Working Like a Natural: Techniques for Personal Strategy

Frustrating incidents provide good opportunities to reflect on personal strategies that haven’t served us well. By taking the time to revisit those incidents, we can better understand weaknesses in our strategies and prepare to address them. The technique is simple: Choose an incident where you were not satisfied with the outcome and, even with the benefit of hindsight, are not sure how you should have proceeded. Recall what you were trying to accomplish, how you went about it, and what was frustrating. Looking at your recap of the incident, try to identify a turning point – a moment when, if you had responded differently (even if you don’t know how you should have responded), you might have been more effective.

Now place the incident in the personal strategy framework and start debriefing yourself with the following questions:

  • What quadrant was I operating from?
  • How did I see my role?
  • How did I bring myself – for better and worse — to the role?
  • What strengths might have helped?
  • What weaknesses should I have guarded against?

With these thoughts in mind, revisit your turning point to see how you might have responded differently. The next time you’re approaching a similar situation, you’ll have the incident and the lessons you learned from it as resources to help you. There are several ways to use frustrating incident analysis. If you’re working by yourself, keeping an occasional journal of incidents and analyses can help uncover patterns that suggest new approaches to your role. If your foundation is willing, you and your colleagues can organize meetings to debrief incidents together; those meetings may also suggest ways the organization can help individual grantmakers take up their roles. Foundations that use this technique over time can build up a “library” of incidents that can be especially useful for training new employees.

Organizations depend on us to understand our roles, but we can’t always depend on our organizations to clarify our roles for us. That’s partly because, by definition, role refers to the authorized discretion we’re granted with our jobs. Even so, by studying what a foundation has made explicit about the grantmaker’s role, it’s often possible to gain insights that are helpful for devising a personal strategy. If you look at the duties listed in your job description, for example, what headline or title might best describe them? (Sometimes, when foundations want to underscore a new vision of the grantmaker’s role, they replace generic titles like “program officer” with more evocative ones like “portfolio manager.”) Similarly, if you consider the organization’s mission, current strategy, and statement of values, what are the implications for your role? If you’re in a large foundation, what does the organizational chart tell you about your spot in the work system? What other roles do you interact with, and how does the work system shape those roles?

Better than doing this on your own, of course, is doing it with colleagues and foundation leadership. The process not only brings more insight into the clarification of roles but also ensures that the roles grantmakers take up are actually authorized by the foundation, and not merely the roles they wish they had. One way to start such a process is by uncovering the implicit mental images people have of the grantmaker’s role. Completing and comparing simple analogies – “grantmaker is to grantee as [blank] is to [blank]” or “grantmaker is to our foundation as [blank] is to [blank]” – can generate helpful role images and expose divergent images that may be creating confusion for grantees or conflict within the foundation. Another way to do this is by asking experienced grantmakers what metaphors they use to describe their role and inviting staff to look for common themes and patterns.

Naturally, sometimes unconsciously, we emulate the style and behavior of peers, former colleagues, old bosses – anyone whom we consider effective. It’s useful to reflect on our role models explicitly, analyzing how they performed their roles effectively, much as engineers analyze a competitor’s product to learn how to produce it themselves.

The personal-strategy framework is a good starting point. If one of your role models seems like a natural, try to identify which aspects of her self she was bringing to her role. You might also spot weaknesses (perhaps by thinking about lapses) that she would have been guarding against. Even a back-of-the-envelope analysis can provide important insights. First, by making explicit what your role models probably do implicitly, you can begin to experiment more consciously with their approaches. Second, you can assess to what extent they really are good role models for you. Perhaps they relied on strengths that you lack, or never mobilized assets that you have in abundance. In other words, choosing and emulating role models without reflection can put you in the position of trying to bring someone else’s self, instead of your own, to your role.

Sometimes we bring our self-image, rather than our self, to our role. We focus more on how we want to be seen than on how we can best advance the work at hand. And a preoccupation with self-image often creates boomerang effect, producing the very appearance we dreaded in the first place. For example, a grantmaker may decide that asking too many questions will give the appearance that he’s uninformed or unintelligent. Of course, the fewer questions he asks, the less informed and intelligent he is likely to be and to appear. He ends with a double loss – distracted from his role and unable to create the impression he wants.

To monitor how concerns with self-image can undermine effectiveness, make a quick inventory of the two or three “desired” and “dreaded” images that you bring to work situations. Then identify two or three behaviors you typically engage in to advance or deflect each image. The point here is to understand how your preoccupation with a certain self-image affects your work. So, in the example above, the grantmaker’s goal would be to become less preoccupied with appearing intelligent. (And caring about self-image isn’t always a bad thing: there are times when wanting to appear a certain way advances actually being that way, as when making an effort to appear impartial reinforces a commitment to being impartial.)

In many cases, identifying your desired or dreaded image can help you consider the cost to your work of attempting to maintain that image. You can use the same technique in conjunction with an analysis of a frustrating incident by asking: What image was I attempting to project (or deflect) as I responded to this work situation? Did it lead me to behave in ways that made the situation more difficult? How did those behaviors affect my personal strategy and the eventual outcome of the situation?

Bringing an awareness of the personal strategy framework to our interactions with grantees or grantseekers can help us aim for high role- and self-awareness. But it helps to see where our partner in a given interaction is positioned, as well. You may be operating with high role- and self-awareness, but your partner may be using a bureaucratic strategy that’s inhibiting spontaneous problem-solving or brainstorming. Your strategy, therefore, should aim to help your partner bring his self to his own role. You might facilitate that by changing the meeting setting, looking for chances to interact more casually, or sharing your own hopes or anxieties about the project that brings you together.

In the same way, it’s useful to know if your partner is using a personalizer’s strategy, perhaps distracted by anxiety or blind to new possibilities by too much self-confidence. You might need to refocus on the work at hand, trying to get your partner to work with you to clarify (and thereby commit to working on) the problem or opportunity at hand.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Personal Strategy.