What Makes You Special?

I’ve run out of power on PowerPoint for the week, so the much anticipated Part 3 of Building Good PowerPoint will follow next week. This week it’s back to career observations…

I was chatting with a student last month about their job search and I kept finding myself coming back to a consistent point that I don’t think I’ve made clearly enough in the past.

It’s important to know what makes you special or stand out and be able to show it. Stated in business speak, “What differentiates you?” or “Why would I hire you over the next person in line?” for a given opportunity. This student was too focused on elements of his profile that weren’t going to shine for him relative to others. But in my mind he had some important factors that could overcome this.

Lots of people have good grades, leadership positions and good work experience. Those are “table stakes”. You don’t get opportunities without that.  As a hiring manager, consultant looking to staff someone on my projects or mentor deciding how much to support or whether to even meet with someone there are several things I was looking for as differentiators that broke ties and got people in the door.

So what matters and how do you show it?

The biggest ones for me were always commitment, drive, “spark”, curiosity and then a little something extra in some area of passion. Consistency matters in tying the impression together too.

Commitment and drive

Are you going to do what you say? I don’t want to need to worry about it after I give it to you. If I give you a connection, will you follow up. If it’s a task is giving it to you the same as “it’s done”. Another way of saying this is “have you done hard things successfully?”

Evidence – Do hard things well. We’re all impressed with things that require sustained, difficult effort. I can think of dozens of things that would fit the bill here, but they aren’t just “VP of Communications for XX club” or “Volunteered for XX non-profit 5 hrs a month”. Those are fine and admirable, but I’m talking about deeper commitments.

I mean things like: Eagle Scout, Peace Corps, Teach for America, marathon finisher, founder of a non-profit etc. These are all above and beyond and/or represent out of work commitments. All require sacrifices of some sort and are hard to do.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  ~Thomas Edison


Is there something about you that is engaging? Do you make me want to continue to chat and explore topics with you? This one is a bit more subjective and varies. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, but you need to show some form of this to some body along the way.

Evidence – Be engaging and conversational. Be “present” in discussion. As I said, this is waayyyy more subjective than most of the other criteria I lay out. It falls into the “you know it when you see it” category.

“Most great men and women are not perfectly rounded in their personalities, but are instead people whose one driving enthusiasm is so great it makes their faults seem insignificant.”

 Charles A. Cerami


Do you want to know how things work (and then improve them)? Order takers are fine, but most people want people working with them that are able to reach their own insights, not just be told what to do.

Evidence – Have you pushed to learn/become expert? For example, several of my students over the years have gone outside the business school and taken difficult programming classes to learn how to work with data better. A lot of people would say “so what”, but not their potential employers. They are impressed with the students acquired skills and the extra effort it took to go get them.

Do you consistently want to know how things work or why they are the way they are? If yes, you probably have lots of examples you can show from work or school. Where did you go beyond to turn up an insight that mattered?

Professional Passion

People reveal a lot about themselves when talking about their passions. It’s my observation that if you are at least average in talent and burn for something, you can make it happen. You just have to keep pushing on the flywheel until it gains momentum.

I have a number of students and colleagues over the years that have gotten unbelievable positions based largely on their passion and drive. They were smart and capable, but so were others. They made jobs out of nothing by impressing leaders in their field or firm. It was HARD work and involved lots of sweat equity both networking, “church work”, writing, studying etc. but they did the work.

They could do the work and sustain it because they were genuinely interested in it. This is my larger point. Slaving away at something you think will pay well but aren’t that interested in will leave you unhappy in the end. While genuine interest makes it fun and sustainable. It feels a lot less like “work” if it excites you.

Evidence – There are many ways to show this, but a few that come immediately to mind include: 1) being present at industry events like conferences or subscribing and being current on relevant literature, 2) finding ways to participate or do work outside of day-to-day responsibilities. (For example, taking on small projects for free to help potential mentors out.) 3) Blogging or actively participating in an industry community.

Several of the examples above (taking classes etc. also apply – as there is admittedly overlap in these categories. Alas – I struggled to make them MECE, but couldn’t.)


This matters in making the case for a genuine passion. If you’ve been plugging away at something for a long time or can talk at length and in depth about it – you’ll convince me of the sincerity of your interest.  If you can’t, I’ll remain unpersuaded.

It’s important to show effort beyond your “day job” to show (rather than tell) me.


I see too many people (in my opinion) try to figure out the formula for getting certain jobs. In particular the difficult ones that have very high standards like consulting firms and iBanks. The discussion ends up being a bit of a litany of “dos and don’ts” that have little to do with the individual in question.

Trying to figure out who you think someone else wants you to be is a fool’s errand. It ends badly. Much better to have found something you’re excited about and have authentic discussions with potential supporters. If you can’t summon reasonable interest, why are you interviewing?

This DOESN’T mean don’t understand the process and criteria – again this is base requirements. I just mean don’t lose yourself in the process. You’ll do better and stand out more in any process if you shine through. And if you shining through doesn’t carry the day, you at least when down on your terms. I think it’s more likely to help than hurt you.

And, if you can’t show the passion –  at least the other characteristics should help make your case anyway.

In the end, there are several implications and payoffs from showing the traits I’ve described above.

  • You’re more likely to land in a spot that is a good fit for you, both personally and professionally.
  • Even if you don’t get the position, but make a great impression you may be surprised at other opportunities or connections people are willing to help with.
  • It turns some people into your champions. Someone has to want to fight for you at least a little to get in the door.
  • It may well network you into “non-competitive” positions. (ie: ones where you are the only candidate.)
  • It’s easier to remember your story when it’s authentic.
  • You’ll be refining your pitch continuously, rather than having multiple stories that never quite gel.

 So what has worked for you in standing out or what do you notice in others?

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