To get my first postcollege job, at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), I talked my way into a management-training program by convincing the interviewer to take on a liberal arts major as an experiment. Every trainee who had ever been hired prior to that had some fancy degree in chemical engineering, material sciences or something technical like that.
There was no way I was going to advance at ICI based on my engineering expertise. In my first few months of the program, however, I noticed that Total Quality Management (TQM) was all the rage -- one of those consultant-driven business trends that light the business world on fire every few years.
In my free time, I studied all the texts available. A few months into my job, I volunteered my expertise, citing my background in organizational behavior (a total of two undergraduate courses!). With one stroke, I became one of ICI's three go-to guys when it came to TQM. The thing is, I only really became an expert once I started trying to teach the discipline within the company. I would go on to parlay my experience into giving speeches, writing articles and connecting with some of the top business minds in the country. After a short period, I even persuaded the industrial giant ICI to craft a new position for me within a newly forming group as one of the leaders of TQM in North America.
Offer Unique Content or Ways of Thinking
At every stage in my career, I worked hard to develop some expertise, some content that differentiated me from others and made me unique, made me more valuable in my relationships with others and the company I worked for. At ICI, it was Total Quality Management. When I worked at Deloitte, reengineering was my hook. At Starwood, I pushed for direct marketing. Later, I mastered interactive marketing. Today, I've wrapped all my experiences into a set of beliefs around the radically changing dynamics of marketing overall and its evolution toward relationship marketing: Moving marketing dollars closer to sales.
It used to be that two arms, two legs and an MBA were a one-way ticket to the executive office. That's barely the price of entry these days. In our information economy, we frame our competitive advantage in terms of knowledge and innovation. If what you do can be done by anyone, there will always be someone willing to do it for less. Witness all those jobs moving offshore.
The one thing no one has figured out how to outsource is creation of ideas. You can't replace people who day in and day out offer the kind of content or unique ways of thinking that promise to give their company an edge.
Immerse Yourself in Your Area of Expertise
So how do you become one of those people? The easiest route is by expertise. As I look back on my career, the recipe seems straightforward: I'd latch on to one of the latest, most cutting-edge ideas in my field. I'd immerse myself in it, getting to know all the thought leaders pushing the idea and all the literature available. I'd then distill that into a message about the idea's broader impact to others and how it could be applied in the industry I worked in. In short, to become an expert I simply did what experts do: I taught, wrote and spoke about my expertise.
Each time I did, it created precious opportunities for me to gain credibility and visibility in my field. Content creators have always been in high demand. They get promotions. They're responsible for the Big Ideas. They're regularly asked to speak at conferences and are featured in newspapers and magazines. Everyone within their companies -- and many within their industries -- know their name. They are the celebrities of their little worlds, and their fame comes from always seeming to be one step ahead. So if you want to take a step ahead in your career, start becoming an expert.
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