it is a superior ability that other people notice and value;
• Second, we love doing it and want to do it as much as possible;
• Third, it is energizing both for us and others around us; and,
• Fourth, we keep getting better, never running out of possibilities for further improvement.

So what, therefore, is the strategic value of fully deploying one’s Unique Ability, within the context of a team or organization? Much of the answer may be intuitive, but allow me to elaborate.

I have been graced with the opportunity to work with some remarkable people, seeing into their hearts and minds, sharing in the great responsibility of determining where to put their time, energy and talent. In the process, uncovering and applying one’s Unique Ability with full conviction consistently serves as a flawless guide.

At the center of any system is its leader. For better or worse, when the leader sneezes the system catches cold. Inevitably, the return on energy invested into the system is greater for the leader than any other individual within that system. Consequently, when a leader’s Unique Ability is applied consistently in its purest, undiluted form, the rest of the system functions with uncommon efficiency, drive, direction and impact.

John Wood, Founder and Executive Chair of Room to Read, an organization that builds educational infrastructure and opportunities in the developing world, learned about the power of applying one’s Unique Ability to his earlier role of CEO. Room to Read was founded in 2000, when Wood left a senior position at Microsoft to figure out how to provide libraries, books and education to the developing world. Well, he figured it out – Room to Read has now established over 10,000 libraries (at a current build-out rate of 6 per day!), 1,000 schools and 10,000 scholarships for girls.

This wasn’t always the case. In 2003, when I began working with Mr. Wood, he and Room to Read were making progress, but finding it challenging to scale – a key priority for the organization. Working with Mr. Wood, it was clearly evident to me that he suffered the fate of most founders and many leaders; he was working in and on nearly every aspect of the organization. Leaders are often talented individuals, capable of doing many things better than most. This is the trap. Not only does it lead to hyper-multi-tasking with mediocre results, it prevents them from bringing their Unique Ability to the majority of their time and attention.

During my first meeting with Mr. Wood in San Francisco, where Room to Read is based, we crafted a deceptively simple and profound assignment; for one week Mr. Wood was to avoid licking a stamp. Pretty easy, you say? Well, not if you have built a rapidly growing organization from the ground-up and feel obligated to respond personally to every letter that comes in, especially those addressed to you. However talented he may have been at it, handling the mail was clearly not Mr. wood’s Unique Ability. What was? Being in front of people—individuals or large crowds—inspiring them with big, hopeful, strategic visions that made sense and alleviated considerable suffering in the world.

Every hour Mr. Wood spent on envelopes and stamps was an hour lost from doing what he loved most—inspiring people. The unleashing of Mr. Wood’s Unique Ability into the world has now helped attract tens-of-millions of dollars and tens-of-thousands of devoted supporters.

The key to leveraging a leader’s Unique Ability is to first identify the leader’s Unique Ability, then restructure every aspect of the system to support, nurture and deliver the gifts of that Unique Ability. In Mr. Wood’s case, instead of being in front of people only 10-percent of the week, while he managed the other “important” aspects of the business, the organization was restructured to allow him to spend the lion’s share of his time in-front of donors, volunteers, television cameras and influential world leaders. In other words, those were very expensive stamps!

To be sure, internal and external strategies are paramount to organizational and team success; however, the most critical strategy may very well be the leader’s decision to understand their own Unique Ability and have everyone figure out how to bring it into the organization as fully as possible.

Oh, and by the way, to all those leaders who decide to explore this further, if you discover you are being more effective than ever and having fun at the same time, please don’t feel guilty.