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Two who discovered and used their strengths

Inside Business

Posted: July 23, 2008 1:00 a.m.
Updated: September 23, 2008 5:03 a.m.
Research suggests that people will be more engaged, more productive and considerably happier at work when they use their strengths.

An optimist would say that when lemons are all you have, make lemonade. The current issue of Best Life magazine details 10 of the greatest career moves of all time.

Here are the stories of two men that turned around difficult situations in their careers.

Karen Danziger, of Howard-Sloan-Koller Group in New York, states, “A great idea often starts with one person and is refined by another ... if you see something you are passionate about, get on the bus. It’s better to be a bus on a passenger on a bus that’s going somewhere where you want to go than the driver of the bus that’s heading for a dead end.”

Carl Bernstein had been employed at the Washington Post for six years. He didn’t have a college degree; he started as a copy boy and worked his way into a reporting position. During his tenure he had managed to anger almost all of his colleagues and all but one of his supervisors. He had probably violated more company policies than the next 250 employees combined.

What Bernstein had was an incredible background of knowledge as well as contacts in Washington, D.C. He used this strength in his research, reporting and writing. But in the late spring of 1972 he was banished to what was the Washington Post version of Siberia: Covering local Virginia politics. Having angered one too many bosses, he was on the verge of being fired.

It seems Bernstein had spent a year’s worth of budgeted expense money in a very short time as he ate his way through the fine dining establishments while reporting in Virginia. In his enthusiasm to get to a story, he had rented a car and when he was finished using it, simply parked it, forgetting to return it  to the rental car company. The bill was enormous. Bernstein’s days were numbered.

In mid-June 1972, Post reporter Bob Woodward was assigned to cover the break-in of the Watergate complex, because it was deemed a metropolitan (local) story. Bernstein’s instinct kicked in and behind Woodward’s back, he took on the role of refining and editing Woodward’s articles.

While not pleased with what Bernstein had done, Woodward appreciated the effort that resulted in a better, more detailed and understood story. This uneasy truce soon developed into a “dynamic duo” of reporting, with both Bernstein and Woodward bringing to bear their respective strengths.

As the story grew, Bernstein’s local knowledge, connections and persistence uncovered more than anyone at the Post thought existed. He and Woodward won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting in 1973 and wrote two books about the Watergate affair, “All the President’s Men” and “The Final Days.”

In the movie version of “All the President’s Men,” Bernstein was played by Dustin Hoffman. He later published books on his parents, who were communists (“Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir”), on Pope John Paul II (“His Holiness”) and most recently on Hillary Clinton (“A Woman in Charge”).

Around that same time, a tie salesman became a $10 million-a-year fashion guru, but his business was going broke. The man, Ralph Lauren, was an excellent designer but manufacturing costs were driving him out of business.

Lauren took a step back and assessed his strengths. According to Bill Pullen, a career coach in Washington D.C., one of the least applied concepts in Corporate America is assessing strengths with objectivity and then concentrating efforts for success.

What did Ralph Lauren do? He outsourced production and marketing on everything but the men’s line. He took his life savings and applied them to his plan. It was a huge gamble.

Just as a reminder, the economy in the early 1970s wasn’t so hot either. Inflation was a much more serious problem than today; unemployment, already high, was growing, gas prices leaped to unheard of levels (53 cents a gallon in 1974) from what we were used to (29 cents a gallon).

What happened to Ralph Lauren? Within a decade he was doing $1 billion a year in business.

On the verge of failure, Carl Bernstein and Ralph Lauren played to their strengths. What are your strengths and are you using them to the best of your abilities?

Kenneth W. Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums in Valencia, bringing business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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