This article is excerpted from Discover Your Sales Strengths: How the World’s Greatest Salespeople Develop Winning Careers, by Benson Smith and Tony Rutigliano, Copyright 2003 by the Gallup Organization (Warner Business Books).

The power of knowing your strengths is obvious to some, but the majority of us fail to give this important matter any real thought. In fact, a majority of the people we talked to had limited knowledge of their talents, their innate potential for strength. Trying to build a successful career without this powerful, important information is like trying to drive down a highway with a foggy windshield. If we’re lucky, we will avoid a head-on collision, but we will most likely miss the important signs that tell us when we need to stop, turn, or yield. Why is it so hard to see our strengths clearly?

Strengths, those capabilities that enable us to perform will in various parts of our lives, spring from recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that occur spontaneously and become unique parts of our personality as we mature into adults. Since these patterns are such an intrinsic part of us, as natural as breathing, we can take them for granted. People who meet other easily see nothing special about this gift. Empathetic people just assume that everyone reacts to the emotions of others as instinctively as they do. As a result of the spontaneity with which we apply our talents to various situations, we overlook them and how important and valuable they are.

Our human penchant for fooling ourselves can also cause us to have less than accurate assessments of our abilities. In our “plus columns” we often will list strengths we would like to have instead of those we really possess. We might think we’re good with people because we’d like to be. Similarly, we might attribute strengths to ourselves because we believe those in our types of jobs or circumstances are supposed to have those strengths. If we think that successful salespeople are aggressive, or competitive, or disciplined, we might conclude that we must have those strengths because we are successful in sales.

A third reason we can be confused about our strengths is our use of vague language to describe them. One sales representative we interviewed told us that his greatest strength was his “nose for business.” He insisted he could smell a good deal a mile away, that he could smell when it was time to go for the close, that he could smell the fear in a competitor. After a while we felt as if we were talking to Lassie. A nose for business may be a colorful metaphor, but it is not very helpful in understanding how to grow and develop. Realistically, we can’t develop our strengths until we know what they are and can define them in practical terms.

A fourth reason our strengths are obscured is that most of us have been encouraged to focus on our weaknesses instead of building on our talents to create strengths. Every time we ask about strengths versus weaknesses, we find that more people believe that growth comes from correcting what’s wrong rather than building on what’s right. The key to substantially improving sales performance, according to this line of reasoning, is to identify and correct weaknesses. Many companies perpetuate this reasoning and focus performance reviews on “areas for improvement,” which is often simply a euphemism for “what’s wrong with you.” How many of us have walked away from an annual review with a list of areas in which we should improve instead of understanding how we can do more of what we do best? Focusing energy on weaknesses might improve performance somewhat, but – contrary to conventional wisdom – great performance comes from strengths. Knowing your talents, understanding them thoroughly, building them into strengths, and seeing how you can put your strengths to work every day is a key to greatness and, our research would attest, the surer path to success.

Our analysis of sales, management, and customer databases showed that the traditional thinking about development was counterproductive. Sales strengths did not spring from education, training, or experience. In almost every company we studied, the best performers and the worst performers were similar in these respects. What set the best performers above the rest was their use of recurring patterns to:

  • Build relationships,
  • Have an impact on others (and get them to say yes),
  • Discover and solve customer needs,
  • Drive their individual performance by focusing on meaningful goals and rewards, and
  • Find the right structure in which to perform at their best.

Understanding your talents in these areas will enable you to build strengths that you can put to work for you every day.