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E243 | Playing To Your Unique Ability To Thrive At Work with Shannon Waller

Do you know what your Unique Ability is? Every entrepreneur has theirs and is only able to succeed if they’re supported by a team. Because you can’t be good at everything, is important to surround yourself with a team that complements you, to compensate for your weaknesses with their strengths. Our guest this week teaches exactly that to the teams of entrepreneurs so they can do the things that they’re great at and they can thrive in their unique ability. 

This week on Mind Your F**king Business Podcast, we learned from highly-sought after coach, author, and creator of The Strategic Coach® Team Programs, Shannon Waller. Shannon joined Strategic Coach in 1991 as a team member, and since then, she’s created the Strategic Coach® Team Programs. She’s a decision-maker at Strategic Coach, Bab Smith’s strategic partner, and Dan Sullivan’s Creative Collaborator. 

In this episode, Shannon shares with us the secret of her long career at Strategic Coach and how she realised what was her unique ability. She also dives into the twelve timeless truths for successful entrepreneurial organisations found in her book Multiplication by Subtraction, and how applying the ‘who not how’ concept can help entrepreneurs do what they’re really good at and thrive at work.

Download and listen to learn more.

On today’s podcast: 

  • What is Strategic Coach?
  • Finding Your Unique Ability
  • The Timeless Truths for Success at entrepreneurial organisations
  • Who not How
  • The four modes of the Kolbe assessment

Follow Shannon Waller:



The Team Success Handbook

Multiplication by Subtraction

How to find your Unique Ability and expand your value 

One of the most genuine, positive, and enthusiastic people you’ll ever meet, Shannon loves nothing more than seeing people become better, happier, more successful versions of themselves, and facilitating the honest, practical conversations that help them get there. As she explains, “Being able to speak frankly about problems, obstacles, and mistakes is absolutely vital to success for both entrepreneurs and their teams. When you’re dealing with reality, you have power. When you’re dealing with pretend? Not so much.”

A pragmatist at heart, she excels at making the complex simple and transforming obstacles into opportunities for connection, learning, and growth. 

Since joining Strategic Coach® in 1991 as both a team member and participant, Shannon has helped grow the business beyond what founders Dan Sullivan and Babs Smith ever imagined possible, far surpassing the initial goal of reaching 500 clients. She’s the creator of The Strategic Coach® Team Programs, a thriving, multimillion-dollar program for team members of Coach clients that focuses on developing leadership and strategic planning skills in its participants, and she’s a recognized entrepreneurial expert, speaker, and coach. She’s also a key decision-maker at Strategic Coach, Babs’s Strategic Partner, and Dan’s Creative Collaborator. And it all started as a ‘right-fit person in a wrong-fit role’.

Like many entrepreneurs, Shannon began her career in sales, working retail jobs to pay her way through school. Once out of school, she found her way into a management consulting company, which is also when she met Dan and Babs, and was soon hired as a salesperson for Strategic Coach. Working entirely on commission, she built her own entrepreneurial sales team. However, she soon realised that, despite their substantial success, she was ‘Excellent’ but not ‘Unique’ at sales. It was then that she went back to school and came up with the idea for what is now The Strategic Coach Team Programs.

Shannon’s approach to coaching, much like her approach to life in general, is to be lighthearted and serious-minded. Having fun and enjoying life is one of her key motivators, but equally important is to make progress and take action, and it’s this combination of joy and drive that defines the energy in her workshops.

Shannon is also a Kolbe CertifiedTM Consultant and the 2015 recipient of the Kolbe Professional Award for individual leadership in building cognitive excellence. She’s also certified in both PRINT® and DISC assessments and has written two books on entrepreneurial teamwork, The Team Success Handbook and Multiplication By Subtraction

What is Strategic Coach?

Shannon defines Strategic Coach as a community of ‘phenomenal entrepreneurs’ based around their quarterly workshop program. 

“Our whole reason for being is to expand entrepreneurial success, freedom and happiness. And so we’ve got an incredible year-long program that’s based on the four workshops. Lots of ways to connect in between. Dan put it this way one day, he said, ‘coaches are really about unique concepts, unique ways of thinking about your business, unique conversations with yourself and others within a unique community.’” 

They work with successful, talented, ambitious, creative and collaborative entrepreneurs who want to have a bigger future and have fun doing it. 

Hosting The Inside Strategic Coach Podcast with Dan Sullivan

Once she learned how to structure the podcast, Shannon admits she started to love hosting it with fellow coach Dan Sullivan, who she describes as a ‘modern-day philosopher’. When Shannon went to university, she couldn’t figure out what she wanted to do, so she majored in Philosophy in her first year. However, she says that Dan’s ‘philosophy’ fits more with her style. 

“He just knows how to think about things. He has a great expression. He said the problem is never the problem. The problem is not knowing how to think about the problem. I just love his brain. How he approaches things is a blast. And so I’ll pick up how the process is.” 

During her workshops, and other sessions with him, Dan will say something that Shannon takes note of for further exploration. When he asks her what they should talk about, she goes back to those thoughts, and go from there.

“I ask him, why is it important? And then, how can people take action? So I always help bring it down to the practical. It’s a blast. I love it. It’s one of the most fun things I do.”

A long career as Strategic Coach

Today, people that stay for longer than three or five years in the same job are extremely rare. We’re frequently looking for new opportunities in the job market. But Shannon is one of those rare cases. She’s been working at Strategic Coach for almost 32 years. For her, it all boils down to what she calls the ‘unique ability’. 

“One of the things that’s a core value of our organisation is what we call positive collaborative teamwork. And that means it’s also based on what you love to do and do best. So we are actively looking to reinforce your strengths.”

She explains that their hiring process, although not fast, leads to creating a positive and happy team. In their process, they use profile assessments like Kolbe, PRINT® and DISC. These cognitive profiles help them to better know the candidate. Then, as soon as they get hired, they do some other assessments. They want to know the candidates, as much as they want the candidates to know themselves. Also, to expand their impact by doing what they love to do and do best. Why? Because it requires far less management. 

“They look forward to coming to work. It’s a very collegial environment. We like each other, we hang out, people go for drinks, and we hug each other. It’s a very friendly place to be, and it’s warm and receptive, and it’s positive. And then, if you think about what a team member is looking for, they want to do meaningful work in a great environment with other great, high-performing people. And if you’re fairly well compensated, why would you leave?”

When asked what proportion of her team at Strategic Coach she would enthusiastically rehire tomorrow, Shannon says at least 85-90%, quite a contrast from other companies where only 10% are A-Players – a scenario that Shannon describes as ‘terrifying’.

“That would feel like trying to move ahead and dragging very heavy weights behind you. That’s like doing the most intense workout, or those horrible things in gyms where you have to push or pull, but like trying to make progress and make success.” 

What she has found in entrepreneurial teams is that often, you could have an A-player if you knew them better. If they accepted their strengths and moved them to a different position, they could actually be much better. Mindset is everything, says Shannon. They need to have an entrepreneurial attitude. In fact, the reason she wrote her book, Multiplication by Subtraction was that she got frustrated with the wrong-fit people being in companies. But she argues that letting someone go should be the last resort. 

“Check them out, do the cognitive profile, do the counter profiles, and then see if you can place them elsewhere where they can actually thrive and make a big difference. And where they’re a D player over here, they could be an A player here. I think that’s if you’ve got a good person with a good heart and a good brain, then let’s look at how they’re showing up. Where could that be a fit in your organisation? And then, if it’s not, then you let them go.”

Timeless Truths from Multiplication by Subtraction

Multiplication by Subtraction is when the metabolic rate of the organisation goes up and then stays up. In her book, Shannon shares some timeless truths that every entrepreneurial organisation should have. She says, there are actually twelve success habits or mindsets.

  • Entrepreneurial attitude.
  • Create value
  • Take initiative.
  • Focus on results, not just the time and effort required to get there.
  • Have an ownership attitude.
  • Be in alignment. If people are not in alignment with the role, the job, the project, or the company, why are you there? 
  • Be a partner. In other words, acknowledge and recognise your strengths and the other person’s strengths and connect.
  • Take action. Don’t always wait.
  • Be open.
  • Communicate, and learn how to handle strong emotions because they’re endemic in an entrepreneurial world.
  • Have patience and compassion.
  • And don’t give up.

Shannon also admits that her favourite part of the book is a chart of symptoms and the resulting costs. 

“I like to have fun with things, so the word zombie comes up once or twice. Drama queen or king is one of them. Lack of integrity, having an entitlement attitude, arrogance, ‘aka God’s gift’ to your company, not adaptable. Those are some of the symptoms. And then there’s the level of difficulty because letting someone that you’ve just hired go is somewhat painful, but it’s like a paper cut. Letting someone go who’s been with your company for decades, maybe as long as you, but that is no longer a right fit. The legacy people– and in family businesses, this is pretty common. Those are the hard ones. That’s a level six out of five in terms of difficulty, and these situations are still happening. So those are some of the things that I found to be ongoingly true.”

Who not how

Often, when a small business entrepreneur has a great employee, instead of hiring someone better, they hire someone that’s not that good, and it’s a bit cheaper. This causes a mess that they then will have to manage to coach. For Shannon, this comes from a sense of scarcity. If you’re an A-Player, why hire a B-player? And B-players also tend to hire B-players. So, says Shannon, you have to be careful. 

In the coaching vernacular, they use the expression ‘who, not how’ to resolve this. Usually, entrepreneurs hire talent from a mindset of cost, not of investment. This, adds Shannon, is dangerous. What do we all try to do with costs in our business? We treat it like a commodity and minimise them. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve been minimised in a job, she adds, you know exactly how bad that feels. And you actually bring out the worst, not the best, in people. 

“When you look at this as an investment, you are probably willing to be more discerning, pay more, have higher standards and criteria, and then like any investment, you work to make it grow. You do that financially. In fact, we invest far more financially with far less oversight than we do with someone that we put on our team.”

Shannon argues that if we simply look at team members as investments, not costs, that’s a major mindset shift, which will all of a sudden mean that you are looking at things the right way.

That’s why, for Shannon, the ‘Who not how’ concept is so powerful. The whole point behind it is that when you are taking on a new project or task that you don’t know how to do, and you’re trying to figure out the ‘how’, there’s an immediate if you knew how to do it, you already would be doing it. All of a sudden, you’re at the bottom of the learning curve. It’s de-energising. And you’re like, how am I going to do this? 

“Who not how’ is instead of asking yourself, how do I do it? Who do I know that knows how to do it? Or how can I find a who, who knows how to do it? And that is transformative. And then all of a sudden, your future can become so much bigger because it’s not just limited to your own capabilities, to your own unique ability. Now you can see how, and then you become a much better partner because then you get good at collaborating with other people who are talented in areas that you’re not, and you’re talented in areas that they’re not. And that’s the essence of who not how.”

Exploring Your Unique Ability

Have you ever been in a job doing something where you are better than most people, great teamwork reputation, and have great pay, but it doesn’t excite you? For Shannon, this usually leads to getting worn down. In her other book, Unique Ability 2.0 Discovery, she talks about this. People get stuck in industries like investment banking, and they do it because it pays really well. But if it doesn’t fit them, at least in New York, they go and buy a farm in Connecticut, she mentions. And then there’s Unique Ability which is where you have superior skill and passion. You love it, your eyes light up, you lean in, and you can’t not do it, and you keep getting better at it. You add your skills, you add your capabilities, you add your experience, and you refine your audience. 

“It’s the other part of Unique Ability, and that’s what you want, so when you have superior skill and passion, and you’re a hero to other people, you’re having a big impact. It’s actually like jumping into the jet stream, and you go so much faster. But it’s easy. That’s what unique ability feels like. And we tend to take it for granted because it feels like, can’t everyone do this? And then you look around, you’re like, oh, no, they really can’t. And who knows what that is? It’s very individual to each person, but once you figure it out, it’s magic.”

Proof of that is the McKinsey study that looks at what they describe as being in flow. Executives who are in flow are five times more productive. So they’ll do 500% more work on Monday than the people who are just competent.

For Shannon, unique ability lines up in three ways. First, intellectually, whatever you’re pursuing is of interest to you. 

“So I’ve always, since I was 18, loved people in business. That’s my jam. 40 years later, I’m still doing it, which is really cool. And then it has to be something you care about. So you have to be interested in it, and then have the brain to do something about it.”

Then is how you strive and problem-solve. At Strategic Coach, they measure this through Kolbe. And the third way is how you strive. When you can line those three things up, you have a healthy, happy, contributing, productive, internally aligned human being. Shannon admits that’s rare to find. Finding an environment where you can encourage that and then collect people is even more unusual, she adds. 

Shannon shared the story of a client CEO who had two coaches to become a better CEO. He didn’t have as much education as he thought he needed and didn’t have an MBA. So, Shannon asked him, ‘but, what are you unique at?’ Finally, after a few conversations, workshops and phone calls, he revealed that what he loves is the client experience, and structuring that client experience. Together, Shannon and the CEO came up with the term Client Experience Architect. That’s what the team knew to count on him for because he was stuck with everyone expecting him to do the traditional CEO role, for which he was not suited. He had two coaches, and he was just trying to contort himself into somebody he wasn’t, which was actually diminishing his genius and what he was superb at.

“I love Unique Ability titles that actually reflect someone’s unique ability. Receptionist is a very commoditised term. Director of First Impressions – that is meaningful. My favourite title from the founder of Joe Boxer. So the crazy underpants company was Chief Underpants Officer. First of all, how on brand”

The Kolbe assessment

At Strategic Coach, one of the profiling assessment tools they use is Kolbe, a psychometric profile. Kolbe measures your mental energy, and it’s incredibly predictable. 

“It’s got phenomenal validity. It does not measure personality, nor does it measure intelligence. So you can be intelligent or not, passionate or not, and it will still give you an accurate answer. But does say that when you are motivated, when you are striving, how you will take action.”

It has four different modes. 

Fact finder. This is how you analyse and how you collect information.

Follow-through. How you arrange and design.

Quickstart is your instinct for risk and uncertainty.

Implementor, which is how you handle implements. 

What Kolbe measures is how you will take action. Someone who’s an agent fact finder will do a deep dive into specifics and complexity, their mental energy for research could be talking to people, googling, or going to the library. Follow-throughs can create order out of chaos. Quickstarts have an incredible instinct for risk; implementors have a great sense of the space intangible. They’ll see where things are risky.

In the Kolbe system, Shannon is a three out of ten in fact finder, a two in follow through. Nine in quickstart and five in implementor. She says she was excellent in her previous role in sales at Strategic Coach, where she had her own sales team. However, she felt this wasn’t challenging anymore, so she went back to school to do a training and design certificate program at a university in Toronto. When the time came that she had to give a presentation, she hadn’t prepared anything. However, right when she stepped in front of the room, her quick start quicked in, presenting her idea for a one-day workshop for team members of their clients and getting people’s attention. 

“That was the day when I really learned to trust my quick start. Would I recommend that? No, it was slightly terrifying. But I learned that my quick start is something I could lean on. I could count on it. It would come up and rescue me. I did know what I was talking about, but I hadn’t figured out the right way because I couldn’t have figured out how to turn this audience into the audience that I needed. Then I figured out how to do it, and I sold it to them, and I got a great grade. But it was funny. That was when I figured it out.”

Book recommendations 

Unique Ability 2.0


ADHD. A Hunter in a Farmer’s World

Come Up For Air

Radical Candor

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