How to Unlock Your Personal Advantage

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under founders leadership strategy

Elon Musk and Steve Jobs

The essential guide to reshaping your role so that every day becomes more energising and fulfilling.

What does it take to become a successful founder? You may think the answer lies in studying the top entrepreneurs and then mirroring their strengths.

Take Elon Musk, known for his 'first principles' thinking. Does that mean you should work on sharpening your logical reasoning skills? Steve Jobs was a masterful presenter. Does that mean you should dedicate time to brushing up on your public speaking skills?

Not necessarily! After working with some of the most successful CEOs in the world, I've noticed that they don't focus on copying others. Instead, they capitalise on their personal strengths. 

It's about introspection, not imitation.

What Is Your Personal Advantage?

In the world of strategy, competitive advantage refers to the capabilities that allow companies to outperform their competitors.

Startups can't rely on most sources of competitive advantage, particularly in their early stages. They don't have scale economies, network effects, or strong brands. In fact, most startups begin with only one source of competitive advantage: their founders.

I coined the term personal advantage to describe the capabilities that allow individuals to generate superior results. These capabilities are your Super Powers, and clearly articulating them can help you maximise your advantage.

In this essay, I'll show you how to identify your own Super Powers, quantify how much you're currently using them, and then rebalance your calendar so you can win by playing your own game.

Step One: Identify the Activities That Energise You

In his book The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, psychologist Gay Hendricks introduced a concept called the Zone of Genius, which you can use to classify your activities into four categories:

  • Incompetence: those low-skill, low-passion tasks that often cause you a lot of stress
  • Competence: the moderate-skill tasks in which your output is ordinary and undifferentiated
  • Excellence: tasks where you outperform others but find the work uninspiring and draining
  • Genius: those high-passion, high-skill tasks which feel naturally easy, effortless, and energising

Activity classifications

Start your activity audit by listing out the activities you do, using your calendar to help you. I recommend making the activities as granular as possible by breaking big activities into smaller ones.

For example, "board meetings" encompasses a number of distinct sub-activities such as:

  • Running a financial analysis
  • Creating a board deck
  • Speaking with board members individually
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Presenting updates to the board
  • Recording action items
  • Following up

Most CEOs will easily generate lists of 50–100 activities.

Once you've completed your list, classify each of the activities using the four categories above:

Incompetence, Competence, Excellence, or Genius. Remember that these reflect your level skill as well as the energy required to perform them.

Tools such as Notion databases or Google Sheets can help you sort your list by category.

Step Two: Clarify Your Super Powers

Now you have a solid list of Genius activities–the work you do well that lights you up. The next step is to figure out which underlying skills you're using when you're excelling in these Genius activities. These skills are your Super Powers.

Every good super hero has a backstory that explains how their Super Powers were honed. Spiderman was a geeky teen who was bullied at school. After a bite from a radioactive spider, he gained spider-like capabilities that allowed him to stand up for himself. Then, after his Uncle Ben was murdered, he decided to apply these skills to fight crime in New York City.

Fighting criminals is Spiderman's Genius, but shooting webs from his wrists is one of his powers.

Some of my own Genius activities include coaching founders, writing essays, and designing new products for founders. My Super Powers include:

  • Connecting with people from different backgrounds
  • Teaching complex concepts to others
  • Going deeper on a topic than most are willing to go
  • Brainstorming dozens of new ideas for a given problem

Each of these Super Powers has its own backstory. For example, my ability to connect came from moving a lot as a child and having to overcome a persistent feeling of being an outsider. And my ability to teach came very early –my mother tells me I would come home each day from junior school and teach her what I'd learned.

You know you've articulated a Super Power when you realise it's something you've been doing for a very long time and for a very particular reason.

I invite you to revisit your list of Genius activities and reflect on the following questions:

  • What are the Super Power-like skills that enable you to excel in your Genius activities?
  • What is the earliest point in your life when you can remember using or developing these skills? What happened?
  • What makes your way of doing these Genius activities stand out? Do you have a unique method, mindset, or strategy?

Understanding the origin of your talents can help you understand –and value –why things come more naturally to you.

Ask Your Inner Circle

Auditing your activities isn't the only way to uncover your Super Powers. Another option is to ask the people closest to you.

I've asked dozens of CEOs to send emails to co-founders, teammates, investors, friends, and family to ask this question:

"What do you see as my special gifts?"

The idea of asking this often leads to discomfort. What if your network shrugs their shoulders and can't come up with anything nice to say?

Don't listen to this voice. 

What actually happens is that your network will reply with a consistent, positive message.

A piece of advice: Don't take what they say for granted. To you, the skills they see in you may seem effortless, easy, or too obvious. But to them, those traits are impressive and special.

Effortless is your advantage.

Surprisingly, the most insightful responses often come from your parents. Despite knowing little about your business or what you do from day to day, their ability to name your Super Powers may seem uncanny. Of course, this speaks to a deeper truth: The things you're great at, which energise you today, stem from what you were good at as a child.

When I asked my mum about my special gifts, she talked about my empathy as a baby, curiosity as a child, and my natural ability to teach others as an adolescent. Was becoming a coach and mentor my destiny all along?

Step Three: Update Your Mindset

Mindset traps

When I work through this chart with founders, they often discover that they spend very little time using their Super Powers. As little as 5–10% of their time might be spent on activities where they have the largest personal advantage.

It's no wonder that when your role doesn't leverage your Super Powers, you can feel drained, stagnant, and even suffer from imposter syndrome.

So what stops founders from using these natural gifts more frequently?

Four patterns of thinking lead us away from using our natural gifts. Let's run through each one:

1) The Guilt Trap

"I dislike doing it, so everyone else must dislike it, too"

Founders often hang on to tasks they find tedious on the assumption that if they find it boring, everyone else will, too. However, this is a false belief. For example, one of my EAs finds the act of serving others so intrinsically motivating that it's virtually independent of the activity.

Escape the guilt trap by giving yourself permission to invest in a team that can support you.

2) The Productivity Trap

"As long as I'm doing something, it doesn't matter what it is"

The relentless pursuit of busyness can lead us to take on tasks we should delegate or avoid altogether. It feels great to check things off your list, but performing the wrong tasks prevents you from leveraging your most valuable skills.

Escape the productivity trap by delegating as much as you can. This not only elevates your team – it elevates you, too.

3) The Excellence Trap

"I'm the best at this, so I must do it, even if it gives me little pleasure"

Founders are often highly competent in a wide range of activities. This often leads other people, including their co-founders, to expect them to do certain activities at which they excel – but that they hate doing.

Continuing to do work that drains you over the long term is a recipe for burnout.

Escape the excellence trapped by mentoring anding coach those who take over from you. Remember – asking questions that raise people's awareness is often better than giving all the answers.

4) The Effort Trap

"It feels too easy, so it can't be that valuable"

Many of us were brought up to believe that work should be hard and painful. This belief can lead us to discount our Super Powers because performing this work feels effortless.

This is like a fish assuming that birds can swim as easily as fish can.

Escape the effort trap by identifying your 'effortless' Super Powers – and then begin to value them appropriately.

Step Four: Reshape Your Role

Now it's time to identify opportunities to delegate, eliminate, or swap activities that don't leverage your Super Powers.

After auditing your activities, the time comes when you have to pick your battles. 

Are you going to keep battling against the current as you work on areas you aren't naturally good at, which drain you? Or will you give up certain activities so you can focus on becoming the best in the world – by leveraging your Super Powers?

Now is the time to decide which of your activities you can and should delegate to others on your team, leaving yourself to handle those tasks that best suit your Genius competencies and that give you the biggest emotional reward.

Start by delegating the Incompetence activities on your list, and then move on to your Competence list.

What if you have no one to delegate to?

Many CEOs refuse to hire people to take these activities off their plate, worried their team would perceive this as weakness.

If you're delaying on hiring support, ask yourself where you want to invest your valuable time? In activities that others could do at least 80% as well as you can – or on things that only you can do and which bring you a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment?

Once you have learned to delegate activities on your Incompetence or Competence lists, you can start to delegate activities on your Excellence list. Remember that these are tasks in which you excel but which you find boring or unsatisfying.

When delegating tasks where you're brilliant, you'll need to accept that, at least at first, those to whom you delegate may not perform the tasks as well as you do. This means that you may need to accept work that's 'good enough' rather than stepping back in and doing it yourself.

Share your wisdom but embrace your inner coach. The best way to help people learn is to ask the right questions rather than to give answers or to take over their tasks.

Mastering this art of delegation will allow you to concentrate solely on leveraging your Genius activities that invoke your Super Powers.

Step Five: Build a Team of Super Heroes

Once you've clarified your own Super Powers, you'll begin to spot Super Powers in others. This is a powerful ability for founders, who benefit greatly when they can put the right people in the right places doing the right jobs.

A few of my CEO clients have repeated this exercise with their co-founders and leadership team. They tell me that it's deepened their personal connections and led to swapping activities between them.

For example, I remember one CEO who hated building pitch decks – but it energised their co-founder. Now, the co-founder crafts the presentations, while the CEO presents. Both are happier as a result, and the company is flourishing.

Move Into the Light

I've had the privilege of working with some truly outstanding CEOs, many with incredible Super Powers.

Some are exceptional at making rational decisions. Others are amazing at using words to inspire groups of people. Some effortlessly maintain an impressive network.

However, even when they recognise their Super Power, some feel nervous about putting themselves in a position to use it. They second-guess the value of what comes naturally or get paralysed by the prospect of disappointing others.

If this is you, I urge you to go into the light. Stop comparing yourself to others. It's time to win by playing your own game – the game you started a long time ago.

As Uncle Ben said: "With great power comes great responsibility." And the world needs your Super Powers now more than ever.

Originally published Mar 26, 2024

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