A Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat (SWOT) analysis is a common tool in the professional world to evaluate the past, present and future position of a company. It provides organizational leaders a new perspective on what the organization does well, where its challenges lie and which avenues to pursue. A personal SWOT analysis can do the same for an individual in pursuit of their career goals.
The SWOT analysis was first devised as a business tool in the 1960s by business icons Edmund P. Learned, C. Roland Christensen, Kenneth Andrews and William D. Guth. In 1982, Heinz Weihrich took it one step further, constructing a 2-by-2 matrix to plot out the answers to the four key questions for easy comparison. Strengths and weaknesses were across the top, and opportunities and threats in the bottom row. This remains the most common and effective way to conduct the analysis.
How to conduct a personal SWOT analysis
SWOT can help people become the best versions of themselves, said Marlo Zarka, a certified professional coach. When conducting a personal SWOT analysis, think about what you want out of it. Do you want a new job or a new achievement in your current position? Are you looking for personal growth, or want to try something new?
To conduct the analysis, ask yourself questions about each of the four areas being examined. Honesty is crucial, or the analysis will not generate meaningful results. With that in mind, try to see yourself from the standpoint of a colleague or a bystander, and view criticism with objectivity.
It's also important to imagine the potential of what you can become, noted Caroline Smith, a copywriter at Centrica.
"Don't limit yourself to the strengths that you're currently exhibiting in your job," said Smith. "List all of your strengths, even the ones that have been dormant for a while. And pay particular attention to the things that you have that your peers don't — how are you different, unique and special?"
SWOT questions to ask yourself
To make a SWOT worth the time, you need to set aside the time to really think about, answer, then sleep on it and revisit it. You won't think of everything all in one sitting, and that question or answer that percolated in your brain overnight might be the most relevant and revealing insight in the entire exercise.
Begin by identifying your strengths. These are the traits or skills that set you apart from others. Questions to ask include:
- What are you good at naturally?
- What skills have you worked to develop?
- What are your talents, or natural-born gifts?
The next step is weaknesses. This part examines the areas in which you need to improve and the things that will set you back in your career. Questions to consider include:
- What are your negative work habits and traits?
- Does any part of your education or training need improving?
- What would other people see as your weaknesses?
For the opportunities section, look at the external factors you can take advantage of to pursue a promotion, find a new job or determine a career direction. Questions to examine include:
- What is the state of the economy?
- Is your industry growing?
- Is there new technology in your industry?
Finally, look at any threats to your career growth. This part accounts for the external factors that could hurt your chances to attain your goals. Questions to consider include:
- Is your industry contracting or changing directions?
- Is there strong competition for the types of jobs for which you are best suited?
- What is the biggest external danger to your goals?
Remember to be objective, and if necessary, consult others that know you. Moving outside your comfort zone will help you get the results you're looking for, instead of reinforcing your own beliefs.
Determine the outcomes
You can evaluate your results using two popular methods. The first is matching. Matching means connecting two of the categories to determine a course of action. For example, matching strengths to opportunities shows you where to be aggressive and take action. On the other hand, matching weaknesses to threats exposes those areas you should work on or situations to avoid, and lets you know where to be more defensive of your position.
The second is to convert is to turn negatives into positives — in other words, converting your weaknesses into strengths, or threats into opportunities. This can mean growing a skill set through education or finding a creative way to feature a weakness as a strength. For instance, if you are very outgoing, working in an introspective and isolated environment may not suit you very well. But if you can work toward a position, such as sales, in which you interact with many people, that weakness turns into a strength and could allow you to excel.
Once your personal SWOT analysis is complete, it is crucial to follow through on the insights you uncovered.
"SWOT analysis can fail to be effective if it is simply treated as a 'laundry list,' without any tie-in to how the elements identified in the analysis can be put into play for the individual carrying out the assessment," Zarka said. "For example, how can the identified strengths move the needle in the endeavor to achieve a key goal? Or how can one navigate a potential threat once it is identified … to ensure no ground is lost?"
"The best outcome is to take action and succeed in the opportunities you have identified," Smith added. "This can benefit you on a personal and professional level, and set you apart from your peers and colleagues."
Once you start using your results, track your progress. Set up measurements and milestones and keep working toward them. Step by step, little by little, you will get where you want to be, so get started now.
Additional reporting by Chad Brooks. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.