Step 4 Find Your Sweet SWOT – The Joy of Strategy: A Business Plan for Life


Find Your Sweet SWOT

“When I . . . use my strength in the service of my vision, it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”1

—Audre Lorde

With your list of critical success factors in hand, it is natural to ask with some trepidation: Do I have what it takes to get there? A strategic plan doesn’t leave you wondering. It gives you a clear, calm, and brilliantly easy way to find out. It’s called a SWOT analysis. I don’t have much use for business jargon, but I make an exception for SWOT, an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. You can use your SWOT to size up what you have to work with—or work around—as you move into action on your project. With a clear picture of your assets and liabilities, you will be in a great position to figure out where to invest your efforts and resources so they will return the greatest dividends.

Size Up Your Position

Now comes a little reconnaissance. Is your vehicle the right one for the trip you want to take? Are there obstacles to steer around or particular routes that will send you flying toward where you want to go? A SWOT analysis will tell you, so you can plot out your next moves in a way that’s custom designed to boost your chances for success.

The great thing about SWOT is its simplicity. It gives you a wealth of information by having you focus on just four key areas:

• Your strengths—the skills, talents, and resources you’ll use to fulfill your vision.

• Your weaknesses—factors that could impede your progress. A weakness could be a skill or resource you need but don’t have. It might also be a behavioral pattern that holds you back or a tendency to undermine yourself by doing things like thinking too small.

• Your opportunities—situations that could give you a chance to leverage your skills and talents.

• Your threats—outside factors that could get in your way.

You’ll start by looking internally, at your own strengths and weaknesses. Next, you will scan your environment for potential opportunities and threats, the external factors that are out of your control but may have an impact on your success. Once you’ve recorded what you find, you’ll be able to test how well your mission fits with your talents and circumstances, and evaluate the potential for challenges ahead. Armed with this information, you can set goals that will make the most of your assets and opportunities, fill in gaps, and mitigate potential threats.

Putting everything on a grid like the one below makes it easy to assess advantages and risks, and provides you with a checklist you can use when you set goals and create strategies to achieve them. Once again, by documenting key information, you reduce both the odds that you will forget something important and the anxiety that goes along with worrying that you’ll drop a detail.

Will your trip toward your vision be easy or difficult? Your SWOT will reveal that at a glance so you can put yourself on track for success.

SWOT in a Nutshell

To see a SWOT in action, let’s look at how Raymond’s circumstances line up with his mission, vision, and critical success factors. Here’s his list once again:

• Access to a piano

• A concert-level piano teacher

• Space to practice

• Aptitude for the piano

• Money to pay for the piano, space, and lessons

• Membership with an ensemble to practice with other musicians

• Knowledge of music theory

Especially after working through his critical success factors, Raymond knew a lot about himself and the environment surrounding his vision. That intelligence is pulled together here.

When he looked at his SWOT, Raymond was reassured that he had the skills to be a great musician, and the fine conservatory recognized and rewarded his talent. But the SWOT forced him to consider a weakness he hadn’t focused on much in the past; he didn’t have the skill to play the piano at the level that would allow him to give full expression to his musical genius. As his fictional luck would have it, he learned he had arthritis and his fingers just couldn’t fly over the keyboard at the speed needed to play Chopin concertos in allegro. Now what? Is his music career over? He felt surprisingly calm when he received the diagnosis.

This analysis drove Raymond to look at his options. He could try treating his condition and seek occupational therapy to shore up this weakness. Or he could go back and review his other strengths, and examine his mission and vision for alternatives. No wonder he was unruffled by his diagnosis. His mission “To beautify the world with musical harmonies that soothe the soul and ignite the spirit” did not require him to play the piano to fulfill it. Furthermore, when he looked at his vision statement, he was reminded that it is working with other musicians to create exquisite harmonies that really excites him. Finally, when he looked at his skills inventory, he recalled his unique ability to interpret great works and to imagine how to blend the many orchestral instruments to create arrangements that thrilled his audiences and fellow musicians. As he mused on his situation, he realized he’d been swept along by his father’s expectation that his gifted son would have the piano career that had eluded him. That didn’t fit with the authenticity that should define his own vision of his future. Here’s what he realized when he revisited his vision statement to make sure it reflected his own definition of success:

I see myself surrounded by musicians and creating beautiful music with pianos, but, son of a gun, I don’t need to be sitting at the piano to do that. As a conductor, I could blend magnificent harmonies and even a ham-fisted guy like me can wave a baton. My rhythm and timing are impeccable. What else do I need to succeed as a conductor and how do my strengths play into that? How would this shifted role play to my strengths? In addition to my great ear, it turns out I have a real knack for imagining how dozens of instruments can be layered on top of one another to create the most exquisitely nuanced version of a concerto the world has ever seen. Voilà! That is my true personal genius at work. My work will bring classical pieces alive and make fine music more accessible to the masses. The classical music industry, once in decline, has a shiny future, thanks to me. And to think, I once only wanted to play the piano.

Raymond’s SWOT provided him with a reality check and an opportunity to make sure his ambitions really matched his passions and abilities. It offered him a chance for an early course correction that saved him from wasting precious time and effort pursuing an avenue that would never fulfill his vision of playing on the world music stage. In other words, he could choose a path that is likely to make the most of his strengths and give him some success to build on. He could also take advantage of the opportunities the conservatory offered and make contingency plans for alternative funding sources should his scholarship money dry up.

Notice that, as you move through the strategic planning process, you get steadily more concrete, attaching more detail and more analysis that’s aimed at increasing the odds that the journey toward your vision will be full of wins and pleasure. The process is all about success.


Swift SWOT

If you’re a person who likes to skip the manual and get straight to assembling the furniture, feel free to do a preliminary SWOT of your project now, following the instructions in the exercise below. You can refine your SWOT as you move through the rest of this section. Draw a SWOT grid like the one above in your notebook or download a copy from

1.   Take a look at your vision statement and your critical success factors. What strengths can you draw on that will position you for success? List them in the Strengths space.

2.   What do you need to be successful that you don’t have? List those missing ingredients in the Weaknesses box. Are you doing anything (or not doing something) that undermines your objective? Add that as well.

3.   What’s happening around you that could present a great opportunity? Mark that down.

4.   Do you perceive hazards in the environment that have the potential to blow you off course? Make a note of those issues in the Threats space.

SWOT Step by Step

The SWOT analysis is the point in the strategic planning process where we finish looking at who we are and prepare to think about what we do. And this completed self-assessment is the basis for all the action steps that come next. So now let’s move through it element by element.

Strengths: Using Your Greatest Talents

In peak form, Michael Jordan flew down the basketball court, a perfect match of talent and passion, with results that put him in the record books. All that innate athletic ability, honed by focus, ambition, and hours of practice, landed him in the basketball pantheon. Did he have the strengths to be a basketball great? It seems absurd to ask. His remarkable skills and talents propelled him toward his mission and made him a star.

Now think back to Michael Jordan, baseball rookie. Same man, same talents. But notably, he was a man whose talents and skills were not the same tight match with his new sport. During that forgettable byway of his career, Jordan struggled for one lusterless season in the minors. And then he returned to the Chicago Bulls, a champion once more. As that humbling life experiment proved, he had enough raw athletic prowess to get through the door of another sport, but not enough to excel there. On the diamond, he was a jewel forced into the wrong setting. His talent was still beautiful, but it just didn’t fit.

Your talents can wax the slide for you, and they can send you on the ride of your life—as long as they’re a good match for your mission. When the fit is right, they’re strengths. When it’s not, you might just feel like Michael Jordan in a batting helmet.

The strengths part of a SWOT is a place where you can see how much your talents are stacking the deck in favor of success with the direction you’ve chosen. The more specific skills you have that support your vision, the more your journey will be a smooth, swift arc toward your target. No forced effort, just a natural expression of who you are and what you do best.

The “Stuff” of Strengths

Obviously, success takes more than talent. You’ll also need other things, like time, materials, money, and staff. The resources you have in hand are also strengths, and of course you’ll need to take them into account. Your talents and skills, though, are what turn stuff into results.

The skills and resources you need for your vision are spelled out right there on your list of Critical Success Factors, so there’s no need for guesswork. You can get a good picture of your strengths by going down the list item by item and answering the question: Do I have it? Every “Yes” is a specific strength related to reaching your vision.

Peggy and Gail were encouraged and energized when they saw how many strengths they had for opening Our Space, their arts center for kids with cancer. As they started their SWOT, they could see a kind of critical mass building. Every time they confirmed that they had one of their critical success factors, it felt like an affirmation. And it was. Their “yeses” are listed in the “Do we have it?” column:

Looking at the list of strengths you bring to your project can give you a great sense of confidence. It can also give you information that could nudge you in a new direction. Or, like Michael Jordan on his baseball detour, you might discover that your proposed mission, wonderful as it is, isn’t the best match for your unique talents. Pay attention if you don’t have a solid “I’m on the right track” feeling when you finish listing your strengths. Those strengths are the fuel for your journey.


Record It

Go through your Critical Success Factors and for each one, as Peggy and Gail did, answer yes or no to the question, “Do I have it?” The details you put under each “yes” answer are strengths. Put them in the Strengths section of your SWOT grid.

Weaknesses: Skills or Resources You Lack

As you went through the inventory above, looking at the skills and resources you need for your project and answering the question “Do I have it?” Your eye may have been drawn to the spots where the answer was no. The “nos” are weaknesses.

A weakness can be a skill or resource you need for your project that you don’t have. It might also be an inner quality, such as fear or a bad habit, that’s holding you back. Building a house but don’t have lumber? That’s a weakness. Lack of carpentry skills would be too, as would a fear of hammers.

The very word weakness makes many people uncomfortable, but keep in mind that a SWOT doesn’t judge, it simply tells you what you need so you can decide how you’d like to get it. Do you feel bad about yourself if you don’t happen to have fresh pineapple in your fridge, but need it for a recipe? Probably not—you just put pineapple on your shopping list. And that’s how it works with weaknesses. You spot them and you address them.

One assumption I’d like you to take off the table is that you have to be a one-person show who can—or should—do everything yourself. Weaknesses are often areas that don’t tap your personal genius, and that’s invaluable information for you to have. Remember that a strategic plan is all about finding ways to use your resources wisely. You’ll get the best results if you put your time, energy, and focus into areas that make the most of your talents. The rest you can hand off to someone who can do the job better.

As a person who really likes to be able to say, “I can handle that,” I know that it can be tough to admit that you’re not the perfect person for every job. But I can tell you that there is grace in letting go of the notion that you have to do everything yourself. It’s a relief. Once you know what has to get done, and acknowledge what part of it lies outside your wealth of talents, you can find help. There’s probably someone whose strengths are a perfect match for your weakness.

I could do a decent job on my accounting if I really wanted to file my taxes on my own. It would certainly save me money. But I’d have to invest a lot of time because I’m not experienced enough to do it efficiently. Not to mention that I’m anything but passionate about adding up columns of numbers. Knowing this about myself, I can figure out what’s in shorter supply: time or money, and then decide the best use of my resources. I’m not flawed because tax codes leave me cold, I’m just wired differently from those remarkable souls who love to curl up with the latest tax-rule changes. Fortunately, some of those tax mavens see their mission as helping poor schlubs like me stay on the good side of the IRS. My weakness is their strength, and a happy partnership is born.

Your Strategic To-Do List Is Taking Shape

I’ve described how energized Peggy and Gail were when they looked at their array of strengths for their arts drop-in center. That was a good thing, too, because they began to panic a bit when they got to weaknesses. But they were doing a strategic plan in the first place because they felt stuck when it came to making their vision come alive. This exercise showed them why that was and gave them clues to what to do about it. The “nos” in the “Do we have it?” column below reflect Peggy and Gail’s weaknesses:

The pair, usually so full of energy and laughter, almost physically deflated as they confronted this litany of “nos.” “Arggh,” Gail moaned, head in her hands. “I knew this was just pie in the sky. Look at us. We’re artists. This really brings it home—we don’t know the first thing about starting a business.”

That was one truth, I told her, but there was another: now that they were clear about what they lacked, they could find ways to get it. They had actually begun doing that automatically when they listed their obstacles with start-up cash. Even as they were writing down their weaknesses on that front, they could see that they had strengths and opportunities there, too. Not cash—not yet—but ideas for raising it. When you see yourself wrestling with a particular item on the weakness list, it’s a strong sign that the issue is so important to the overall success of the project that it’s really an undertaking of its own.

The real stoppers on your weaknesses list, the ones that knock the air out of you, often deserve deeper attention. Peggy and Gail finished the SWOT for Our Space, then went back to do a separate SWOT for the financing piece, so they could look more closely at the opportunities they sensed there. And those “buts” they had noted on their list of weaknesses, they realized, were strengths.


Record It

Go back to your Critical Success Factors “Do I have it?” list and transfer the details you put under each “no” answer to the Weaknesses section of your SWOT grid. Note any “big” weaknesses that might benefit from a SWOT of their own.

Your Weakness Is Someone Else’s Strength

As so often happens, serendipity was afoot as Peggy and Gail faced their weaknesses. Talking with them about their lack of planning skills, I found myself thinking about my client Lee Ann. She’s the manager we met earlier who was looking for a way to return to work in a meaningful way after leaving her high-level job to care for her aunt as she succumbed to cancer. Lee Ann, a gifted project manager, was extraordinary in her ability to translate a vision to reality, but after she lost her aunt, she couldn’t see the path that would let her express her new mission: to use her skills to help cancer patients in a meaningful way.

One answer, though, was right in front of us. Peggy and Gail’s puzzle was missing a piece shaped exactly like Lee Ann, and her puzzle was missing a piece shaped just like them. I arranged to bring the three of them together. As if to confirm that the universe was at work in making the connection, when Lee Ann pulled into the parking lot for her first meeting with Peggy and Gail, she saw a car—that turned out to be Peggy’s—with a bumper sticker that read “Grace Happens.” It was the very bumper sticker she kept in the glove compartment of her own car as a tribute to her mother, Grace. Tingling, and covered in goose bumps, Lee Ann went in to meet with the visioneers of Our Space.

She was dazzled by the artists’ energy, craft, and vision, and also by their appreciation as she walked them through the first steps of finding support for their center and breaking down a huge, daunting project into manageable steps. With her guidance and coaching, they learned the basics of project management and gained the confidence to take action in unfamiliar areas to support their vision.

They also gave Lee Ann an important and unexpected gift: a new perspective on her talents. Often, we assume that the skills that come so easily to us are easy for everyone. But in meeting Peggy and Gail, who were astonished by her ability to handle their business planning, Lee Ann was able to see her talents as the distinctive gift they really are. That gave her the clarity and confidence to envision her own next steps.

You become part of a much larger circle when you match your weaknesses with someone else’s strengths. For that to happen, though, you have to take a look at what you lack and what you need. Then ask for help.

Are You Getting in Your Own Way?

There’s a group of weaknesses that can be a little trickier to see than a simple accounting of what you need and don’t have. These are the fears and limiting beliefs that keep you from using your talents fully. Behavior patterns that often find their roots in fear can be so familiar to you that you may not even notice them. What you might perceive instead is that while you have all the strengths and opportunities you need to glide toward your vision, something keeps pulling you off track. That “something” is often fear.

Seven Fears That Can Block the Way

In my work as a senior executive, teacher, and coach, I’ve identified several patterns of self-defeating behavior people indulge at the expense of achieving their goals. Take a look at some of the most common fear-based behaviors below. Do you see yourself in one or more of these patterns or personality types? I ask this question with great compassion and empathy, as many of us struggle with one or more of these issues. Treat this exploration as another simple inventory. And if you recognize yourself, treat that knowledge as valuable information that will bring you closer to your vision.

1. People Pleasing

The inability to say no may well be the most common problem that diverts people from their own goals. People with the disease to please say yes a lot when they mean no because they fear disappointing someone. My client, Jim, was so worried about disappointing his parents that he went to law school even though he dreaded the very thought. Without some new strategies, he could easily have spent a lifetime in a career he hated, wondering why he felt so empty—and why he still hadn’t won the approval of those for whom he’d sacrificed so much.

This problem is particularly prevalent among people in the healing professions. I’ve worked with countless doctors and nurses whose identity is so connected to helping others that they often put their own needs behind everyone else’s. That would be okay if it didn’t lead to burnout and resentment, which it frequently does.

2. Perfectionism

My client Miranda was a top executive, superb at execution, completing tasks, even identifying vision. But she was also extremely hard on herself and others, ferocious when she or anyone under her fell short of her unreachable expectations. She found money and prestige but very little satisfaction until she took some rare time for introspection and realized she’d spent her life driven by the need to win her parents’ approval. She believed that they wouldn’t love her unless she was perfect, and “perfect” was always just out of reach.

3. Inertia

Danielle, the unhappy fashionista we met earlier, managed to spend two decades in a career she hated. How could that happen? Fear of leaving her familiar gilded cage, with its high salary, honors, perks, and benefits, had prevented her from taking a hard look at the truth that she confronted every day even though she tried not to think about it: she was miserable. And because she’d been afraid to admit it, she had condemned herself to keep going mindlessly until a string of difficult days added up to an unhappy twenty years.

4. Ego Identification and Control Issues

Another client, Angie, quit her job as a bank vice president when her first child was born so she could spend time nurturing her beautiful baby and enjoying her growing family. Soon enough, though, she was channeling every bit of her business drive into her kids’ schools and organizations, which she turned into a full-time job. All because she couldn’t turn off the chatty ego voice inside that wanted her to look good, keep up appearances, impress. She was afraid of giving herself over to the “unglamorous” job of simply being Mommy and so, ironically, had little time left for her children. She was too busy volunteering.

5. Listening to Naysayers

Remember Brenda, the woman we met in step 1, the “Mission” chapter, who was told by a teacher way back in middle school that she was no good in math? It was an assessment she never challenged. She simply crossed off the list any path that required her to use numbers. But after years of denial and misguided career choices, she finally faced the fact that she couldn’t have the career in management she’d always wanted without a college degree—and getting a degree required, gasp, taking some math courses.

6. Succumbing to the Yeah-But Habit

For Stella, a student in my Business of Life course, every big dream seemed to come with a whole army of reasons why it was impossible to pull off. The “yeah-buts” popped up all over, and the funny thing is, with her confirmed yeah-but habit, they seemed to be a sign of realism rather than pessimism or a block. But beneath it all was fear—fear of failure, embarrassment, wasted effort. Or fear that what she wanted most in life just “wasn’t meant to be.”

7. Procrastination

So much to do, so little time for what’s important. That’s the dilemma of the chronic procrastinator. Easily distracted by the Crackberry, e-mail, web surfing, other people’s conversations—and any number of other wheel-spinning diversions—people like my client Jerry are, paradoxically, busy, busy, busy. They’re the ones who careen from one task to another all day, yet go home without accomplishing a single thing of value to them. One of the characteristics of a workaholic is procrastination. Eastern philosophers call this paradox active laziness, a way many people avoid looking deep inside to see what’s really important. Procrastination keeps them from focusing on tasks that could have an impact and use their real talents. Most of us procrastinate from time to time without serious repercussions. But the fear of many habitual procrastinators is that their vision is too big, too hard, or too impossible, and they just can’t risk failing. Or even starting.



Pause a moment for some honest self-reflection. Look in the mirror or quietly close your eyes and ask yourself if you have any fear-based habits that are standing in the way of fulfilling your dreams.

For our purposes, how any of us wound up with these patterns isn’t important. That’s in the past, and we are here, right now, in the present. The goal is to move from where you are to where you want to be, and recognizing these patterns is the first step toward breaking free of them. If you can keep your focus there, putting aside judgment or labeling, you liberate the energy these patterns can trap and channel it in a more productive direction.

If you notice one of these patterns is at work in your life, one helpful thing to do is to consider what it’s costing you. Often, I frame the situation this way for a client: What’s more important to you? That Patsy, whom you’ll never see again, will like you better because you made brownies for the school bake sale or that you write your novel? Are you pouring your energies into something that will never satisfy you, just to tiptoe around a fear?

Use the weaknesses section of your SWOT to identify what might be going on in your inner world that could be hindering your progress. You can unearth causes later and figure out how to address any problems. For now, knowledge is the first step to change and to reclaiming your power. Put a checkmark next to any of the patterns that resonate with you, and we’ll return to them. And if one of these patterns is causing you deep distress, keep in mind that one highly effective strategy might be to work on it with a therapist, even as you continue building your strategic plan.


Record It

Do you find that you act in ways that are not working for you? Mark it on your weaknesses list. Just a brief note, such as “I procrastinate” or “people pleasing,” will suffice.

Opportunities and Threats

If our visions existed in a vacuum, we could boil down SWOT to SW (though it might be a little tough to say). But the cherished projects we conjure up in our minds are meant to be carried into the world. And out there, many factors are beyond our control. A SWOT takes them into account with an external analysis that helps you identify the factors that could smooth your way and even put some wind in your sails, so you can take advantage of them. Or anticipate those things that could impede you, so you can steer around them or push them aside.

For a company that makes sports caps and equipment, the Olympics might be an incredible opportunity to offer new products or snag an endorsement contract. And for a wedding planner in an Olympic host city, the weeks surrounding the games might be a threat that makes it hard to book venues and get attention. Or perhaps they’d be a great chance to offer sports-themed ceremonies. These imaginary businesses have no control over the timing of the Olympics or the ripples it sends into the environment. But they can anticipate and adjust their planning. Scanning the environment and becoming aware of the outside forces that can affect them, they gain an advantage that will let them surf the big waves or get out of the water before the typhoon hits.

As Jimmy Dean once said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”2 So let’s do that. We’ll look at opportunities and threats together, because the difference between an opportunity and a threat often depends on your point of view.


When a vision takes hold in your mind, much of the excitement surrounding it comes from seeing a need in the world for what you do best. You feel the pull of your calling. When you keep your focus there, on the match between your talents and the world’s needs, you’ll naturally begin to see situations with your name written on them, problems with solutions you can provide.

Remember the definition: an opportunity is a situation that gives you a chance to leverage your skills and talents. That’s what you’ll be looking for all around you.

Stella’s dream was to open a religious bookstore that would create community and spread the wisdom and comfort she found in her beliefs. With her “yeah-but” tendencies, she felt stymied. After all, she said, she needed to keep her day job, with its steady paycheck and health benefits, so fulfilling her dream was out of the question.

I asked her if she’d considered running the store part time herself and hiring someone to mind the store while she was at work. “Yeah,” she replied, “but I can’t afford the rent and the salary until the store starts turning a profit, and I really want to keep my prices low so anyone can have access to the message in these books.”

I counseled Stella to keep her eyes open and hold her vision of the bookstore so firmly in her mind that she would be open to interpret anything she saw in her daily travels as an opportunity to make her dream come alive. She kept pulling her mind toward her vision, and that very weekend, when she went to church, she saw her first big opportunity, one that had been right under her nose for years. Her church was located on a busy corner in the downtown section of a city with lots of foot traffic. The front door to the sanctuary was on one street, and the church building had an empty storefront on the perpendicular street. Stella recalled that the minister had long been concerned that the vacant display windows would invite vandalism.

After services, Stella approached the minister and asked him what he would think of her opening a bookstore in that empty space, with hours on weekends and a few selected evenings. He was delighted with the idea that the space could be used to further the church’s mission and would make the space look occupied and less vulnerable to vandals. He offered her the opportunity to use the space rent-free, and she offered to donate a portion of her profits to the church.

She was overjoyed. The power of holding her vision firmly in her mind’s eye had proven itself immediately. That old saying, “What you focus on, you find,” is quite true. If you put your attention on something, it’s possible that you draw the “pulling power of the universe.” What’s certain is that you draw on the power of your own vision by keeping alert to the possibilities to make it happen.

Coincidence—like meeting someone who knows a person you need a connection to, or suddenly being offered a gift that provides just what you were seeking—feels like serendipity. But I think it’s often focus finding opportunity. There are plenty of opportunities staring us in the face if we’re focused enough to see them.


Seize Opportunities

Think about the factors in the world around you that could support your vision: helpful people, events you’ve noticed, anything that might potentially give your project a boost. List these opportunities on your SWOT grid. Then spend a week keeping your vision in front of you (read it every morning, or set a reminder on a calendar that prompts you to think about it). As the week unfolds, be open to interpreting anything you see as an opportunity to bring your vision to life. As ideas occur, keep adding to your list of opportunities.


The best-laid plans can be derailed by factors large and small. Life happens. The price of gas triples just as you’re getting ready to open your Humvee franchise. A stock market bubble bursts. A Starbucks announces that it’s opening across from your mom and pop coffee house. You have no control over outside events like this, but by being aware of your environment and the forces that threaten to derail your journey toward your vision, you can tailor your responses, tweak your plans, even find a catalyst for inspired new possibilities.

So if the idea of actively looking for “threats” sounds too, well, threatening, think of it this way: you’re living out the old Boy Scout motto that smartly advises “Be prepared.” Putting your head in the sand won’t make the threats go away. But as we’ll see, examining them closely, or standing them on their heads, just might.

Businesses commonly scan the horizon for what the competition is up to, how their current and potential clients might be changing, and what’s going on with new laws, regulations, and technology. For your SWOT, look around the wider world that surrounds your project and see what could have a negative impact. Your threats could include someone who doesn’t support your vision for whatever reason, like a spouse who would rather see you stay home and clean house than pursue a dream. Or it could be something less intimate: the credit crisis that makes cash hard to come by or the rainy season coming to drown out your lemonade stand.

If you have “yeah-but” inclinations that tend to make the environment look especially threatening, use this opportunity to list every possible element that could take the spark out of your project. That will enable you to deal with each one in a methodical, practical way instead of staying paralyzed. Threats, by definition, are factors that are out of your control, but you are very much in control of how you interpret and respond to them. The first step is to look for them and name them. Then you can make plans to deal with them.

As Peggy and Gail looked around for threats, their list was short—one big, overarching threat and another one that helped them think about how they might want to use one of the opportunities they’d pinpointed.

Peggy and Gail’s threats:

• The economy is still slumping, so all those foundations and individuals who used to have a lot of money to give have less. There’s a lot of competition when it comes to fundraising, and we’re going to need money to establish ourselves.

• We will eventually need a permanent space, and real estate is very expensive. It may get even more expensive before we’ve gotten our fundraising skills up to speed.

“Hmm, this doesn’t seem so terrible,” Gail said. “It’s more about knowing the possibilities than anything else. I don’t like the word ‘threats,’ and these things we turned up are just potential problems. Besides, we already knew they were there. All we’ve done is written them down so we can figure out how to deal with them. It’s less scary than I thought.”


Capture the Threats

List any outside factors that have the potential to throw your journey toward your vision off track. Are there people, events, or situations that could have a negative impact? Put them in the threats section of your SWOT.

Is That Hazard Really a Threat?

I’m a threat skeptic. When people suggest that a situation is dire, that some turn of events has blasted a hole in their boat and their vision is going down, I’m sympathetic, but I’m also inclined to ask: Really? Are you sure? In fact, are you sure you even need a boat to get where you’re going?

I’ve seen many times that one person’s threat is another’s opportunity. Does every cloud have a silver lining? Well, maybe not. But if you’ve ever talked to someone ramping up a cleanup business after a natural disaster or watched people take a difficult experience (say, going through chemotherapy for cancer) and transform it into an inspiring vision (“let’s create a center to help kids getting chemo”), you know the power of perspective.



Look at your conclusions about the situation you’ve labeled a threat and ask: “Are you absolutely sure this is a threat?” You will need to learn the difference between assessing a fact (the economy is tanking) and your conclusions (we’re doomed). Once you do that, the fact is just a fact and you can consider it objectively and reframe your reaction.

The trick to reframing is to question all of your limiting beliefs and to not simply believe the naysayers, as Brenda did with her math phobia. How do you do that? It’s as simple as recasting yourself as an observer. With a little objectivity, you can resist jumping to “obvious” conclusions and can ask several questions that allow you to find more creative answers. With Brenda, we reframed her certainty that she was not good at math by asking if that was really true. Yes, her middle school teacher made that assertion, but what did the evidence show? In fact, her job responsibilities required her to create elaborate spreadsheets and to track complex statistics. She did it so naturally that she didn’t even realize her facility with figures was actually a strength. Her only weakness in this regard was her misperception that she didn’t possess this talent. Her new awareness eliminated that weakness for the most part. It was with some trepidation that she recorded math in the strengths quadrant of her SWOT.

I found myself using reframing to good effect after the stock market crashed in 2008 and the economy tanked. A lot of coaches I know panicked, certain that no one would be able to afford the luxury of hiring a coach. That sounded logical on the surface. But as I centered myself and looked around, I asked the questions I coach my clients to use: Does this situation, bad as it looks, create a new opportunity? Does it create a need my talents can fill?

That’s when I began to notice the glut of talented financial services professionals who’d been laid off, all of them now competing for the same handful of jobs in their shrinking field. How could they stand out? How could they use the opportunity of a career transition to assess what they wanted to do in the next stage of their careers? Those are the kinds of questions I specialize in helping people answer, and in the context of this new environment, I found lots of opportunities—speaking about “personal branding” to professional groups, coaching people through job transitions. I had as much business as I could possibly handle, even as many others threw up their hands, positive that they were no match for an economic meltdown.

Reframing takes practice, but it’s worth the effort.

Roadblock or Vantage Point?

A boulder in the road is a big piece of rock. That’s a fact. But is it a threat? That depends. If you’re driving fast and don’t see it soon enough, yes. It’s a big, potentially fatal threat. But if you’re walking, the same boulder might give you a chance to climb up, survey the landscape, and figure out the easiest way to proceed. Perspective is everything. So take a close look at every threat on your SWOT. Hidden there, waiting for you to see it, might be an amazing opportunity.


Test Your Assumptions

For every threat on your list, ask yourself these questions:


•  What is the fact of the perceived threat?

•  What is my assumption/conclusion about that threat?

•  Is that assumption correct?

•  How do I know?

•  Can I be sure?

•  Is there something I can do to change the fact?

•  What is another way to interpret the implications of the fact?

•  How else could I look at this?


Did you find new possibilities that flip your threat into the opportunities column? If so, note the changes on your grid. You’ll have a chance to practice much more with reframing in step 7 when you assemble your toolkit.

When the SWOT Delivers News You Didn’t Expect

Now that you’ve got all the pieces of your SWOT, you have an intimate feel for the terrain you’ll be traveling. And at this point, it occasionally happens that people realize that they’re in for such a rough trip they’re on the wrong journey. That is, they’ve chosen the wrong mission. You can fool yourself with a fantasy, but it’s hard to fool a SWOT.

Mission Misfit

I like to give my students the following scenario so they can see the value in a SWOT that lets them know when the strengths they need for a mission just aren’t there. Say I’ve always wanted to win the Miss America Pageant, and I’ve put that goal at the center of my mission. Tall, lithe blondes have an advantage in the competition, and I’m five two and brunette, so a quick SWOT might reveal that I have no real strengths except for being Miss Congeniality, and I’ve got a boatload of weaknesses: height, age, gravity . . . I can’t think of many opportunities, and the threats abound—thousands of tall, thin, young blondes, for example.

This SWOT would probably send me scurrying to reconsider what my mission ought to be. And that’s not a bad thing. It means the SWOT served its function, alerting me that perhaps beauty contests are not the place where my talents and passions intersect with the needs of the world. (The world does not need to see me in the bathing suit competition, I assure you.) This kind of SWOT might well be painful, but it could save me a lot of useless effort and expense trying to become something I’m not.

The truth is, you probably won’t get to the point of doing a SWOT analysis only to discover that your mission is so far off base. Certainly, in doing an assessment of my skills, talents, and passions, I wouldn’t have found the stuff of beauty queens. And when I set to work on my vision statement, I wouldn’t have gotten past the A in “AGLOW.” There is nothing authentic about my chasing after a pageant title. It’s not at all true to who I am and what I value most. Chances are, if you complete your SWOT and find you need to change direction, you are looking at a more modest redirection rather than a total reboot.

Alternative Approach

Annette came to me for coaching when she couldn’t get traction on her mission to work with medical practices to provide a more holistic approach to patient care. She was particularly interested in advocating for progressive health policies and insurance coverage for nonmedical interventions such as in-home support for people who need help buying groceries and filling prescriptions. When we reviewed Annette’s strengths, she had passion for this issue, having seen how the medical community fell far short of meeting her husband’s needs when he was terminally ill. Insult was heaped upon injury when he lost his rich health benefits once he was no longer able to work—just when he needed them most.

She was driven to make sure others didn’t suffer the same fate. Her intimate knowledge of the problem she was trying to solve was another strength, as was the faith she’d leaned on to get through her ordeal. However, when I asked her how these strengths would bring value to a medical practice such that they would want to hire her for this worthy purpose, she was hard-pressed to give a compelling answer. What she was offering appealed to some providers in principle, but that wasn’t much of an opportunity. And the growing pressure for doctors to cut medical costs was a real threat. The pieces just didn’t fit.

Annette already knew this on some level and the SWOT just confirmed it. But before she had time to get discouraged, I asked her to expound more on the faith she kept mentioning and her conviction that this was a calling that came from a higher authority. She became so animated that I had to stop her and ask her to reconsider whether she wanted her nonprofit to work in partnership with doctors’ offices or whether running a religious organization was more in harmony with her mission to advocate for patients. Without hesitation, she said this was a faith-based pursuit.

Immediately, she had much more clarity about how she could move forward gathering support for this reframed endeavor. Her SWOT redirected her by showing how her initial approach wasn’t a great fit for her strengths and circumstances. When she factored in all the pieces of her SWOT, Annette was able to find a better way to address her mission. As a result, her next steps became obvious and she was able to move forward after years of being stuck.

Harmonizing with Your Strength and Passion

You’re looking for a mission, a vision—a life—that will let you be a star, a great fit with your talents and values. So if you find yourself getting a troubling message from your SWOT analysis, take a deep breath and have another look at your strengths and passions. You deserve a mission that makes the most of them, and it’s worth investing the time to find it. Like Raymond, you just might find that your mission calls for you to play even bigger than you’d originally envisioned. He had to question an assumption about how he would express his musical gifts, namely that his father would fulfill his own musical dreams vicariously through his son. Pursuing that path would have meant falling short of his true potential. The apparent misfortune of arthritic joints saved him from pursuing the wrong path.


Sum Up the SWOT

Be sure you have captured all of your SWOT information on your grid, where you can pull it out and refer to it as needed. As you complete your self-assessment and move toward goal setting, finish filling out the left-hand side of your custom closet. Make sure you put any core strengths or talents you’ve found in this chapter on the appropriate shelf for easy reference as you move to the next step in the process.

Peggy and Gail’s final SWOT analysis looked like this, and as we saw above, new opportunities began presenting themselves almost as soon as the two artists began looking for them. Weaknesses were answered by new strengths.

By just putting the potential threats to their endeavor on paper, Peggy and Gail began to see ways to address the problems and find alternate ways to deliver services much faster than they’d originally envisioned. We will catch up with Peggy and Gail later to see what they were able to accomplish.

Postscript: Keep SWOT in the Lineup

Now that you know the basics of performing a SWOT analysis, you’ll find that it’s a versatile tool for getting an overview of a problem or project and figuring out what needs attention. If your undertaking is complex, like starting a new business or changing careers, you might want to break it down and perform multiple SWOTs of individual elements.

Here’s how: take out your vision statement and list of critical success factors. Underline the key elements and assess your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for each one. Don’t get too hung up on getting it “perfect.” As you’ve seen, perfectionism can be a weakness when it comes to getting things done.

No need to get swamped in SWOTs. Just keep the tool in your back pocket and pull it out whenever you need the perspective it can bring. The process is dynamic, and focusing on the information you’ve collected here will lead you directly to setting smart, effective goals and priorities, the task of the next step in the process.