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leadership lab

Former executive vice-president of Telus, educator, adviser and author of Be Different or Be Dead.

Is there one single key to building a successful career?

It's a difficult question, and many young professionals ask it. While it's impossible to identify any single factor for career success, after reflecting over my 33-plus-year journey from trainee to the president's suite, I do think there is one approach individuals can take that will make the difference between having an average career and a remarkable one. That approach worked for me, and there is no reason why it wouldn't work for you.

My "secret" was to always look for a way to be different from others.

Constantly searching for an edge became my modus operandi very early in my career when I observed that most people approached the challenges offered by their position in the same manner as each other. And more often than not, everyone specifically tried to apply what they were taught in school or what the consulting "experts" advocated.

Discovering how to be different was a very tough journey, because the organizational world (and personal life for that matter) seems to encourage sameness. Administrative policies and procedures define on-the-job compliance expectations, job descriptions dictate limits of role responsibility, subject matter experts try to formularize work and the education system rewards students for following certain practices and colouring inside the lines.

To follow a different path requires tenacity, perseverance and a high tolerance for pain to resist and break away from these strong pressures to conform.

What I quickly learned was to focus on small differences which, when aggregated over time, add up to big and compelling differences in the minds of people who witness what you do. I relied on self-questioning to influence how I behaved when asked to undertake a project or respond to a request.

Remember: if you're not always thinking of how to differentiate yourself, it won't happen, because it's not a natural mode of behaviour – following the herd is. And if not practised constantly, the be-different mindset quickly fades and is overtaken by compliance behaviour.

These questions were always in front of me, and I wrote them down so I wouldn't forget them.

1. How can I put a twist on what is being asked of me? How can I do more than what is needed or do it in a different form? Don't take the obvious approach; look for an unexpected route that will move people and leave them with a picture of you as a first mover and risk taker.

2. What can I do to put my fingerprints on the result delivered and do it in a way that is recognizable as a natural extension of my personal brand? It is critical to establish your brand and apply it in a way that others recognize.

3. What can I do to go against the flow? Observe others who are trapped in the most common ways of doing things and explore a solution that comes from a different direction.

4. What can I do to surprise with my work? If you can be that agent of surprise, people will notice, be impressed and tell others.

5. How would others do it? Ask this question only to provide guidance on how to do it unlike anyone else. In the be-different journey, benchmarking others tells you what you don't want to do in order to stand out.

I applied this approach to everything, be it a résumé, a project, an interview, a job description, a marketing or business plan or an experience with friends and family.

If you decide to take the be-different journey, watch the magic produced by your approach.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series. Find more stories at and follow us @Globe_Careers.

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