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How to stand out?

Updated: Feb 19, 2018

Are you wondering about how to build your career? Are you tempted to apply for another training to add to your resume to prove you are worthy enough? Are you tempted to mold yourself into someone you’re not thinking you will be more successful?

It really isn’t necessary. You can stand out from the crowd using nothing more than yourself.

“What is your Talent?” I ask her. She starts telling me about her good communication skills and influence. I immediately believe she must be very good in communication and an expert in telling engaging stories and still, however these are not what I am looking for. These are valuable competencies but it is not what makes her stand out.

After having trained and coached hundreds of leaders, I learned what makes a good leader stand out.

Good leaders have identified their authentic Talent, their unique way to influence their context, that ‘something’ that no one else is able to share like them, and not a single certificate can beat that effect.

I am interviewing Shirley Lei, a successful Chinese woman who is running her own company in Shanghai and recently spoke on TEDx about her new educational initiative. She definitely stands out from the crowd. Her clients choose her for her unique value while the majority of Chinese companies are selecting on price.

What is her story? How did she learn to stand out in a country that doesn’t specifically encourage individuality? What is her authentic Talent that makes her stand out?

By reading her story you might discover her Talent yourself and even wonder what exactly makes you stand out. You can read how her Talent manifests itself in her work and life and enables her to bring value to many others, business people as well as children.

Yes, fitting in to bridge the gap is wise sometimes

She moved from Beijing to Shanghai to go to graduate school. “I love Shanghai because it is business and economy driven.” She became one of the first local Chinese professionals who worked for a global multinational. Working with people from other sides of the world was a ‘mind-opening experience’. “I made a lot of mistakes but I learned so much. There was a huge gap between our performance and theirs. We were professionals but didn’t act professionally.”

She tells about how she learned to dress up like a professional, found out how to prepare client presentations professionally and how she finally became one of the first investment bankers without having a financial background. She learned how to fit in by educating herself and observing the ways the game was played in the international corporate world. If the gap is too big and you want to succeed, adjusting bits of yourself sometimes is the only way to bridge that gap.

Later she created a company that helps foreign executives to succeed in China. She transformed her knowledge about how to be successful in a different international context into value for her clients. It works the other way around too – she also helps Chinese professionals to succeed in their global leadership role by providing them with a broader global view.

But don't get stuck by the idea that you will have to gain more certificates

Shirley sees lots of people who merely focus on fitting in; they focus all their energy on keeping up with the demands they think others have. They keep on gathering certificates, keep focusing on talking like an expert and keep attending conventional MBA’s. Unfortunately, according to Shirley Lei, because all these require traditional “left-brain’ activities like logic and analysis, will be turned over to robots and computers. Shirley advises us to read ‘a Whole New Mind’ of author Daniel Pink.

‘The valued skills of the 21st century will be those of the right brain: empathy, design, synthesis, and contextual thinking.’

According to Shirley China’s education system is worrisome. It primarily focuses on fitting in and it doesn’t focus on developing right-brain skills. “Critical thinking and evaluation skills are never taught. We just learn the facts.” Shirley speaks passionately about the fact that learning doesn’t mean that you collect a lot of certificates or diplomas. “Learning is enriching. You experience that you have so much potential and keep feeling very young. By opening a book, you can find a different world. It changes your perspective.”

The lack of developing the right-brain skills is also to be found in the average corporate environment.

In her opinion learning and development in China and the US should focus on developing curiosity and building confidence, instead of lectures that enrich people with facts that will change in the near future.

She constantly meets professionals that do not like what they do. They just cannot demonstrate their Talents in their work. “Many business leaders are very short sighted and don’t want to invest in people. People aren’t robots, they have so much more potential which is hardly addressed. There is so much to win if you focus on the human touch, on people’s communication skills.”

Shirley still sees children applying to universities that belong to their parent's company because that’s the way it is done for already a long time. They are not stimulated to make their own choices. “If only the people were able to see a bigger world and open up their imagination. The world is so big and full of opportunities. I don’t judge that it is right or wrong, but why do they stay in their own comfort zone?”

Start standing out by discovering your authentic Talent

Shirley herself is a wonderful example of someone who stands out from the crowd after having learned how to fit in. Her clients want to work with her because she has an excellent service and doesn’t want to sacrifice value over price. She is unique in her profession and earned the privilege to only work with loyal quality clients. You might wonder how she pulled it off to stand out in a competing industry without having a resume that is filled with MBA’s and certificates.

“Travel is the best education I had in my life time. It broadens my mind, I learn new things and I extend my comfort zone.” Traveling, reading and meeting interesting people gives her a lot of insights that she can use in her daily business. It’s right, as long as you are inspired, you keep coming up with different solutions instead of staying blind-sighted and get stuck on something that doesn’t work. “If a question only has one answer, where does the innovation come from?”

Yes, I fully agree with Shirley. The experience of having lived in multiple continents provided me with so many different perspectives. It makes me understand other opinions and respect different angles. Unconscious judgments become conscious and therefore seem to fade away. Suddenly in our conversation, Shirley summarizes everything into one sentence that is incredibly spot-on.

She says: ”The more I learn the broader my heart is.”

So while reading her story, what do you assume her unique Talent might be? What makes her stand out? What influence does she have on you while you read her story?

My cue to get a sense of her Talent definitely lays in that sentence ‘the more I learn the broader my heart is.’ Her Talent must have something to do with learning, don’t you agree? It is her ability to learn that makes her stand out. She doesn’t perceive learning as a ‘must-do because you have to reach a higher level’, but as a continuous opportunity to broaden and open your mind, to become a better person.

Just by being who she naturally is she inspires her clients to open up and be enthusiastic about learning the ins-and-outs of a foreign business culture. Shirley definitely succeeded to find the career sweet spot many people are trying to find. She uses her Talent to bring value to her clients, but she doesn't stop there. She also brings her unique value to a vulnerable group in Chinese society, the migrant’s children.

Leave a legacy

Three years ago Shirley started a charity ‘Reading for the Future’, which is all about boosting migrant children’s confidence and curiosity. In her TEDx talk she mentions a Chinese proverb that inspired her: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’.

A few times a month Shirley and volunteers dress up like they are going to meet their most important clients and invite groups of underprivileged children to tell them about the books they've read. The children are the teachers and the grown-ups are the students, which makes the children feel extremely important and wise. “We keep asking them questions, such as “How do you think about this role? Why? Which part in the story truly inspired you? If you would continue to write the book, what would your story tell? None of us are teaching the kids anything!” But by being there and valuing their interpretations of the books, they provide an incredible place to truly learn. Looking back to the past years, Shirley tells how the children have transformed into really different characters.

Her fascination about learning enables hundreds of children to enjoy reading, but more importantly to boost their confidence and curiosity.

Imagine what this means for these children and their families in the long run?

Incredible, isn’t it?

Shirley’s story tells us how forceful it is to find that sweet-spot in work and life. Your career sweet-spot is the place where you can express your authentic Talent without holding back. You too can make a positive impact on other people’s lives if you find that zone where your unique Talent connects with what’s needed. By being your natural you, instead of molding yourself into someone you’re not.



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