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Building a successful career in an organization these days is a challenge, to say the least.

In many ways, it is similar to what organizations face as they go head to head with their foes in the marketplace.

Pushing a rope uphill

These are the typical internal dynamics that make career progression in any organization difficult. Stiff competition is at play among the high potential and “promotable now” group, who are all vying for the few good jobs available.

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  • Everyone wants the plum job and will stop at almost nothing to get it – it’s not uncommon for all out wars to break out among candidates (which often puts the organization’s agenda at risk).
  • New leaders with their own new ideas, approaches and biases are recruited to address the key challenges the organization is facing. A different leadership style causes uncertainty and risk for incumbents in all positions.
  • Jobs are not “safe” in an environment where a new leader enters; the focus and priorities for the organization can shift causing confusion and reduced performance.

Many conflicting messages clutter internal communications resulting in uncertainty around the values and priorities of the organization.

This is usually the result of groups pursuing their own agenda rather than common shared objectives aimed at creating unity around the organization’s strategic game plan.

Hiring managers are unclear on the critical skills and experience required for a particular position, bending the requisites to suit a favoured candidate. Often, people like to hire in their own image and not according to established job requirements. Outside influences complicate internal organizational dynamics as executive leaders, key customers and other external stakeholders influence the decision making process.

This leads to constantly shifting criteria for what’s important and what’s not. Internal politics influence who gets selected and who does not for the key positions. “Who you know” becomes a critical factor in who gets a particular position.

This bias pre-empts the learning path for individuals and creates more confusion around what is needed to advance their career.

Expense reduction programs are implemented to improve financial performance.

Management layers are often removed as the tactic for getting operating costs in line; the result is usually fewer opportunities available for career moves.

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The crowd of people all vying for the same positions is large and the rules for advancement are inconsistent and fluid.

How do you move ahead in the face of these forces?

Success equals standing out while doing the job

In this type of environment your ability to advance doesn’t depend only on being able to do your job; it depends on your ability to stand out and be noticed while performing your role in the organization.

Your challenge is to develop a strategy that spells out clear, relevant and compelling terms why you, and only you, should get the opportunity in play.

You don’t necessarily have to be better than your internal competition. To perform your current job more accurately or more proficiently than how other candidates perform their roles.

These types of comparatives rarely decide who gets the prize. The hiring manager generally looks at a group of candidates who are all at the same level of job proficiency, who all do their job with the same level of competence.

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Effective job performance becomes table stakes to be considered for an opportunity to move up or across the organization.

When looking at a crowd of candidates who all generally perform at the same level, the hiring manager is attracted to someone who is different in some way from everyone else.

Winners looked like this

As an executive leader, I gravitated toward candidates who showed me that they were special and different in these areas:

  • They offered simple and informal communications styles without the fancy word dropping;
  • They had a detailed understanding of the strategic game plan of the organization and how the job they were applying for specifically contributed to its key objectives;
  • They were off-the-wall thinkers in terms of new tactics that could be used to be more successful;
  • They had a contrarian mindset; they tended to look at solutions in a way that was the opposite to the way others thought.

Thus, they were real time problem solvers who could answer my surprise questions in the moment with cleverness and creativity, like “How would your Polish dancing experience help you do the VP marketing job?”

Answer: “To be a good dancer you have to be able to recover from your mistakes fast and be creatively expressive throughout your performance. Successful marketing needs both of these as well.”

Another question: “From your bakery experience, what value proposition would you use for a bundle combining a bagel with long distance service?”

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Answer: “I would offer the bundle as a way to achieve the emotional and healthy gratification the customer would get when consuming both.”

Impressive. Different.

He got the job.

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 tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

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