Why Blend In When You Were Born To Stand Out?

I typically say that teaching adjudicated teens at an alternative school in Dallas was my first sales job and possibly my first management job but the first time I was promoted to lead a small team came my way when I was 28 years old.  After a year, I asked that same company for a transfer to NYC, taking a job as an account manager and within five months was promoted to lead a team of my former peers. I was now 29 years old and managing a team of eight men, each with quotas north of one million dollars. 

Those numbers aren’t impressive now but twenty years ago on the precipice of what we assumed would be a Y2K meltdown and the dot com boom becoming a bust; I was almost as shocked as the other two candidates who were vying for the job.  I didn’t have Google, Instagram, or any online resources to turn for help in actually leading a team of this size, full of men who had been my colleagues in the trenches the week prior and oh, let’s not forget that I was a new transplant to NYC. 

I learned a great deal that first year, am still in contact with a few from that team, and was promoted again at the end of 12 months, to lead the entire sales practice.  When you are not yet 31 and you have an office with two doors, an assistant and a small living room in your office, and no family members who have ever walked a mile in your high heels, you turn to resources and you panic. A LOT.  I was the only woman in a position of leadership, the only woman with an office (this will later become a theme for my career) and I was wracked with imposter syndrome.  The bookstore became my friend. 

Google was not among us in the late 90s and turn of the century and Yahoo was more of a landing page with news. Bookstores were all I had and Borders was the fastest growing chain, now a defunct brand of the past, they had what I needed.  The stories, examples and warnings of others helped me shape what was already inside me:

The ability to read a room quickly, having been an Air Force brat moving every two years, adjusting to new schools, cultures and friend groups made me stand out among a sea of people who'd never had their lives disrupted and were a little risk averse. I learned that being a coach is much easier than being a player/coach (there is a reason NFL teams don’t make their coaches get out on the field but we do that to sales people all of the time and wonder why we kill their spirits and burn them out), that explaining the WHY to a team is just as important as asking WHY of a client, that credibility matters and having fun is mandatory. My biggest lesson may have been that when we don't all have access to the same information, the information we choose to consume matters. I also learned that the key to professional success is differentiation.

The roles at the tops of all organizations are scarce. I was working for a company occupying the 14th floor of One World Trade Center and at the time, I was one of more than 100,000 employees across the United States. Whether working for small companies or large, how do we differentiate ourselves so that we’re the ones others have their eye on?  How do we differentiate in an interview and how do we differentiate as a leader of teams? In this current age, how do we differentiate when we share the same online resources and influences?

First, you must be proud to be different. I was the first in my family to go to college, I was the first to be a civilian, the first in corporate life, the first to leave the South and move to New York. I was also married at a young age and divorced five years later. I wasn't proud of that but I couldn't change it.  I didn’t fit a mold and my life looked nothing like the lives of those around me. Oh, and I was the only woman on the team. I was naturally different and I was perfectly okay with it.  I don’t see much of that anymore. In fact, I see the opposite. The most important part of differentiation is wearing it like a second skin. If you aren't comfortable with it, you'll work to blend in and will end up like everyone else.

There’s a vernacular, a common dress code, a parlance of scheduling a week, that is shared in ways it was not shared in years prior.  I don’t want to sound like the old lady on the porch but if your world is filled with so many external voices and influences and you don’t have a strong internal filter, then you will end of being just like everyone else. You won’t stand out. In a world where the word 'basic' is an insult, why is everyone striving to be like everyone else? Are you able to hear the messages to the masses and stand in your truth and reject what does not make sense to you or feel right to you?  Do you go along with the tide because that is what is expected of your ocean?

If you’ve been pulled out of your classes since elementary school, added to Gifted classes with kids much older, moved every two years, and left home at 18 to move 1,000 miles away to college, you probably have a strong sense of self and are comfortable not blending in. Maybe you were quiet as a child, were teased in Middle School and I promise you that If you didn't have many friends when you were younger, you're well prepared for life. Those of you who grew up with parents who didn't look like TV parents, who came from families who are first and second generation immigrants, these truths ensure you are memorable. If someone was telling you that you were broken when you were younger, that person was intimidated with your superpowers.  Sit with that, write down the ways you were and are different and then beam with pride over them. Beam with PRIDE over the ways you are different....these things are YOU, they are your essence, your gifts, your strengths!  (repeat that 10xs a day)

Take a quick inventory. Did you process the world differently than your peers? Your friends? Did you question much of what you were taught about yourself and about life?  Did you take risks others considered brave?  Then differentiating comes naturally to you.  But what if it doesn’t? What if standing out was not your jam? What if you look inward and realize that you sound like, dress like and surround yourself with people exactly like you?  Just as a brand must differentiate to succeed, so must a woman who hopes to rise through the ranks and take on new professional challenges.

What about your closest friends or the five people with whom you spend the most time? Take a look at your colleagues- how are you different? How do you stand out?  Write down these details and focus on them.  Being your authentic self is the key to self esteem and self esteem leads to confidence and confidence leads to differentiation and success.

Those first two promotions were not because I was the only woman or that I had a different accent, I know from feedback that they were mine because of my confidence, posture, poise and presence.  Do you command a room? Do others come to you for advice or help with a complicated deal? Do you know in your bones that you do things, think about things and consume content differently than your peers? Are you challenging yourself or playing it safe? 

The original Work Wives included a woman who used an investment app on her phone and each morning, managed her money, paying attention to the news like a hawk and supplementing her life quite nicely. Another was one everyone assumed was closer to my age, not because she didn’t take care of herself, but because she walked with authority and oozed leadership. Another spoke with such authority that while 19 years my junior, I would report to her, she speaks two languages and plays the violin and is the youngest bride I’d ever known in NYC.  None of them fit the mold of the Millennials I was reading about in publications and one of them didn’t even have a facebook presence and refused to ever have one. Yet another was creating decks for the CEO of our Fortune 80 company to use at a global conference everyone in Tech clamored to attend and when she wasn't fielding offers from two other impressive companies, was the best dancer at any wedding. These women were different and they are all leaders in presence and practice.

We have to be honest with ourselves if we want to be leaders, if we want to change our professional environments. We need to take ownership. The weakest we will ever be in our lives is when we put on the victim hat.  Don’t compete with other women in your office, only girls do that. Be a woman, take inventory and get quiet with yourself. How are you different than your colleagues? How are you different than your peers at large? If water rises to its own level, how are the people in your personal life stand outs in a sea of copy cats?   Do you want to be basically like everyone else or do you have what it takes to be comfortable applying a filter to the messages you are getting from the influences around you? Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Marc Benioff, Larry Ellison, Arianna Huffington, Oprah Winfrey and Sallie Krawcheck aren't like their contemporaries in any way and that is why we all know who they are.

If you aren't feeling challenged to stand out, maybe it's time to consider a larger company, where differentiation is a must. Just as you build more muscle when you lift heavy weights, breaking down the muscle tissue and rebuilding it and toning it, so will a company with more than 15,000 employees. You'll be broken down and challenged but growth will be the result.

Maybe it's time to take a close look at your social group. We become like the five people with whom we spend the most time (not those closest to us but with whom we dedicate our time), are they unique? Do they challenge you? Do they make you better and push you? Do they just make you feel better about yourself? 

Let's stop making each other feel good and start making each other better.  

Be You. Be-YOU-tiful, be different, be better.  Why blend in when you were born to stand out?