Episode 4: How Do I Stand Out? (transcript)
May: At that point in my career I was on a team with four other people and we had this meeting every morning.
Sonia Kang: May worked for many years at an international financial firm.
May: I remember always feeling nervous in the meeting, I never knew what to say, and I was terrible at self promotion.
Sonia Kang: But here’s the thing, May wasn’t a junior employee, [00:00:30] she was in a mid to senior position.
May: And the other three people at my level who all were men seemed to know exactly how to handle this meeting and I think I allowed it to intimidate me.
Sonia Kang: So this is what would happen when it was her turn.
May: If somebody called on me when it was my turn I would squeak out, “Nothing new.”
Sonia Kang: Despite her position, despite her experience, despite all of her hard work, May didn’t know how to stand out.
May: [00:01:00] And it made me feel like an outsider, like somebody that didn’t belong.
Sonia Kang: This is For the Love of Work, an original podcast about the employee experience made possible by Rogers. My name is Sonia Kang. I’m a professor of organizational behavior and I study the psychology of people at work. In this episode, we’re going to explore how you [00:01:30] can stand out at work. For younger employees it can mean the difference between getting the job or not or if you get the job seeing it lead to the right career. For mid and later career employees the stakes get higher.
May: When you don’t have the words to say it just is such a huge barrier to just go into somebody’s very senior’s office and talk about either your raise or your promotion or getting on a bigger project.
Sonia Kang: [00:02:00] So we’re asking a wide range of experts and employees who have figured it out how you can stand out at every point on the employee journey.
May: It was really draining constantly going over and over in your mind or worrying about something, being anxious about something. And then the next moment was, this guy got invited [00:02:30] to run the group and he got promoted to managing director ahead of me but he had started after me and that really hurt.
Sonia Kang: Over time not standing out started to affect May’s career.
May: Well, it felt devastating to me because I realized I hadn’t let anybody in on the secret that that was a role I wanted.
Sonia Kang: But it’s not like May is an introvert, far from it.
May: My clients loved me, I always knew exactly what to [00:03:00] say. That was my happy place. But put me back in the office with my peers and I totally felt out of my element. I felt like I was not as good as anybody else and that was the negative self talk.
Sonia Kang: There’s so much going on here. When May is with her clients her role is clear, she’s the expert. They’ve come to her for her guidance and expertise. And [00:03:30] since she’s a high performer who actually has that expertise it’s an easy script for her to follow. She knows her role and how to play it. When she’s back with her peers though it’s not clear who should be speaking up when. There were probably power and gender dynamics at play and that uncertainty and extra pressure can be paralyzing. You just freeze up. And even if you have something amazing to say it becomes difficult or impossible to get those words out of your mouth. This can happen again and again [00:04:00] and eventually you might forget about speaking up altogether and focus on what you can do instead.
May: So, my fantasy movie in my head was that they would come to my desk and say, “May, we would love for you to run the group. Would you do us that favor?” Then I’d say, “Well okay, sure.” When the world doesn’t exactly work that way. So, I always thought that I could just work [00:04:30] really hard, do a great job, keep my head down and then all these good things would happen for me and my career. And in the beginning that worked but as you get more senior it gets much more complex than that.
Sonia Kang: For some people working hard and doing a good job is what sets them apart. They let their work do the talking for them.
Laura Huang: And yet at some point we sort of realize that hard work doesn’t always speak for itself, that some people naturally have an advantage [00:05:00] but that others have to make one for themselves.
Sonia Kang: Laura Huang is a professor at Harvard Business School. She recently published a book called Edge:Turning Adversity Into Advantage.
Laura Huang: The book is really about this notion that we’ve been taught from a really young age that hard work is the secret to success.
Sonia Kang: So for shy, insecure, or anxious people like May, if burying your head in the sands of work isn’t helping you stand out what can you do? [00:05:30] Especially if speaking out seems difficult to do.
Laura Huang: How do you take the perceptions and adversity and obstacles and stereotypes of others and flip that around so that you can create your own edge?
Sonia Kang: Edge is the title of her book but it’s also an acronym for the system she says will help you stand out and it doesn’t mean you have to address your colleagues at a company wide meeting. E stands for enrich which is about figuring out the value you bring to any [00:06:00] situation. What’s your value proposition?
Laura Huang: You figure out how you stand out by figuring out what are your superpowers, those core things that make you who you are.
Sonia Kang: D is for delight.
Laura Huang: When you’re able to delight someone else, that’s the equivalent of cracking that door open a little bit and getting that opportunity to really show them how you do enrich and provide value.
Sonia Kang: Think of that as the wow factor when you demonstrate those superpowers, your strengths, as May did. She’s [00:06:30] the woman we heard from earlier at the financial firm. After years of getting overlooked for a promotion she was really tired of not standing out.
May: What happened was I almost accidentally ended up inviting my big boss to a big pitch for a new client. And so, that ended up being a really big turning point in my career because I really nailed that meeting.
Sonia Kang: For once, May’s boss saw her in action where she doesn’t [00:07:00] get nervous with her clients. This delighted her boss and May started to stand out. We’ll come back to May later but first back to Laura Huang’s Edge. The next letter is G.
Laura Huang: The G is for guide which is so critical because even when we enrich and delight others we need to always be able to guide and redirect people to perceptions of who we are.
Sonia Kang: We’re going to talk more about this guiding of perceptions in a sec because [00:07:30] it’s key to Laura’s system but first the final E stands for effort.
Laura Huang: Effort and hard work.
Sonia Kang: Hard work comes after you determine what value you bring, how that will surprise and delight people, and after you help shape the way people see you.
Laura Huang: That’s when your hard work and effort actually work harder for you.
Sonia Kang: But going back to the G in Edge why do you need to guide how people perceive you?
Laura Huang: It doesn’t matter who you are if you walk into a room there’s going to be perceptions that are [00:08:00] made about you. I think it’s more about knowing the perceptions that others have of us and what those underlying perceptions are so that we can really flip those perceptions in our favor.
Sonia Kang: But how do you flip those perceptions? Imagine how awkward it would be to go up to a colleague and say, “I know what you think of me and this is why you’re wrong.” It probably wouldn’t work anyway. And Laura says in most cases just working harder won’t work either. Here’s [00:08:30] what she says you should try.
Laura Huang: Let’s take accent for a second, where I find that people who have an accent are less likely to get hired for executive level positions or less likely to get promotions and raises or less likely to get funding for their ventures. And the lay view is that they’re not as good at communicating but in fact the underlying perception that people actually have is that it’s about things like how interpersonally influential that person is [00:09:00] or how much initiative they take or how well they think outside the box.
Sonia Kang: Obviously this is just straight up bias and the accent isn’t even the problem, it’s the associations people make with it. So, this is what Laura tells people she has coached with accents about how to demonstrate their interpersonal influence in job interviews.
Laura Huang: They’ll give examples about that time when they didn’t stop until they closed the deal or that time when they fought for resources for their team. It shows the ways in which they are in fact interpersonally influential [00:09:30] and are a good team player. And so, not only are they rated higher in terms of those dimensions but they’re actually just as likely if not more likely to then get hired, get the job, get the promotion and so on and so forth.
Sonia Kang: By guiding the perceptions of others you can stand out.
Laura Huang: I find something similar with ageism. That older employees when they’re interviewing for jobs the lay view is that older employees are not as technologically proficient but in my research I find [00:10:00] that there’s underlying perceptions that drive those assumptions and that’s curiosity. People judge that those who are older are not as curious.
Sonia Kang: So Laura tells older employees or candidates to demonstrate curiosity.
Laura Huang: They’ll say things like, “I’m really curious about the strategy and the business model and how the founders have found a way to maintain this vision.” And not only are they rated higher in terms of things like curiosity they’re rated higher in terms of things like [00:10:30] technological proficiency and they’re more likely to get the job.
Sonia Kang: Laura’s advice about guiding perceptions is connected to something I teach in my intro to organizational behavior class, a concept from social psychology called individuation. When someone meets us for the first time they have no real individual information about us and they’re likely to view us through the lens of a group based stereotype. This might be a gender stereotype for example. [00:11:00] So someone might think, “Okay, this woman is going to think or act in line with the stereotypes I hold about all women.” As people get to know us they learn more about us and rely less on stereotypes about the social groups we belong to and rely more on what they know about us as a person.
This is the process of individuation and Laura’s method of guiding perceptions puts that process on the fast track. You disrupt the stereotype immediately and replace it with the truth [00:11:30] of who you really are. So, regardless of background or employee level most people at some point in their lives could benefit from guiding the perceptions others have of them. But what happens when you find yourself working from home all of a sudden or if you’re a freelancer or in any work situation where you don’t get a lot of face to face time with colleagues or bosses?
Avery Francis: What companies are really looking for now is people that are really wanting to be a part [00:12:00] of the broader mission. So showing how you’ve made an impact in your past role or how you made an impact within your educational career is super important. So, people that aren’t dogmatic in the way that they think, people that are agile, that are willing to change and adjust and flex within an organization.
Sonia Kang: Avery Francis is CEO of Bloom, a recruitment agency that works with startups. Once you get the job Avery says there’s other ways to stand out.
Avery Francis: My recommendation to stand out [00:12:30] would be to think about your own personal brand, to take up space and to talk about the things that you know that you’re good at, the things that you’re passionate about and to tell the people within your community that you’re a part of professionally what you stand for and what you’re interested in and what your thoughts are and what your experience looks like.
Sonia Kang: Avery says you can stand out in your current role by building your own personal brand, by becoming a bit of a thought leader within your industry and that conversation [00:13:00] is largely happening online. So standing out in this way can continue to happen while working remotely. And if speaking up in a room full of people makes you anxious this is a stress free way to do it.
Avery Francis: That doesn’t necessarily mean writing a blog post on LinkedIn every week, that can mean just participating in the conversations that are happening online on different forums within LinkedIn or on Twitter attaching work in your portfolio, all that stuff to look like you [00:13:30] have the experience that you really do. You need to talk to people about it.
Sonia Kang: But what exactly should you talk about in order to stand out? Avery says lead with your passion and she tells a story about a former colleague, a developer.
Avery Francis: Who was really passionate about podcasting. What this individual did is he actually developed a podcast within our organization that actually highlighted the technical projects and conversations that we were having within the organization [00:14:00] which was really interesting. So he took something that as a developer you would never anticipate would be wanting to do this highly social thing that was bringing people in, it was centered around community and having these really dynamic and interesting conversations
Sonia Kang: By pursuing his passion, producing a podcast for his colleagues but doing it in a way that would convey his knowledge the developer stood out and by doing that he also influenced the wider culture.
Avery Francis: The times when I’ve actually grown and been [00:14:30] given new opportunities was when I went out of my way to make a big impact not just in my role but within the company culture and within the lives of the people that I worked with.
Sonia Kang: So, going back to Laura Huang’s edge system for a moment, building a personal brand can delight people and guide their perceptions of you. Because most of it is online it can help you stand out even if you work from home. And by leading with your passion and delighting your colleagues it can really help you stand out [00:15:00] especially if it also impacts your company’s culture in some way.
Jennifer L’Heureux: So I would stand out by one being really interactive with team chats and team meetings.
Sonia Kang: Jennifer L’Heureux runs a company called Citrine Synergy which specializes in leadership development and change management.
Jennifer L’Heureux: And then the second thing is helping. So how are you helping both yourself get your work done but helping other [00:15:30] people get their work done?
Sonia Kang: Teamwork is really important even when working remotely.
Jennifer L’Heureux: And maybe you’re somebody who’s a little bit more tech-savvy in your team so how are you then helping the other people in your team be more tech-savvy as well? How are you playing to your strengths? It’s just different in this environment, the strengths that you might need.
Sonia Kang: Jennifer is talking about how you can stand out while working from home. Interacting with colleagues remotely means you can’t rely on some of your in-person interpersonal skills [00:16:00] but it does offer other opportunities. Jennifer also has some words of caution for young employees looking to stand out.
Jennifer L’Heureux: You have to be able to do the job you’re hired to do before you can expand on it so make sure you have your skills down and then you can look to stand out.
Sonia Kang: And if you’re just going to focus on doing your job, Jennifer echoes what Laura Huang said about the enrich part of her Edge program.
Jennifer L’Heureux: Figure out what got you hired, what [00:16:30] are your strengths and how can you leverage those to make your environment a stronger place?
Sonia Kang: That same question again. What’s your value proposition? What is the unique value that only you can bring to your organization?
Jennifer L’Heureux: How can we better focus on our strengths? However, if you can leverage your strengths so everyone can stand out that’s really going to make you shine above everyone else. Because in today’s companies it’s not just about you it’s about everyone and how we work together. [00:17:00] But the people who can really play together in a team well and really get those wins together are going to be the people that will really help the company to succeed.
Sonia Kang: To stand out you have to get behind the team first. Now that might seem a bit counterintuitive, elevating your teammates too as you try to rise above the crowd, but as company structure breaks down more and more into teams how you work within a team becomes even more important. But what about if being [00:17:30] a part of a team or standing out just doesn’t appeal to you? What do you do if you’re an introvert? Introverts might have the same work ambitions as their colleagues but their personalities and the situations they face sometimes clash.
Olga Khazan: Depending on your environment introverts definitely could struggle to stand out or to just get ahead.
Sonia Kang: Olga Khazan is the author of Weird, a book about how introverts and other so-called outsiders [00:18:00] are able to achieve success without completely standing out. Olga is also an introvert.
Olga Khazan: A lot of workplaces are still very dominated by big personalities, group think and it can be really hard if you’re not a people person to thrive in that kind of setting.
Sonia Kang: Introversion is one of the five major dimensions of human personality. Introverts tend to be more quiet and reserved than most people and they aren’t overly interested [00:18:30] in socializing. At work they prefer to work alone. But introvertism is different from shyness. Shy people want to socialize but it makes them anxious like May the woman you heard from at the beginning of the show.
Olga Khazan: It’s really hard to advance in a setting when you’re not following the social norms of that setting. And if the norms are to be extroverted and super outgoing and you’re not it’s really hard to make your mark because you’re telling everyone, “I’m not going to follow the rules.”
Sonia Kang: [00:19:00] When extroverts speak up and they get rewarded for it they get a dopamine hit which they then start to chase by speaking up even more. They might just say stuff to get attention without always considering what they’re saying. Introverts don’t experience that reward to the same level so they tend to be much less impulsive. In complex situations that moment of pause can be critical to success. As a result, introverts tend to be much better listeners than extroverts and listening is [00:19:30] a critical component of effective communication. But if introverts don’t speak up extroverts will dominate the conversation and teams overall suffer because they benefit most when everyone participates including introverts. So, how can introverts become a little less quiet?
Olga Khazan: So introversion and extroversion is one of the changeable elements of personality and all you really have to do is act in ways that embody an extroverted person. So, set up lunches with people, network, [00:20:00] you want to stay in the mix of everyone else. One tip that I read about that I actually have been using myself is this concept called idiosyncrasy credits. And it basically just means getting people to trust you and to feel like you’re one of them before you unleash your true personality.
Sonia Kang: She means try to participate in the culture first so you can fit in. Go to team building events, socialize, those kinds of things.
Olga Khazan: Once [00:20:30] people learn that you are able to be one of them and that you’re able to conform they start to trust you more to be a little bit more yourself. So then you can subtly start to introduce elements of your personality that are more true to yourself. So you can maybe say, “Hey, can I work from home two days a week?” You can do the things that are more in line with your personality once people see that you’re a team player and that you can in theory conform.
Sonia Kang: In this way you can remain engaged [00:21:00] in team or company culture, feel a sense of inclusion with your team members, but also carve out some space for what works best for your personality. The same idiosyncrasy approach can be used to change the way your company operates. For example, if the way it operates favors extroverts it’s about changing the system and the structure rather than trying to fix the introverts.
Olga Khazan: Let’s say it’s like a workplace where brainstorming sessions are all in person and people have to argue about ideas [00:21:30] and you’re less comfortable with that format one thing you could do is after you’ve done that a little bit and proven that you can technically do that ask, “Hey, I wonder if it would be better to just send around a Google doc of everyone’s ideas so that we’re not all having to argue with each other in a giant group call,” or something like that. So, it doesn’t just have to be opting out, it can also be changing the procedures of your workplace, the important thing that I found is just to try to establish yourself [00:22:00] as part of the group first.
Sonia Kang: So those are some coping mechanisms for introverts in the office but so many of us have spent a lot of time working from home recently. The advice for that situation is the same as Olga’s in-office tips. As she says, introversion is changeable with practice. So make a realistic list say, “I’m going to check in on three people today. I’m going to weigh in on these two items in the meeting today.” [00:22:30] At the same time these days introversion is a little more understood in the workplace. If you have a different work style your needs might be accommodated because even though you might not like social contact that doesn’t mean you can’t stand out and rise to the top. It’s hard to question the leadership skills of someone like Barack Obama or Marissa Mayer or Bill Gates, all famous introverts. Introverts can be amazing leaders. It’s just that they might need to do more work and be more strategic [00:23:00] to stand out. And this can require working on different skills, techniques and coping mechanisms because as we’re about to hear leadership doesn’t always start at the top.
Ron Heifetz: I found it very useful for people in practical life to distinguish leadership from authority to understand leadership not as a position of power or influence although power and influence that comes with positions of authority is an enormously important resource but to understand leadership [00:23:30] then as a practice and indeed something that people can do from any position.
Sonia Kang: Ron Heifetz teaches leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He says that you don’t always have to be in a position of authority to be a leader in your organization. As I teach in my organizational behavior classes this type of authority or status or position based power is only one of multiple different foundations of power that people can draw on in organizations.
Ron Heifetz: Sometimes the people who are providing the most [00:24:00] leadership are not necessarily the people in the highest positions of authority. It may be subordinates who come up with the critical questions or raise the creative ideas
Sonia Kang: In order to practice leadership from any position it’s helpful to understand what Ron means by leadership.
Ron Heifetz: It doesn’t become leadership until you begin to spot gaps in the organization’s values or incompetencies, problems that I would call adaptive challenges that require us to do three [00:24:30] key things. Sift through what’s precious and essential from our past and then the second task is figuring out what to leave behind, what no longer serves us. And then the third is the innovations that will enable us to take the very best of our history into the future.
Sonia Kang: And once you identify an adaptive challenge it could be an opportunity to stand out but proceed carefully.
Ron Heifetz: When you begin to mobilize adaptive work it frequently means that you’re raising questions that people [00:25:00] may not want to hear. It may mean that you’re asking people to face information or face data or face contradictions in how they’re acting.
Sonia Kang: And that can trigger people’s emotions so this is where the value of networks and relationships enter into the picture.
Ron Heifetz: Young people with enthusiastic ideas get themselves in trouble when they just blurt out their three creative ideas in the middle of a meeting not realizing how much they’re disturbing [00:25:30] other people’s agenda and not having done their homework to figure out who to talk to first and which issue to frame first and maybe breaking a big issue down into three smaller issues. So, the artistry of leadership then has a lot to do with the framing of the issue that you’re going to raise in order to begin to socialize the people around you without having an allergic reaction and then spitting it out and maybe also damaging your own credibility or job [00:26:00] in the process.
Sonia Kang: So, by identifying an adaptive challenge, understanding your level of influence both formal and informal, assessing the emotional demands of the challenge, and then mobilizing your networks you can demonstrate leadership and therefore stand out. But early in your career, Ron thinks you should be focusing on something else first.
Ron Heifetz: I don’t think the point is to show that you can be a leader, I think what you show people is that you’re worthy of trust and [00:26:30] really then that means that you’re worthy of authority and worthy then to be promoted, that you’re worthy of being trusted with more and more responsibility.
Sonia Kang: This aligns with what Jennifer L’Heureux teaches her clients.
Jennifer L’Heureux: If I’m a leader and I’m going to give you work to do I want to know you can do it so I also want to know that if you don’t understand you’re going to reach out and ask me the questions you need to ask in that moment.
Sonia Kang: Building trust and focusing on your strengths is how she says you first start [00:27:00] to stand out. This is what companies are looking for in their people and leaders. But what about when you’ve taken those first steps and you’re ready for more?
Jennifer L’Heureux: If you want to be on bigger projects what can you do in your current projects that can show that you’re ready for something bigger? If you want to stand out and you want to make yourself known you also have to be honest about what you’re willing to do and what you’re looking for in your role because people don’t know. You have to be a positive impact on [00:27:30] your company in order to get those things but unless you tell somebody that’s what you want how are they going to know?
Sonia Kang: And this is exactly the advice that May, the woman at that financial firm, heard from her boss.
May: He said, “May you are just as good as those guys if not better. I want you to speak up. I want you to just act like it.” You can’t do a personality transplant but it really helped and I started to play that tape back in my head and it [00:28:00] just became clear to me that it was really my own behavior and confidence level even showing that I had ambition. I didn’t have the words or the script and I started to treat some of my internal stakeholders more like clients. And I would then speak to them more regularly, keep them more updated on what I was doing and create more advocates in advance of [00:28:30] when those promotion conversations were going to happen. Then I was asked to co-head a part of the bigger group.
Sonia Kang: May had the hard work covered but it wasn’t until she focused on her strengths, delighted her supervisors and guided the perceptions of her colleagues that things started to change. And there’s so much more you can do to stand out, support your team members, build a personal brand, use your digital presence to elevate your profile, work through introversion or adjust [00:29:00] for extroversion or addressing anxiety and practice leadership. It also helps to start out slow, know who you are, create a good network, and most of all learn how to speak out. Thanks for listening to…For The Love of Work, an original podcast made possible by Rogers. Find us at…for the love of work dot c-a. I’m [00:29:30] Sonia Kang. Talk soon.