For as long as I have been coaching people in their careers, one of the most common questions to come up is how to differentiate oneself. I have seen people respond to the question by wearing jeans to professional networking events or having a multicolored resume. In both cases, the idea was to “stand out,” which they undoubtedly did, and for the wrong reasons. We are still left with the question of how to successfully differentiate ourselves.
The world we live in is designed to encourage systemic conformity. If you are a student at a university, you are getting the same degree as your classmates and in the eyes of employers, it might not be different in any significant way from a degree from another university. It seems ironic that people will get an undergraduate or a graduate degree with the expectation that the degree will be the differentiator. In fact, the contrary is true. Higher education does not add to a candidate’s differentiation; rather, it creates sameness. That’s good because degrees are a basic requirement to be considered for a job. To secure a position as a consultant at a management consulting firm, an MBA is a minimum requirement. In that regard, an MBA is not a differentiator, but the common denominator of all applicants.
How then can those applicants differentiate themselves?
Some might argue that they have had more relevant experience. While that may be true for some, in my experience, it isn’t true for the majority. Still, I believe that every single person is capable of differentiating themselves, not through extrinsic experiences and accreditation, but through their intrinsic qualities and values.
1. Differentiation through Strengths
One differentiator is the talent themes identified in the Clifton Strengthsfinder assessment. Over the course of a 40-year study and 2 million qualitative interviews, Don Clifton, Tom Rath, and a team of scientists were able to draw out 34 talent themes that show up consistently in people. The intention was to look for what was right with people rather than what was wrong. As such, each of these talent themes represents certain talents and skills that can be developed into strengths. The base assessment will present your top five talent themes. These are the skills and talents that come most naturally to you and would take the least amount of effort to turn into strengths.
The likelihood of having the same top five as someone else in the same order is one in thirty-three million, and the likelihood of having the same order for your full sequence is a theoretical number (lots of zeroes). Additionally, everyone has their own top five talent themes, meaning that everyone has been invested with a set of unique talents that can be leveraged to differentiate themselves. This is significant because so much of how we are measured and assessed is based on sameness. Does someone have a master’s degree in accounting? Do they have 3 years of experience? Do they have a CPA? How about a CFA? Do they have a 3.5 GPA? An internship?
None of the above are differentiators. As mentioned earlier, they might only be the basic qualities to get your foot in the door for an interview. The onus is on you to show that not only you are capable, but that you can articulate how you can uniquely add value. This means that two people who are aware of their talents and are intentional about developing them can be excellent accountants in very different ways. Where one might provide the greatest benefit to their clients by having tremendous attention to detail and the ability to provide a flawless audit by focusing on the historical factors that affected a balance sheet, another might have cultivated excellence by being closely attuned to their client’s wants and needs, or by being futuristic and helping their clients envision where they want to be financially in years to come. Both are great while leveraging different, inherent talent themes.
Talent themes answer the question of how you do what you do. Still, there remains the question of “why?”
2. Differentiation through Values
Simon Sinek’s 2011 book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action emphasizes the fact that people unwittingly care more about the WHY than the WHAT when it comes to trusting a person or an organization. For instance, while Dell and Apple both make computers, Dell defines itself as a computer company, whereas Apple defines itself as a company that aims to challenge the status quo. This is a value that is easier to align with the WHY than the WHAT they do, which is to make innovative computers. As such, their customers trust them, not because they can rationalize the trust, but because it feels right.
If you were to apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to a customer looking for a computer, the bottom of the pyramid would be titled something like, “Reliable, well-made computer,” which is a basic requirement and not a differentiator. As you move up the pyramid, questions of quality and craftsmanship come into play. The very top of the pyramid, however, is not rational, but rather, emotional. For Apple, it might read something like “We are constantly challenging the status quo.” This is the primary reason people will line up and camp out to get their hands on the newest iPhone. While the quality is certainly there, they are part of a community that believes in what Apple is fundamentally about.
If then, you want to apply this to yourself, it becomes evident that having the basic, requisite qualifications for a job does not differentiate you as those will be at the bottom of the Hierarchy of Needs for an employer.
What this also means is that employers do not necessarily hire the most technically qualified candidates. If they did, only the bottom level of the pyramid above would matter. To the contrary, most employers will hire candidates based on a feeling they get from the candidate informed by one or more interviews. Knowing this can affect how you talk about yourself. When asked, “Tell me about yourself,” you might be tempted to start with the bottom level of the above pyramid and say something to the effect of, “I am a graduate accounting student with 2 years of experience and am currently completing an audit internship.” This is fine, but what if you lead with the top of the pyramid, “I’m interested in improving the lives of those around me, and the way that I can best do that is by leveraging my attention to detail and ability to understand what is most important to my clients. My hope is to apply these talents to enhance personal and corporate accountability in the world through audit, which is why I have decided to get a master of science in accounting.” The latter is a more convincing and marketable statement.
Once you have discovered your top five talent themes and determined why you want to do what you have chosen to do, you can begin to craft language that will resonate more with people you meet and prospective employers so that you can manage the narrative of how they understand your utility. The alternative is for you to list all of your past experiences with the hope that it will be enough to wow the employer, which I think is really rare.