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Distinguishing yourself

by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

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How to draw on your own uniqueness to set yourself apart from the crowd

We’ve all seen them: those individuals to whom everyone is attracted, be it for challenging missions, professional counsel or even personal advice. They are accomplished, ambitious and seem to be great at pretty much everything they do. So how do you become one of them... and distinguish yourself from the rest of your fellow soldiers, officers and competing job seekers in the civilian workforce?

veteran career developmentWilliam A. Cohen, retired Maj. Gen., U.S. Air Force Reserve, president of the California Institute of Advanced Management in El Monte, Calif. - and author of several books, including “Secrets of Special Ops Leadership: Dare the Impossible -- Achieve the Extraordinary” (AMACOM, 2005) - notes that distinguished professionals exist on every rung of the career ladder. “People that tend to stand out are sought out for their leadership or for their opinions, and they are clearly appreciated for what they do,” he says. “This could apply to a secretary or a general.” In any case, Cohen adds, these individuals are recognized for their excellence.

John C. Koontz, Jr., veteran career development specialist at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment in Golden, Colo., notes that distinguished people tend to excel not only in their position, they acquire the skills necessary to diversify as well. “They have expertise in their career field, and they have a willingness to step outside of their career field and not only do what they are required to do within their job, but also to help out others and learn more,” he says. “If you have someone that is just focusing on their specific job, they are not quite as able to distinguish themselves as much as someone with a more expanded knowledge of what’s going on around them.”

Randy Block, a retired lieutenant and former club officer, and an executive coach and staffing consultant based in Boyes Hot Springs, Calif., points out that the basis for distinguishing yourself is drawing on all of the unique traits that come naturally to you. “We were all born with certain talents, and we all have our own career values that matter to us,” he says. Who are you? What do you believe in? What do you stand for? And, unlike acquired skills - which must be updated on a regular basis - these characteristics are evergreen.

“The good news about values and talents is that they never become obsolete.”

For Cohen, being distinguished starts with a decision. “You have to make the decision that you wish to be distinguished in this fashion,” he says. “It’s not something that someone necessarily falls into - although many people do fall into this situation simply because they do the right things.” This often means that one must work a little harder - and smarter - and possess a passion for what they do. “In some sense, you don’t have to work at it at all because you are so passionate about what you do that you probably don’t consider it work, or, at least you enjoy it.”

veteran career developmentExploiting your distinguishing features in the professional arena requires individuals to create their own brand. Block cautions that this does not mean simply telling people what your job title is, or was; rather, it demands that you describe to them what it is you actually do. He illustrates his point with a memorable encounter he had several years ago: “I met a woman at a networking event. When I asked, ‘What do you do?’ She said, ‘I help the world stay in focus.’ I said, ‘Really - tell me more about that.’ She said, ‘I’m an optometrist.’”

Block goes on to say that had this person simply stated that she was an optometrist, chances are, he would have tuned out. However, five years later, he still remembers her. “Unfortunately, she’s a 70-mile drive away from me, so I really can’t use her as an optometrist,” he jokes, “but the point is, she’s memorable, unique and distinguished.” One’s brand, he emphasizes, isn’t simply a title, but a noun, a verb and an object. Block’s own brand, by the way? “I help professionals transform their talent, values and strengths into revenue.”
But how does one communicate how distinguished they are on, say, a resume?

Brace E. Barber, a Nashville-based speaker and trainer - and author of “No Excuse Leadership, Leadership Lessons of the U.S. Army’s Elite Rangers” (J. Wiley and Sons, 2004), as well as other titles - advises job seekers to dare to challenge conventional resume formats. “The easiest way to distinguish yourself is to do something different than everyone else is doing,” he says. “The best way to do that is to not follow the format that everyone else is using.” When formatting your resume, ask yourself this: How quickly can I get into the employer’s mind what I am capable of doing? How can I, as an employee, make that employer’s life easier?

These days, social media networks such as LinkedIn enable job seekers to get themselves out there - and blogging allows them to publish articles demonstrating their expertise. While these are valuable - even necessary - tools,

Barber concedes that because everyone is using them, it’s difficult for any individual to stand out. To do so may require job seekers to adopt old-fashioned communication tactics. “I think that because we’re connected online, we’re disconnected personally,” he observes. “Perhaps the way to distinguish yourself is to pick up the phone and call.” If possible, set up a meeting with the person who is doing the hiring, and follow up with that contact every few weeks. “Most people don’t do that, and it lets them know that you are reaching out to them in a very serious way.”

Ultimately, Cohen underlines, both transitioning veterans and active service members have control over whether they will be distinguished or not. “You have to make the decision that you want to be distinguished, and it can be done,” he says. “It’s not something that will happen automatically. You have to make the decision to do it.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

Return to November/December 2011 Issue