The most important person to know in relief and development

Mirrors. Photo by: Ashley Good / CC BY

When it comes to career success, they say it’s not what you know, but who you know. Well, if you want to have an amazing career in the aid and development industry, there is one person you must get to know, and get to know well: you.

Self-awareness is a key to building a great career, communicating effectively with your colleagues, being a leader, being a team player, choosing (or creating) the right job, managing your boss, managing your team, striking the right work/life balance – the list goes on and on…

Sure, it would be great to have Jeff Sachs and Bill Easterly on speed dial. And being on a first-name basis with Esther Duflo, Dani Rodrik, or Rajiv Shah would surely open a lot of doors, no? 

But if you do not know yourself – your strengths, weaknesses, values, priorities, personality – you can get yourself into trouble. You may take on too much. Or you may end up in the wrong kind of job. You may not be aware of how your default communication style grates on your boss’s or co-workers’ nerves. You may not ask for that raise. You may not set good boundaries and stand up to the office jerk. You may not be aware of what you need to be at your best– so your performance may fall short.

And even if you consider yourself pretty self-aware, it always helps to check in and see how you have grown and changed over time. Here’s how to do it:

1. What are your core values?

Core values are the interests and qualities that you’ve always found yourself drawn to. I’m not talking about “values” in terms of moral values, but more broadly the values that make us who we are. These are things like: experiment, learn, be connected, impact, have fun.

When our work and life are aligned with them, we feel most fully ourselves and fully energized. We are naturally inclined toward our core values, and are eager to spend time on activities that align with them. We don’t have to force ourselves to do these things, make a lot of effort, or set a bunch of goals.

Knowing your core values can help you make career decisions, such as: Should I stay in this job? Is it time to leave an overseas post and “go home”? Should I apply for that promotion? What kind of role at work would be the best fit for me? Is my work taking over my personal life?

Take someone I’ll call Elena, who, when I met her, was deputy director of a large donor-funded public health project that was in its final year. Realizing that “Design” was one of her core values helped her understand why the project wrapup activities held little appeal. As she began to search for her next job, she decided to only consider opportunities that would allow her to design new projects and innovative approaches.

2. What are your strengths?

I don’t just mean the things that you’re good at, that everyone says you should do. As in, “You’re so good at spreadsheets, why don’t you develop our project budget?” You may be good at spreadsheets while actively detesting them. I like Marcus Buckingham’s criteria for a true strength:

  • You are great (not just good) at it.

  • When thinking about the task, you are excited; you anticipate the activity.

  • When doing the task you find it easy to concentrate and get absorbed in the activity, even losing track of time.

  • Once the task is completed, you have more energy than before.

More often than not, our strengths are aligned with our values. In Elena’s case, she remembered a previous job with an international organization in which she had designed several innovative public health projects. That feeling of being “in the zone,” losing track of time as she developed new approaches to solving problems, was something she wanted to recapture in her next job.

Looking at the four criteria above, brainstorm ideas about what your strengths might be.

If you can figure out what these are, and orient your work around them, you will have a blast at work, be more effective than ever before, and produce some amazing results. In short, you will have a high-impact career you love.

3. What are your weaknesses?

It’s helpful to know your weaknesses - not in order to work on them and improve in those areas, but to avoid spending time and energy on them.

Move your core job description away from them. Let someone else do them (preferably, someone whose strength is in that area). Marcus Buckingham also redefines weaknesses: activities that leave you feeling bored, drained or weak. This can be the case even if you are great at these activities and produce terrific results.

Elena noticed that she felt drained by the myriad tasks of closing out the project, and determined that this was an area of weakness. She teamed up with colleagues who enjoyed the sense of completion from these close-out activities, and she took on tasks that energized her. She thoroughly enjoyed writing case studies that demonstrated the project’s innovative design - and did a great job on them.

Think about tasks that you dread, you procrastinate on, and even once you do them (to “get them over with”) you still feel de-energized rather than relieved. I’d bet those are your weaknesses. Make a list. Ask yourself, “How much of my work day is spent engaging in these activities?” Think about how you can minimize the time spent on those tasks. It may be as simple as delegating or off-loading them to someone for whom these activities are strengths. It may be as complex as realizing that these activities form the majority of your job description – in which case it’s probably time to move on. You will have a much more successful career if your work role requires you to spend minimal time in areas of weakness.

Gaining more self-awareness of your core values, strengths and weaknesses will help you connect to the most important person to your international development career: you.

Watch out for a future Career Matters post on five more ways to boost self-awareness - and amp up your career in the process.

Read last week’s Career Matters.

About the author

  • Shana Montesol Johnson

    Shana Montesol Johnson is a certified executive and career coach who works with international development professionals who want careers they love, that make an impact, and allow them to have a life outside of work. She has coached clients working for such organizations as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the World Health Organization, U.S. Agency for International Development, Peace Corps, and the Millennium Challenge Corp., among others. Born in the United States and raised in Mexico, Shana has been based in Manila, Philippines since 2004. She also blogs at