Nutshell: A matrix for all seasons: charting personal development with SWOT analysis

Written by
Future Talent Learning

Published
01 Jul 2019

01 Jul 2019 • by Future Talent Learning

SWOT analysis isn’t just for strategy at an organisational level; it can also be used to support our own personal development and growth.

When it comes to knowing ourselves, we can probably agree on one thing: it’s hard. We may know, or have learnt, that self-awareness is a core foundation for our personal and professional development at work, especially as leaders, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy. It’s often challenging to take a long, hard look at ourselves and be honest about what we see. It gets even harder when we acknowledge that, as organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich points out, self-awareness is not just about knowing ourselves – but also understanding our impact on others. And then we need to take into account those blind spots we have, the things that might be obvious even to Dave in Accounts, but about which we remain ignorant, blissfully or otherwise.

It stands to reason, then, that we need all the self-awareness tools and strategies we can muster. That’s why the Future Talent Learning programme encourages us to use a range of self-awareness exercises and tools, whether that’s a SOVA derailers report, a Johari Window or Instant Feedback exercise or a Strengths Finder activity. Armed with all this brilliant insight into ourselves, we need to make sense of it all and to plan for how we might make the most of it in our continuing quest for self-knowledge and personal development. It’s time to tackle a personal SWOT analysis.

Not just for organisations

SWOT analysis is traditionally associated with strategic analysis at an organisational level. It helps to identify the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats an organisation might face, and what might get in the way of progress and success. By using a simple 2 x 2 grid, SWOT analysis helps us to take stock of where we are now and to plot a future course.

The same holds true when it comes to our own personal development and growth. Personal SWOT analysis can be invaluable when needing to be strategic about our own futures. Whether we use it as a regular check-in on how we’re doing, to help us prepare for an important review meeting or to support transitions such as taking on a new role or navigating organisational change, it’s another invaluable tool in our self-awareness and personal planning armoury.

To make the most of a personal SWOT, we need, of course, to be honest with ourselves, to gather that insight and to reflect on where we’re already strong or need to do more work. It also prompts us to consider the challenges and opportunities we face. It asks us both to summarise where we are right now and to do some horizon scanning for what might be next.

How to create a personal SWOT

Personal SWOT analysis starts with the same 2 x 2 grid as for an organisational SWOT.

You’ll find a downloadable version for you to use here [LINK to template].

Strengths and weaknesses are considered to be internal factors, things that, with work, we can influence and change ourselves.  

Opportunities and threats are external factors, things we may have little or no direct influence over – but which still need to be taken into account.

Unsurprisingly, strengths and opportunities will contribute positively to our objectives or goals. Weaknesses and threats are less favourable and might need to be managed or mitigated. It’s also about the relationships between the four factors. For example, a completed SWOT analysis will help us to know and use our strengths to make the most of our opportunities, and how to improve or handle weaknesses to tackle those threats.

We need to fill in the grid using our reflections on ourselves and insight from others, with an eye to that purpose mentioned above: is this about creating a baseline for where we are in our careers right now, or is it to identify our USP, our secret sauce, for a particular event or activity?

Bear in mind that this is personal SWOT analysis. It’s not just about our current roles, or even our current organisations. It’s also about what we can muster or need to manage more widely as we plan for our personal development both now, and further down the line. As our personal development needs change and grow, SWOT analysis can help us to keep on top of why and how. 

Some questions to ask ourselves

It can help to ask ourselves a series of questions as prompts when creating our SWOT analyses. Here are some ideas:

Strengths

Consider the talents, skills and experience we’ve already developed and deployed:

  • Where do our talents lie? What are we naturally good at?
  • What knowledge and skills have we acquired and used successfully?
  • What are our positive personality traits?
  • What can we do better than other people?
  • What do other people see as our strengths? What qualities are we admired for?
  • What resources do we have at our disposal?
  • What has contributed the most to our success in the past?
  • What transferable skills might we bring from outside work, such as volunteering or a side hustle?

One thing to note about strengths: it’s great to identify what we’re especially good at now, but we always need to build on them. That’s not just to keep them refreshed; we also need to recognise that, as we develop and change, the context we’ll be working in will change too. That may need us to develop new capabilities into strengths down the line.

Weaknesses

Think about the things we might find more difficult, or that might threaten to derail us or hold us back:

  • Where could we improve?
  • What skills/experience do we not have, but would be useful to develop?
  • What do we struggle with the most?
  • What do we not enjoy and might prefer to avoid?
  • What are our personality derailers?
  • Where do other people see opportunities for improvement?
  • What areas have we received critical feedback on?
  • What resources are we lacking?
  • What might we do better?

Not all weaknesses are the same. Some might be critical, and we’ll need to work on getting rid of them or converting them into strengths. Others might just need to be managed. A third category might be called 'allowable', things that are just part of who we are and don’t get in the way of us making progress. They might even play to our advantage at times.

Opportunities

What personal and career development opportunities might exist both internally and externally?

  • What are the biggest changes taking place in our current business environment?
  • What opportunities are not being exploited at the moment? How might we take advantage of them?
  • Is there a need in our company or industry that noone is filling?
  • What job or promotional opportunities exist within our own organisations – and beyond?
  • Might there be opportunities to step up into an acting role or to join a new project team?
  • Who do we know who might help us along the way?
  • Are any of our competitors failing to do something important? If so, can we take advantage of their mistakes?
  • Have we received any customer feedback that might help to create an opportunity by offering a solution?

Remember: opportunities are external factors that have a positive influence towards us achieving our goals. If we understand these trends and opportunities, we can look to use our strengths to take advantage of them.

Threats

Finally, consider the things that might threaten to hold back our personal development or career progression.

  • What factors beyond our control might prevent us from achieving our goals?
  • What obstacles do we currently face at work and why?
  • What internal changes in your organisation – such as downsizing – might negatively impact on our role?
  • What external changes – such as technological change – might negatively impact on our position? Is our sector contracting or changing direction?
  • Is there strong competition for the types of jobs for which we are best suited?
  • Are any colleagues competing with us for internal roles and projects? How do we match up?
  • Could any of our weaknesses lead to threats?
  • What is the biggest external danger to our goals?

Looking at threats might seem a bit gloomy, but the analysis will often provide the data we need to give us a steer on what needs to be done. It can also put problems and issues into perspective.

Taking action

A good SWOT analysis will summarise what we’ve found out about ourselves, not just as an end in itself, but as a tool to build on these insights to keep us moving forward. We may want to discuss the results with a peer, coach or mentor, but we do also need to take action.

There are two ways of building a strategy after doing a SWOT analysis: matching and converting.  

When we match (or connect) internal strengths with opportunities, for example, we can see a way to play to those strengths to create competitive advantage. On the other hand, matching weaknesses to threats can help point out where we’re most vulnerable, so that we can take action to regroup and rethink.

We might also look to convert weaknesses into strengths, for example, developing our skills and knowledge with more training or being more strategic about building a network of contacts. The other option is to find a different context for our perceived weaknesses. For example, a role focused on detail might not suit someone who is a more natural entrepreneur.

The trick is to use the SWOT process to make an honest appraisal of ourselves – the good, the bad and everything in between – and how that insight can help us to navigate those opportunities and threats over which we have limited control. It might help us to see a meaningful and rewarding career path where we already work; it might make us realise that we need to move on to a context better suited to who we really are and how we can be most impactful. It will help us to uncover opportunities we might not otherwise have spotted and to understand weaknesses that might hold us back.

In that sense, a completed SWOT analysis is also provides a perfect jumping-off point for a personal development plan, in which we can clarify our goals and identify the steps we need to take to address the development areas, issues or challenges identified in our SWOT matrices.

With self-awareness such an important factor in building relationships and progressing at work, taking the time to carry out a personal SWOT analysis is likely to be time well spent – for now, and for the future.


Download our SWOT template here, and in greyscale here.
 

Test your understanding

  • Outline what the acronym SWOT stands for.
  • Identify two questions that might help to identify personal weaknesses.
  • Describe an example of how a weakness might be converted into a strength.
     
 

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