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Why You Must Stand Out at Work and How to Do It

Author Dorie Clark says keeping your head down is a big mistake

Here’s a question: How well do your boss and others in your field know how great you are and what you excel at?
If the answer is kinda sorta, you could be making a giant career mistake, according to Dorie Clark, author of the new book Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It.
Clark, a whizbang marketing and strategy consultant based in New York City, believes standing out has become increasingly important, if not essential. “Ten years ago, if your business needed a website designed, you’d go to the Chamber of Commerce and say: ‘Who’s good in town?’” Clark told me. “Today, you’d go to the website Elance [a site for freelancers] and say: ‘Who’s good?’ It’s a different world, and you now need to make a strong case why people should do business with you or hire you rather than someone else.”

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Become a Thought Leader to Boost Job Security

If you’re recognized for your expertise and become a thought leader, Clark maintains, that gives others a clear reason to choose you, which increases your job security.
But becoming a thought leader doesn’t happen overnight, as Clark can personally attest. Although she now consults and speaks at places like Google and Yale and writes for Harvard Business Review and Forbes, six years ago, Clark had a Boston, Mass., marketing consultancy catering to local clients. She then started the process of “rebuilding my business from the ground up.”
Says Clark: “I made a decision to pull back from that work, even though it was lucrative, to carve out time to write articles and take speaking opportunities” to reach a national audience. She has since written 500 articles, had 61 speaking engagements in 2014 and is “now making more money than before I made the decision to shift strategically.”
Below are highlights from my interview with Clark on how, and why, you should do more to stand out (you can get Clark’s free, 42-page Stand Out Assessment Workbook on her website.)

Next Avenue: Why did you write this book and who is it for?
Dorie Clark: The first book I wrote, Reinventing You, was intended for people who wanted to make a change in their lives or careers. I view Stand Out as a sequel of sorts: You’ve figured out where you want to make an impact, but you want to understand how you can really make that happen.
It’s for entrepreneurs, professional services providers and employees who’d like to increase their job security. It’s also for advocates — people who have a cause or idea, whether it’s ending world hunger or something smaller, and want to be more effective at shining a light on the issues they care about.

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You believe there’s less room for average performers these days. Why is that?
With the Internet, since it’s now easier to access the world’s best people, average people are getting squeezed out.
So you have two choices: You can be the world’s best at something, or the best at your company at something. Or you can be the cheapest option. If you want a happy, successful career, it’s increasingly important to find a niche to be the best at.
In my book, I write about a man who developed a reputation where he worked as an expert on coaching and professional development. He didn’t start out that way; over time, he developed enough expertise to become the go-to guy in the company.

(MORE: Timely Tips to Find Work or Keep Your Job)
You write that we assume that working hard and keeping our heads down will be enough to move our careers forward but that it isn’t true. Why not?
In the noisy, frenetic world where we’re barraged by 200 emails a day and constant pings on Twitter and Facebook, it becomes really hard to pay close attention to what colleagues are doing. As a result, people where you work are probably not paying that close attention to you, so their understanding of who you are and what you’re doing may be several years out of date.
That becomes dangerous because then they’re not thinking of you for opportunities, promotions or plum assignments because their image of you is stuck in the past.

So you could then be more likely to be laid off, too?
Right. Speaking as someone who has been laid off, it’s a really terrifying feeling to be without a job. For a lot of layoffs, there’s managerial discretion about who goes and who doesn’t and much of that boils down to who is top of mind when the manager thinks about who the notable employees are. If you’ve been sitting quietly in the background, they may wonder what you’ve been doing.
You write that developing a reputation as an expert in your field is the ultimate form of career insurance. Why?
In Stand Out, I tell the story of a friend who was laid off and completely taken by surprise. But over the years, because he was networking, writing and sharing his ideas, he developed a reputation as a good thinker. So when he was laid off, job offers started pouring in; he was deluged by so many that he had his pick.
A couple of months later, his former company said they reconsidered and had made a mistake and wanted to rehire him. He turned them down because he had a better offer.
I can see why standing out is useful. But what if you’re shy and don’t like to brag about yourself?
A lot of people confuse personal branding with bragging or think they need to be explicitly talking about their accomplishments. That doesn’t need to be the case. You can do personal branding by writing articles and posting them on LinkedIn or starting a company discussion group on a topic of interest.
Can anyone be a thought leader? Should everyone try to be one?
I think anyone can be a thought leader in their particular context and anyone can, and should be, within their company or town or professional organization. Being a thought leader means you’re known for your ideas. And the leader part is that you have followers; people are listening to your ideas.
How do you get followers?
I am a huge proponent of content creation — people have to be able to discover you and that doesn’t happen by accident. To make yourself discoverable, share your ideas publicly.
Blogging is great for professionals. I’m a big fan of LinkedIn’s free blogging feature that lets anyone blog there without a formal commitment of starting a blog.
You say it’s important to find your “big idea.” How?
Anyone can have a big idea; it’s just getting clear on what you want to be known for. You could try to become an expert in a narrow field and expand out strategically — maybe you become the person who knows the most about Facebook ads at your company.
How can people support themselves as thought leaders? Is it about creating a variety of sources of income?
There are a whole variety of ways to monetize thought leadership. You need to think of multiple sources of income. I’d advise starting by nurturing a side business that creates content. Over time, that will draw people to you and to things that can be monetized, like speaking invitations and opportunities to blog for money.

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