Know thyself

Written by Susanne Baille

Admit it: you are the most important person you know. After all, so much of what you get out of your business and your life boils down to your attitudes, ambitions and skills. But just how well do you know yourself?

If you think the question is trivial — or even tacky — then Jim Clemmer may change your mind. The Kitchener, Ont.-based author and leadership consultant has seen just how damaging it can be to ignore your inner self: your strengths and weaknesses, personality traits and how you impact others.

“I know one CEO who is absolutely blind when it comes to self-awareness,” says Clemmer. The CEO’s personal style and approach created turmoil, distrust and huge turnover among his executive team, causing the firm to lurch from one disaster to another. “It’s never him, his fault or his approach,” observes Clemmer. “His company is about to go down the tubes because he will never be aware of this problem.”

An extreme scenario? Maybe. But entrepreneurs often shy away from developing self-awareness because they see it as touchy-feely, contemplating-my-inner-navel kind of stuff. “They’re so task-driven, results-oriented and goal-focused that they see it as a waste of time, but it’s not,” says Clemmer. “You get a whole series of benefits.”

Understanding yourself and how you impact others is an essential step to maximizing your leadership and management skills. Delving into your personality traits, passions, values, drivers and motivations can help you build on your strengths, compensate for weaknesses, make better business decisions and ultimately be a better leader. While self-reflection is a lifelong journey, you can take many steps now down the path to enlightenment.

Fatima Cabral, chair of Burlington, Ont.-based IT consultancy Pink Elephant Inc., credits much of her self-knowledge to the personal-development training she received during 20 years as a Royal Bank employee. When she began moving up the managerial ranks in her 20s, she welcomed personality testing, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. “If you want to be a good leader, you have to understand what you have to give to others,” she says. Through testing, “you come to understand your personality, what you should do more of and less of, and how you should interact with people.”

Cabral also participated in 360-degree feedback testing, a process whereby she, her bosses, colleagues and subordinates reviewed her performance anonymously through written questionnaires. “It’s the most revealing way to know what your strengths are as a leader,” she says.

Today, the self-analysis continues. Cabral runs Pink Elephant with husband and CEO David Ratcliffe, and the two constantly seek to improve through regular feedback from each other and employee surveys that assess company culture and its leadership, plus by examining key metrics such as employee turnover. Through it all, Cabral has learned that her strength lies in communication. “I interact with people well and I have the ability to influence others,” she says. “I’ve used that to grow.” But she has also become aware of some negative aspects of her personality. “I have the tendency to be very controlling and put in place systems and procedures that require a lot of control.” The result: staff felt they weren’t given enough autonomy to make their own decisions. That knowledge spurred her to “lighten up” and give others more power.

Jay Garnett found that increased self-awareness helped him clarify his strengths and refocus his firm. Two years ago, the president and CEO of Vancouver-based coffee distributor and café operator Snowbean Coffee Co. ran into trouble. “Things were trending the wrong way culturally and organizationally,” says Garnett. Infighting among the firm’s four divisions was resulting in lost customers. For three months, Garnett swung from division to division trying to heal the problems, but that got him nowhere. Finally, Garnett examined his own role in the situation.

After chatting with employees, asking questions, soliciting feedback and much soul-searching, Garnett realized he’d been spending far too much time involved in design, finance and customer-side projects. “I had a realization,” he says. “The thing that I do better than anyone in the organization is run the leadership and direction of the company. No one was steering the ship.” So Garnett “fired” himself from his extra jobs and delegated them to more suitable candidates. Focusing on his personal strength — galvanizing a common goal and vision — put the company back on track.

Still, discovering your true self can be difficult. Potential pitfalls include flat-out denial of weaknesses and persuading yourself you are better — or worse — at something than you actually are. “We’re all blind to the changes we’d most benefit from making,” says Steve Mitten, president of Principal Evolutions Coaching and Training Inc. in Surrey, B.C. “And it’s got nothing to do with your IQ; it has everything to do with being a human.”

And it may be painful to hear what others really think of you. The important thing is being open to criticism. “Yes, you can feel a bit wounded for a day or two,” says Cabral, “but my advice is to look beyond it. No one is attacking you as a person.”

Like anything worthwhile, developing self-awareness takes time. Mitten recommends taking 15 minutes in the morning and at night to disengage from business. Looking at who you are and where you want to go can often clarify what you’re best at and what will contribute most to your business.

David MacLean, president of Kelowna, B.C.-based MacLean Group Marketing Inc., started his journey toward self-awareness years ago after his wife pointed out how his driven, self-promoting style impacted those around him. With the help of a coach, MacLean began delving into his childhood “to understand why I am the way I am.” He also invested time in personality tests, including True Colors, which assesses your personality type and temperament.

MacLean also meets once a week with a group of Christian entrepreneurs to share stories and problems and to get honest feedback. Among his most important leadership lessons: “My natural style is ‘Keep up and shut up.’ That means I expect to set the direction and tone, and you do what you’ve got to do to keep up,” says MacLean. “But the effect can be, ‘Gee, we don’t really make a difference here because Dave’s driving the whole thing and he doesn’t want my input’.” Recognizing this tendency, MacLean now tries hard to allow employees more input.

Change, even self-improvement, can be scary, says Mitten, but it’s worth the effort: “When you understand what’s compelling you, what aligns with your values, passions and the impact you have want to have in the world, it informs and instructs you. It will also give you a broader experience of success, more fulfillment and greater balance.”

Read other Personal Development articles

© 2004 Susanne Baille

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com