Too many times in the professional workplace, we try too hard to conform and fit in. We do not want to rock the boat or make waves. It is human nature to want to fit in and be a part of something. If you don’t believe me, think back to your freshman year in high school. As a new employee, we are typically learning something new and do not want to make any mistakes…Or at least any big ones. We may want to simply blend in. As time goes on, blending becomes part of the fabric and habits we’ve built.
When I first started my career in banking, I had success with my performance on the phones. I was able to take advantage of not being face to face in an interaction. I could quietly and effectively have phone conversations with my customers. My performance was consistent and I began to be recognized on a regular basis in front of my peers. I was asked to increase my job responsibilities and expand my role. I would be taught to assist with the reporting, and asked to spend time with peers who were struggling.
During my performance appraisals or the occasional internal job interview, I still sold myself short in describing what I did. If I was collecting bad loans, I would simply say I tried to help customers with their financial difficulties. I didn’t realize that I could be special and different among a sea of people with the same job responsibilities. With hundreds of collectors, everyone could give a generic job responsibility answer of, “I try to help customers with their financial difficulties.” This was a starting point but interviewers, future managers, and company decision-makers wanted to hear more from someone willing to differentiate themselves. What’s interesting is that I could not identify this need myself and did not pick up on any cues given to me to stand out. I would get direction to work hard, hit my goals, and sometimes hear the phrase “try to stand out.” I always interpreted this as making more ‘widgets,’ going faster, and working longer, but not necessarily describing how I could differentiate myself. As much as we don’t want to think about it, we are always on stage, and—in many cases—in competition. This isn’t an invitation to step on others’ backs as you climb the corporate ladder. However, you do have an invitation to give yourself some credit when it is deserved, and be prepared to be your own elevator when the time is right.
I applied for an internal management development program in my second year at the bank. The program accepted fifteen leaders. I went through at least seven interviews with senior members of the company. Can you guess what number I was? I was number sixteen. Candidates aren’t typically told where they finished after the interview process, but the people who nominated me wanted to help explain why I didn’t get it. I was told I had the skills and that I was on the edge of being selected.
I said that this was unfortunate because I thought my performance spoke for itself. In collections, I was the top performer nine times out of the twelve months. I was doing extra work on the side to assist the manager, and had recently completed a manager-selected program in which our group made some significant recommendations that would improve our business. I told the person giving me the feedback that it was all there on my résumé. The decision-maker said many résumés, especially after only two years of internal experience, looked alike and I should have brought these facts to light. There are few times in your life that you should assume anything. This type of situation was one of them. I was given feedback to not assume that they had any knowledge of me, had read my résumé, background, or application, and that I needed to bring that information to the forefront.
I began sharing with everyone the saying, “It is not bragging if it is a fact.” Stating your own facts, when timed and communicated appropriately, is acceptable. I am not overly confident to begin with; therefore, I do not typically come across as cocky. However, the inverse is that I have come across as plain and non-descriptive. You should be proactive in order to find your way of differentiating yourself and make sure the people you work with know it.
We are all special in our own way. Yes, this is a cliché, but still holds true. The message here is to bring out what makes us special and different in our interactions with others. In my mentoring sessions, I will often ask the people I am working with what they accomplished during the month. I often get typical answers such as, “Not a whole lot,” or, “Nothing different or out of the ordinary.” When I keep digging deeper, I find that they were involved in a project that saved thousands (or millions) of dollars, helped out an extremely frustrated customer, or asked to assist on a project team. Did everyone else accomplish these exact things, too? The answer is often no. You don’t have to brag and shout from your rooftops telling the whole world what you have done. However, you need to realize the difference between your day-to-day functions and what makes you who you are. As a mentor and manager, I have made it my mission to exert the effort to have people spill their guts to me when it comes to their accomplishments. I encourage people to proactively share their highlights and get used to telling their own special story.
I would often ask my direct reports to submit their accomplishments on a monthly basis. There were many months when I could put two side by side, and they would look very similar. The side-by-side exercise is what started to get me thinking about how to teach the people who worked for me how to reach for higher goals and therefore put more meaningful accomplishments down on paper.
We started to share more accomplishments openly in our staff meetings. The purpose was not for competitive reasons, but to share best practices. I would often praise them, and emphasize that being creative and innovative in order to make the team better made everyone stronger. I believe that the courage to try new things, whether or not it worked, is in itself an accomplishment.
When we had managerial requirements to go back on the phones for four hours a month, my employees often listed the requirement as one of their accomplishments. I would ask them what they truly accomplished by doing that? If they answered, “Met the requirement,” they were not getting the full picture and I had more work to do to teach them. If they gave an example of how they resolved a sticky situation with a customer or mentioned how they now understood what the front-line associates were complaining about relating to their computer system and had a solution to fix it, they were differentiating themselves as leaders.
No two people are the same. I am very proud to list out the various jobs I have worked. I can say that no one in the company has followed my career trajectory. I would often joke around, saying that I couldn’t keep a job. I wasn’t sure if people were kicking me out or if people really wanted me. As I thought about this more seriously, I realized that early in my career, people were indeed ‘kicking me out.’ They were attempting to have me get more experience and to play to my strengths—the things that made me special…made me different. I realized later in my career that this was still true to some extent, with more weight on people really wanting me. People wanted me because of my diverse background and the broad knowledge I could bring to their business. I could bring best practices, creativity, and freshness to jumpstart some spinning wheels. What makes you special? Does everyone know it?
Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):
- Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
- Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
- Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
- The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
- From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
- The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood
See “Products” for details on www.transformationtom.com. Book, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only) purchase options are also available on Amazon- Please click the link to be re-directed: Amazon.com