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What Sets You Apart?

In 1975, the legendary music manager Shep Gordon was invited to meet – and potentially sign – a promising young R & B singer named Teddy Pendergrass in a hotel room in Philadelphia. When he got there, he saw a long line of rival managers stretching out the door, and his heart sank. A cattle call. When it was his turn, he went in and said to Pendergrass that there was no system for differentiating between a bunch of identical Jewish managers, so he had a proposition. He said that it was a manager’s job to always be standing at the end of a long night, so he could ensure that the artist was safely put to bed. He suggested that they spend a weekend partying in New York, and if Gordon could outlast Pendergrass, he was the right manager for him. So off they went, and after a wild couple of nights, the singer eventually fell asleep, Gordon still standing, and he hired him the next day.

We all have to deal with competition, we all know that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. It’s part of life, it’s part of business. Most companies try to have some sort of unique selling proposition, a way that they do business or a type of product or service that they offer which makes them stand out from the crowd. In highly competitive markets, your brand or your corporate identity is often all the edge you have. Nuance is important, but it’s lost on most people.

On a personal level, however, there is the related issue of your own professional identity. What sets you apart? We are not necessarily thinking about entry levels, where similarly credentialed applicants all armed with the same qualification and similar types of experience, fight it out for coveted first jobs. As you progress in your career and assume a leadership role in your organization, we feel it’s vital to consider how you sell yourself to both internal and external competitors. This does not simply mean that you perform your job better than anyone else (though that might be a part of it); it means that you look at what particular areas of the business you can claim as expertise, or what skills or experience you bring to the table that no one else does.

The whole point of this exercise is to think of something simple and distinct and develop it. It is not enough to make your USP (unique selling proposition) the fact that you went to Harvard Business School, or that you specialize in M & A, or whatever. It could be that you spent your childhood living in different countries and you have a particular understanding of global business; or conversely, that you understand the local market better than anyone else because you’ve been working in it for twenty years. Maybe it’s less specific than that: a sense of purpose, or a way of doing business or communicating, an attitude. Maybe you’re the best listener in the business, or the most open-minded, or patient, or efficient. So identify what makes you special in your professional life and use it to make yourself stand out from the crowd.

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