Cary Martin Shelby
Learning to Lead With My Strengths
Updated: Aug 9, 2020
My first couple of years working as a transactional lawyer at a large law firm were driven by fear. Failing to succeed and failing to be self-sufficient comprised a large portion of those fears. Failing to provide for my family was the greatest fear of all. I did whatever it took to excel, from pulling all-nighters to sacrificing days off and vacations. I was like an energizer bunny on steroids. Nothing could stop me from moving forward.
The fear started to dissipate just when my batteries’ power started to fizzle out. I then had to rely on that internal tank of energy that had already fallen below empty from years of pummeling through adversity. Scraping those last droplets of fumes was a long and painful slog. At this juncture, I instinctively knew to reduce my work hours to 80% of my required billable hours. But I also knew that reducing my hours at such a junior level would likely knock me off of the already hazardous track to partnership. The mere thought of this further depleted my fuel to perilous levels. Even with the reduced hours, the days became increasingly unbearable. Dragging myself to work felt like moving through rapidly drying concrete. Procrastination became my toxin. Hours would pass by as the words within that same paragraph of that same subscription agreement began to blur. A massive brick wall eventually plunked itself right before me. My feeble fingernails were of little help in clawing my way out.
The sources of my obstacles in surviving law firm life were undeniably multidimensional. External factors such as massive student loan debt and systemic issues related to being a woman, a minority, and belonging to a lower socioeconomic class certainly played prominent roles in facilitating my burnout. Internal factors such as navigating law firm life as a trauma survivor made it all the worse. In sifting through these sources, one thing became painfully clear: I tumbled into this career path without any notion of what my strengths were, or how to lead with those strengths. Interestingly enough, I could quickly identify all of my weaknesses. Attention to detail was something that I had always struggled with. Monotonous tasks were the death of me. The mere thought of repeatedly shuffling through the same stacks of documents still makes me cringe. Promptly responding to new information or “thinking on my feet” also presented unique challenges, particularly when I was in unfamiliar settings.
My self-perception was dominated by this tangled ball of flaws that I was constantly trying to fix. I mistakenly disregarded the extent to which these weaknesses were integral skillsets within a particular profession. Trying to change these weaknesses and adapt them to new opportunities and environments had always been my survival strategy. Nothing changed when it came to my career. While providing for my family was a paramount factor in selecting my profession, I failed to consider the long-term effects of constantly stuffing myself into a box that I was never designed to fit into.
Recognizing my strengths in the midst of my burnout required me to explore aspects of my identity that I had previously failed to nurture. Reaching out to mentors, who had been my cheerleaders over the course of my trajectory in the law, was my first step in unveiling these strengths. I then sought a range of professional services to incrementally improve my deteriorating physical and mental health. Researching what it meant to identify and maximize my strengths became my new hobby. Shifting my mindset in this manner further required me to delve into my spiritual centers that I had similarly neglected over the years.
Through this process of prioritizing myself, a multitude of strengths started to emerge. With the right preparation, I can move mountains with my speaking abilities. Untangling complexity and problem solving brings me a peculiar kind of zeal that I am eager to share with others. Seeing patterns that others cannot see has been a frequent and lifelong occurrence for me. And once I deconstruct a puzzle, I can literally teach it to anyone, anywhere, and anytime. Even more importantly, I discovered that every aspect of my being is a creator. From writing, to painting, to cooking, to designing…I am the absolute happiest when I am creating. Sharing those creations with others is what I intuitively know will bring me closer to my core purposes.
Leading with these strengths as a junior transactional lawyer would have positioned me to better maximize my overall experience while I was there. Strategizing problem-solving with clients and overseeing deals from start to finish were opportunities that I should have actively sought out. A practice area that required more research and writing would have likely been a better overall fit for my skillsets. Leading with those strengths in forging a career within the law eventually led me to academia, where I have a higher degree of autonomy to deploy my creativity in my research and teaching. As I unlock multiple puzzles within the law, I have the glorious pleasure of sharing these findings with my students on a daily basis. Having the flexibility to continue growing and learning is the greatest privilege of all.
Managing my weaknesses within a law firm and beyond entails a wide assortment of tools, many of which I am still learning. Delegating tasks that require monotonous attention to detail is one monumental tool that I had previously underutilized. The simple act of knowing my weaknesses increased my self-compassion which gave me more energy to navigate them when necessary. It has likewise led me to have better discernment in deciding which opportunities to accept, and which ones to decline. As I transcend to leadership roles, surrounding myself with a team of people who can help me through this process in the context of my professional growth is an absolute must.
This post admittedly simplifies an extremely complicated process as your strengths and weaknesses continually evolve. An extensive rabbit hole of research and commentary is dedicated to this very issue. Doing your own research is essential. Strengths can also become your weaknesses as one study noted that, “[m]ore is not always better, and executives lose their jobs when their strengths become weaknesses through overuse.” In my case, my ability to adapt had been one of my greatest strengths in overcoming adversity, but it had also become one of my greatest weaknesses due to my willingness to adapt to toxic environments. The false perceptions of others can further cause you to mistakenly label a characteristic as a weakness, or vice versa. Of course, comparing your strengths and weaknesses to others is inherently problematic. Some people naturally thrive in law firms, while others do not. New strengths and weaknesses may also arise over time. Possessing varying degrees of privilege can enhance access to opportunities for leading with your strengths, or even identifying them. Economic crises can completely eradicate or delay the extent to which certain career paths exist. Leading with your strengths may even require you to create our own opportunities, which entails its own layers of challenges.
Even with all of these challenges, engaging in extended conversations with yourself about who you are can propel you forward in ways that you may have never imagined. You deserve to be heard, and we are often silencing our own voices for the sake of short-term survival. Taking even the smallest of steps towards listening to yourself can yield astounding results. The earlier that we can hear ourselves, the better.
By: Cary Martin Shelby