Lauren Fernandez, General Counsel at Focus Brands, emphasizes the importance of knowing thyself when navigating career paths.
By: Lauren Fernandez
One of my father’s favorite maxims, “know thyself,” is often attributed to Plato but may have appeared as early as in the inscriptions at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. My father knows a classic, timeless value in this wisdom: long before he used it to guide his children, it was quoted by famous thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Ben Franklin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Know thyself: the power of these simple two words is in their challenge. It was a command to come to center. That challenge is particularly compelling for me when delivered with the gravitas of a survivor of Castro’s Cuba like my father.
The starting point is to ground yourself in what you do well and not so well. Too often we begin the work to understand our weaknesses by seeing our issues as something that MUST be fixed. The truth is, that isn’t necessarily so. I say, play to your strengths; manage to your weaknesses.
How this impacts our lives daily is so elegant and simple that it’s astonishing. If you know confidently who you are and what you can offer to the world everyday, it makes choices so much easier. You don’t have to pretend to be anything you aren’t. You don’t have to hide your weak spots—just work on them with the knowledge that they may never be fully fixed, and that is ok. It creates an egoless, clear perspective on all things in life, especially in business.
In my career choices, this guidance has led me to non-traditional roles, new challenges, but more importantly, given me a strong inclination to prioritize fit above all else. It also made me comfortable with doing things a little differently from everyone else. After law school, I finished an MBA, and then I chose a boutique firm for private practice as opposed to the more traditional larger firm to become expert faster and get more hands-on experience. I knew I was taking a risk in my career by not going the safe route of a large firm, but I had a longer term vision for myself that I knew was not compatible with big firm life. I did not want to wait three years before I got to interact with a client or do more than basic work, a complaint I have heard consistently throughout the years from many people.
After five years, instead of becoming a partner, I chose to work with a client in a new hybrid role that became my first in-house position. Over the years, my focus on fit forced me to make tough decisions and even decline generous offers, but it has never served me wrong. When you know what you are good at (and where you aren’t so strong), it follows that you also know what you need in your work environment to really maximize your growth and success. Sometimes, that even means making tough decisions to move on as businesses change over time.
Knowing exactly who I am has defined my leadership and management style. I am very open and honest person. This allows my personality to be a part of how I practice law and function in the business. Most of this transparency in my style comes from a comfort of not just being very clear of who I am but what I can or can’t do. The smartest things you can do in life or your career is to surround yourself with those who can support where you are weak, to learn from the best around you and never stop trying to improve. There is always room to grow, and the best businesspeople I know all have one trait in common: they are humble enough to know that you learn from everyone and every experience.
In building a department over the last three years, I have learned that this honesty and clarity also lead to better hiring decisions. For example, I tend to make the same offer to everyone: I give them my card and let them ask me anything after the interview. Fit is a two way street for me: for any candidate, you have to want to be here as much as we want you to join our team. We evaluate candidates to get a sense of their most comfortable, natural work style. I try to sense their personality in interviews and understand what makes them happy in a work environment. So when I onboard new employees, even those who don’t report directly to me, I give them my evaluation and my own in-depth personality profiles to show my strengths and weaknesses in normal conditions and under pressure. Being vulnerable by showing your own “hand” creates an environment where they have the confidence to know and share who they are. When I encourage all our employees to be themselves at work, I am enabling them to become a valued member of our team.
So, to all the people in my life, the friends, employees, peers and colleagues I have had the pleasure to learn from, I pass on what I was taught as a child: Know thyself. You will not regret the profound effect it will have in your professional and personal life.