“I was the only one in the room,” my friend told me over drinks one evening. “The only woman, the only non-finance person, the only person under 40.” Earlier that day, she’d been involved in a high-level business negotiation. Her senior position entitled her to be in the room, but that didn’t make it any easier when she realized that on almost every level, she was the outlier. She was normally a confident businesswoman, and that’s the image she strove to project that day. Inside, however, she became conscious of every move. Is this what they’d expect a woman to be doing? How can I make sure they don’t treat me like a secretary?
In our professional lives, we’re told it’s a good thing to stand out and be noticed. But in practice, looking different or being different from everyone else can be a fraught experience. Here are four ways to stand out the right way and take control of your career.
1. Embrace the power of your difference. Scientist Eric Schadt, thanks to his early training in math and computer science, was one of the first to leverage the power of Big Data in biology. For years, many other biologists were skeptical of his ideas – but Schadt persevered, and today has more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles to his name on subjects as diverse as Alzheimer’s and diabetes. When your background is different than others – because of your age, your gender, your education, or your past career experiences – you see the world in different ways, and that can lead to breakthroughs.
2. Make your expertise undeniable. It can be hard to be recognized as an expert right out of the gate if you’re a generalist. But if you start with a niche, you can quickly outmaneuver the competition and demonstrate a superior knowledge of a narrow subject, such as wearable technology or water polo or the Iowa caucuses. Once others recognize your expertise, they’re more likely to listen to you on a variety of related subjects.
3. Build your network. It’s always helpful to have a strong network of fellow professionals who know you, trust you, and believe in you. But when your background is unconventional in a given context – a millennial in a top corporate role, or a woman in a venture-capital firm – it becomes essential. Your network can give you the kind of frank feedback you need in order to navigate office politics and complex dynamics, and can serve as cheerleaders when others doubt you based on surface criteria. Making an effort to have lunch with one new person and reconnect with at least one colleague in your inner circle on a weekly basis can keep your network strong.
4. Share your knowledge. One of the best ways to convince skeptics of your merits is to prove you know what you’re doing. When you share your knowledge publicly – giving speeches, writing blog posts, or curating a smart Twitter feed about your industry – you demonstrate your competence clearly because you allow others to see what’s inside your head. An additional advantage is that when you start to build up a broader following, those closest to you – such as co-workers who may have been questioning your credentials – have to re-evaluate their feelings when their own friends start to talk about you and your ideas.
We all remember the feeling from middle school lunchtime: It can be awkward and uncomfortable to stand out. If you can convince others of your competence, you’ll actually benefit from your difference because you’ll be more memorable. Harnessing the power of standing out in the right way can give your career an enormous boost.
Dorie Clark's new book Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It comes out today.