Teach Employees to Stand Out from the Pack

Judith was an apparel executive who was lured away from a good job to run a flagging division at a rival company. Her mandate was to restore her group to profitability in five years, and simultaneously stand out among the company’s three other divisions who were direct competitors with minor niche differences.

I caught up with Judith three years into her tenure, and learned her division had introduced a hit product line that was the talk of the industry, delivering monster profits ahead of schedule and outpacing her rivals. I asked her how she did it.

“I couldn’t compete for the same designers, the same materials and the same customers as the other divisions. Those divisions were already established and the people running them were huge personalities. If I tried to swim in the same water with them, I’d get eaten alive. So instead of drowning in my own blood, I decided to venture out into the ‘blue water’ where no one else was competing — the uncontested space. I hired creative people from neglected places like Australia and Eastern Europe. I identified a couple of underserved customer bases and went after them.

“And I placed big bets that, to my amazement, paid off big. But the key was that I didn’t have a choice except to find the blue water. Anything less and I’d sink before I could swim.”

Judith’s contrarian strategy bolstered her identity and changed the context of her achievements. She was contributing to the best kind of growth — unexpected.

Her strategy makes sense, but it took courage and insight to resist direct competition with her peers. Most of us want to be judged by how well we play on the same field with the same rules as everyone else. The smarter move is to suppress that blunt burst of ego and seek a niche that’s untapped. Would you rather be the No. 4 player in a big pond where the growth potential is restricted by competitors or No. 1 in a much smaller pond where the growth potential is limitless?

Early in my career, I made such a choice. If I’m known for any original ideas among human resource professionals, it is my “development” of customized 360-degree feedback. When I started in the 1980s, 360 feedback already had significant traction in the corporate world. But it occurred to me that companies had different cultures and expectations of their employees. Why should their 360 programs be uniform? What if you tailored the feedback questions to an organization’s speci?c needs? Incredibly, no one was asking that question or presenting the alternative to big corporations.

So I did. I found my blue water. I didn’t create a new market; I offered a “new and improved” product to the existing market, a safe niche that for a long time was mostly mine.

Successful people don’t deny this impulse to differentiate; they embrace it. Like my minor contribution to 360 feedback, it can be small in scope and ambition. It merely has to be yours and yours alone.

I always remember a small scene in the Harrison Ford movie “Clear and Present Danger,” where the president of the United States convenes a group of advisers to deal with a crisis: one of the president’s friends and major fundraisers has been assassinated by Colombian drug dealers for whom he was laundering money. His chief advisers unanimously recommend that he put as much distance as possible between himself and his murdered friend.

CIA analyst Jack Ryan, played by Ford, suggests the opposite: “If they ask were you friends,” he tells the president, “say, ‘No, we were good friends.’ If they ask were you close, say, ‘We were lifelong friends.’ Don’t give them any room to go. End of story. There’s no sense defusing a bomb after it has already gone off.”

We can’t all be transformative geniuses who see the world in a paradigm-shifting light. We can’t all be inventors of the PC in a mainframe world. But we can all find a way to differentiate ourselves, however minimally, from the herd and achieve a small slice of singularity in our world.