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This summer was the Women’s World Cup and I loved watching the US Women’s National Team play. I was really impressed with their team mentality and teamwork, but one thing that really stood out to me was how each individual contributed to the team in their own unique, but not perfect, way.
I started thinking about this when a commentator said something about how one of the players in the midfield wasn’t as strong of a defender as another midfield player. This really struck me- here was this player who had played and trained for countless hours, at the very top of their game, and yet they still had noticeable strengths and weaknesses.
This might seem obvious. But I’ve always believed it’s possible to get good at anything, so I had this idealistic image in my head that players at the World Cup level must be perfect at any skill required to play the game. It’s very humanizing and fascinating to then realize that there isn’t that objective standard of perfection. Instead, a strong team is made up of individuals who have significant strengths, and also some weaknesses. The magic of the team comes together when the unique talents and instincts of each player are highlighted, and there is coverage from other players for areas where there are weaknesses.
That particular player that the commentators mentioned wasn’t on the team because of their perfect ability to defend, they were on the team because of their unique ability to get the ball up the field. I’ve started thinking of those unique abilities as “sparkle skills”- that something extra that can’t be taught but can be highlighted in the right situation.
I’ve loved thinking about this idea in my own life and in the workplace as well. For me personally, this has actually given me some relief when thinking about my own performance in different areas of my life. I love growth and learning, but in areas that don’t come as naturally to me, I’ve realized that I can get a base level of acceptable competence and then really spend more time focusing on my strengths or sparkle skills.
Again, thinking about the team mentality, I can get more comfortable with my possible mediocre (not a word I use frequently!) performance at something if I know I have some cover. That cover could look like friends, family members, my partner, a coach, etc. that have strengths in that area that can help support me. Then I can set myself up to be in a position where more of my time is spent on activities where my sparkle skills can possibly shine.
This won’t be possible 100% of the time, I know that I will still need to have basic competence in many areas outside of my sparkle skills in order to be successful. But the more opportunities overall where I put myself in situations where they might get to shine, the more likely I will really move the needle on what I am doing.
This same idea plays out in the workplace, where an organization is ultimately just a group of individuals with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Again, no one is objectively perfect here, all you have to work with are the skills and instincts of the people around you. This can be a really great thing. In the soccer world, it means that if you have someone who is really great at a specific skill (like creating opportunities for goals), you can let them shine, which means the performance of your team is going to be uniquely successful compared to others. You can train and develop to get to a high level of performance, but what gives the extra edge is those extremely personal, individualized instincts.
So as a manager, I try to keep an eye out for those sparkle skills and then think about how to look for opportunities to highlight them. Again, this won’t be possible all the time, but the more you can, the more you start to see creative results. This also means, that just like in my own life, individual performers do not need to be perfect at everything. Instead you want to develop teams that cover for each other, so you have all the necessary skills spread across multiple people. You want to pick people to “play on your team” for their unique strengths, not for their deficiencies.
Since having this realization, when I start to struggle with something, instead of diving into research and learning, I ask myself if it is really a skill that I need to develop to be successful. This helps me to keep realistic expectations and to prioritize my time. Because ultimately, the goal of all of this is to spend less time trying to be perfect, and more time sparkling.
What are some of your sparkle skills? Make a list of them and brainstorm where you could possibly highlight them. Then make a list of your weaknesses where you need cover. Brainstorm how you could find that in your life or career.