The Most Important Person To Know in Aid and Development

by Shana Montesol Johnson

When it comes to career success, they say it’s not what you know, but who you know. Well, if you want to have an amazing career in the aid and development industry, there is one person you must get to know, and get to know well: YOU.

Self-awareness is a key to building a great career, communicating effectively with your colleagues, being a leader, being a team player, choosing (or creating) the right job, managing your boss, managing your team, striking the right work/life balance, the list goes on and on…

Sure, it would be great to have Jeff Sachs and Bill Easterly on speed dial. Being on a first-name basis with Esther Duflo or Dani Rodrik would surely open a lot of doors, no? And I will admit that when I heard Hans Rosling speak recently in Manila, it kind of felt like a rock concert…for development geeks, of course! But if you don’t know YOU very well, no matter how many high-placed connections you have, you can’t rock your career.

If you do not know yourself – your strengths, weaknesses, values, priorities, personality – you can get yourself into trouble. You may take on too much. Or you may end up in the wrong kind of job. Or you may not be aware of how your default communication style grates on your boss’s or co-workers’ nerves. You may not ask for that raise. You may not set good boundaries and stand up to the office jerk. You may not be aware of what you need to be at your best – so your performance may fall short.

Taking stock of who you are, what is important to you, and what you bring to the party is a critical first step to getting unstuck. It’s a cornerstone of the process I lead people through in my coaching work with development and aid workers, and in my “What’s Next?” group coaching program. However, you certainly don’t have to hire a coach to know yourself. Here are 3 ways you can get to know yourself better. And even if you consider yourself pretty self-aware, it always helps to check in and see how you have grown and changed over time.

1. What are your core values?

Core values are the interests and qualities that you’ve always found yourself drawn to. (Note: I’m not talking about “values” in terms of moral values. Core values can include morality, but the term as used here is more broad.) As I’ve written on this blog before, core values make us who we are. When our work and life are aligned with them, we feel most fully ourselves and fully energized. We are naturally inclined toward our core values, and are eager to spend time on activities that align with them. We don’t have to force ourselves to do these things, make a lot of effort, or set a bunch of goals.

Knowing your top 5 core values is like having a handy-dandy checklist against which to evaluate all kinds of decisions, such as: Should I stay in this job? Should I move to another country? Is it time to leave an overseas post and “go home”? Should I go for that promotion? What kind of role at work would be the best fit for me? Is my work taking over my personal life?

To determine your top 5 core values, check out this worksheet.

2. What are your strengths?

I don’t just mean the things that you’re good at, that everyone says you should do. As in, “You’re so good at spreadsheets, why don’t you develop our project budget?” You may be good at spreadsheets while actively detesting them. I like Marcus Buckingham’s criteria for a true strength:

  • You are great (not just good) at it;
  • When thinking about the task, you are excited; you anticipate the activity;
  • When doing the task you find it easy to concentrate and get absorbed in the activity, even losing track of time;
  • Once the task is completed, you have more energy than before.

Looking at the 4 criteria above, brainstorm ideas about what your strengths might be. To go deeper, check out these 5 ways to identify your strengths.

If you can figure out what these are, and orient your work around them, you will have a blast at work, be more effective than ever before, and produce some amazing results. In short, you will have a high-impact career you love.

3. What are your weaknesses?

It’s helpful to know your weaknesses, but not in order to work on them and improve in those areas. Again, I like Marcus Buckingham’s approach: know your weaknesses so that you can avoid spending time and energy in those areas. Move your core job description away from them. Let someone else do them (preferably, someone whose strength is in that area). Buckingham also redefines weaknesses: activities that leave you feeling bored, drained or weak. This can be the case even if you are great at these activities and produce terrific results.

Think about tasks that: you dread, you procrastinate on, and even once you do them (to “get them over with”) you still feel de-energized rather than relieved. I’d bet those are your weaknesses. Make a list. Ask yourself, “How much of my work day is spent engaging in these activities?” Think about how you can minimize the time spent on those tasks. It may be as simple as delegating or off-loading them to someone for whom these activities are strengths. It may be as complex as realizing that these activities form the core of your job description – in which case it’s probably time to move on. You will have a much more successful career if your work role requires you to spend minimal time in areas of weakness.

In a future article, I’ll share 5 more ways you can boost your self-awareness – and amp up your career in the process. Sign up here for my free weekly newsletter, so you’re sure not to miss it.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }


I really liked this blog, although not all of us have ‘juniours’ to delgate to! Any other suggestions if we have those tasks which are our weaknesses but cannot delgate them? Thanks for another insightful blog


Shana Montesol Johnson

Thanks for an excellent question, Gabriella! In thinking about it, I realized that the response really merited its own blog post. You can read it at


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