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For those of you who remember your philosophy courses, here’s a syllogism which is undeniably true.

  • People who don’t comply with the rules – the “should do’s” of society; the accepted principles promulgated by academia; the standard ways of doing things as practised by individuals and organizations – get noticed;
  • And people who get noticed typically have more opportunities than those who are invisible to those around and above them;
  • Ergo if you don’t follow the rule system of the day, you will get more chances to succeed.

Breaking the law is extreme

In the extreme case, breaking the law will definitely get you noticed, but incarceration is not likely to be defined as success.

But there is a safe spot for breaking the rules of the day and separating yourself from the trends of the crowd where winners are born.

The challenge for any person in society to get their ideas heard by decision makers is to find a way to break through the clutter of the masses, hence the reason for the myriad of self interest groups that exist today. They organize themselves, create a message and push it out to people, hoping it will resonate and garner support.

It’s no different for an individual in an organization who is trying to break through the clusters of employees all trying to grab the available opportunities and rise to the top. They have to determine a path through the barrage of self interested messages directed at leadership to get their ideas and point of view listened to.

The competition for mind share of leadership is intense; everyone is looking for the career "fast break" that could come from getting recognized by the top guys.

How do you break through the clutter created by so many people chasing so few opportunities?

One thing is for certain: it's not by looking like everyone else around you in terms of what you do and how you do it. These are the people who live in a world of compliance and conformity; they follow the rules, copy best practices and perform their responsibilities by following the ways of the established crowd – “experts” and academics who declare the right way to do things and convince others to follow them.

Following the crowd will bury you in it

Following the actions of any crowd won't get you noticed; it has the opposite effect. It reinforces that you ARE a member of the crowd and that you have no personal unique identity.

Imagine yourself in the crowd of candidates applying for an entry position in a company. Out of the 100 or so people who have declared their interest, how do you intend to get your name on the short list of 10 high potential individuals who will earn a face-to-face interview?

Do you really think your route to the short list is looking like the other 99 applicants; by following a boilerplate résumé everyone uses?

Trust me. Having been in the position of having to hire so many people for so many positions – from junior analysts to vice-presidents – my eyes glaze over when I read most people’s job applications whether they were in written form or on a job website.

Most look the same, offering nothing unique; I ignore them.

I regularly counsel young professionals, and my conclusion thus far at least is that "doing what you're told" has been so driven into their skulls from their early years and during their academic life that it subconsciously defines their modus operandi when they are pursuing a career.

In school, they are taught the principles on such subjects as preparing a résumé, developing an effective business or marketing plan, motivating people, managing conflict, recruiting high performing individuals, leadership, generating new ideas and good team play.

The authors of the rule book for each subject tend to be academics or theoreticians who advocate a specific theory or approach on their subject of expertise; those who have several papers published on a topic tend to be chosen by the curriculum designers as the voice for that particular topic.

Colouring inside the lines is expected

Young professionals are taught to colour inside the lines – apply the principles they are taught – perfectly.

Unfortunately, this sets up the false expectation that one’s success is determined by how well they conform; by how accurately they remember and apply the scriptures of the experts.

But exactly the opposite is true.

My personal experience as an IT analyst, marketing product manager, marketing director, vice-president, CMO and president taught me to look for opportunities to do things differently even if it meant breaking with tradition.

Even if it meant taking a contrary point of view and swimming upstream to current thinking.

Even if it meant startling the crowd of traditionalists who were mortified that unbelievable results could be achieved by not conforming to best practices or by not following exactly what the pundits prescribed.

They were horrified because there was mounting evidence to support the view that amazing results could be achieved by breaking with tradition; by denying common practices.

Leaders notice when you step out to step up.

They ask about you.

And if they like what they hear, they pull you from the herd and give you a chance the herd rarely gets.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

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