How to Answer Your Strengths Question

What are your greatest strengths?

   We’ve all heard that interview question at one point in our professional lives. The predictable strengths and weaknesses question, where we have the opportunity to highlight both achievements and character traits. The typical response to this question is to either grab from the top of the list of “traits every employer wants in their employees”. These overused and unsupported answers do little to further our cause. While the interviewer usually nods their head as their eyes glaze over with boredom, without some story that backs up the claim, these assertions come out as empty as an upside-down coffee mug.

   The other response is slightly better, we scramble through our list of professional achievements haphazardly, hoping we have done something that proves our value. Unfortunately, our memories are only effective at reaching some accomplishment in the last few days or weeks, and if we’re really lucky, a month or two. These accomplishments, while noteworthy, may not best represent the true value we can bring to the organization.

   Knowing this, we need a better approach to answering this question. We do this by routinely, systematically keeping track of the accomplishments we make on the job. By recording our successes and wins along the way, when that strengths question comes up, we have an answer ready.

   Just as you wouldn’t hire a photographer to capture moments with your children or at your wedding without first seeing some of their work, you also need a portfolio that showcases the fruits of your labor. This career portfolio helps remind you of your value, so when you sit down at your next meeting with your boss, or at that next interview, you can prove your worth.

So how do you create a career portfolio?

   I recommend each month writing down your biggest accomplishment of the previous month. You’ll need to record what the challenge was, how you reacted to it, and the result. This will provide you the flesh to your story that illustrates how you were able to create a positive impact. Any proof that you can show also goes a long way to building credibility. This could simply be an email of thanks from your boss, or an email you send to others that explains what the situation was, and how you resolved it.

   To get you started with your portfolio, you can also go back and write down accomplishments from the past. Even though you might not be able to find “proof” of your impact, you will still be able to showcase a pattern of value that you bring. Once your portfolio has some successes recorded, you are able to fall into the routine of adding to it monthly.

   Maintaining your portfolio monthly serves two purposes; recording achievements before you forget them, and focused on contributing some measure of success to your organization. Trying to have a positive impact monthly, even if it’s only because you want something else for your portfolio, will help you stand out among your peers. And because of this focus on achieving more, you will eventually be handsomely rewarded for your efforts, leading you to even higher levels of success.

   So next time someone asks you to “tell me a time when…” or “what are your strengths”, you’ll be prepared. Your career portfolio will help you ace those questions, with concrete examples of the challenges you overcame, and the successes you wrought. As you continue to seek new accomplishments to add to your career portfolio, you will stand out among your peers. Your pursuit of success will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and your career portfolio will continue to grow, paying dividends with each new deposit.

Action Item:

Start your career portfolio today. Write down at least 3 examples of challenges you have overcome professionally. 

What was the challenge?

What did you do?

What was the result?

And for bonus points, what were the attributes you displayed in this example? (These are your strengths!)

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