Four Ways to Get Out of Someone Else’s Box

I remember, a number of years back when working with another company, the intense frustration I felt (along with my colleagues) when a certain pharmaceutical client – a very important customer spending a pretty fair chunk of change with us – refused to even hear of some expanded business offerings we wanted to promote.

No! You are in THIS box, and this box ONLY.

There was a lot of potential revenue outside of that box, and we were quite able to do effective work in those areas. But the boundaries were set.

I do understand the impetus to put labels on others and seek to keep those labels unchanged. We often don’t have the memory space to think of others in more than a one-dimensional way. It’s a mental survival mechanism.

But what about when the box doesn’t fit? What happens when the pre-printed labels don’t actually describe accurately who we are and what we do?

>> Example: You’re in job transition, and there is an opening with a hiring company for a Project Manager. You’ve done some project management, but you actually have some important skills beyond that function. Nevertheless, you customize your resume, stick that PM label on yourself, and apply for that role as described.

You are now force-fitting yourself into someone else’s box. You have become a commodity, one of dozens of resumes seeking to occupy a mold created by someone else.


>> Example: You’re a boutique digital/social media agency. You’re asked to bid on a one-year project doing content creation/management for a company’s Facebook and Twitter presence. It’s low-level work, and doesn’t really align with the strategic consultancy direction you are trying to implement. But this client says this is the box they want you in. Do you take it?

In each case, there may be compelling reasons to temporarily take on a sub-optimal role – a partial match of skills and direction – but often we slip into the mentality that we have to take our cues from whatever boxes are put in front of us.

We don’t. We shouldn’t. Do we really want others to be in charge of our future??

Here’s how to break free of that thinking:

1. Declare your independence. Decide, right now, that your professional direction is YOURS to navigate. You are not dependent on other people and companies to tell you who you and what you should be doing.

2. Role your own. Sketch out the ideal type of role for your company (or career) without feeling the need to conform to existing labels. Build your role around you, not around the labels of others.

3. Pro-actively promote your unique offering. Don’t settle for responding to pre-packaged job descriptions, or generic requests for proposals.

Be proudly different. You’re not a commodity. Don’t act like one. Tweet: Be proudly different. You’re not a commodity. Don’t act like one. via@swoodruff

4. Look for the right kind of setting. We don’t flourish equally in every company or work situation. Know where you do your best work and aim for that place. The number of places where you need to fit is extremely small, when you think about it. Success is not found everywhere; it’s found in your niche.

I was recently doing Clarity Therapy with a gifted consultant who was capable of doing a variety of tasks, for any sort of company. That’s actually a major challenge, because the temptation is to be too broad, and to take on anything. Just by taking the step to narrow the focus to SMB (small- and medium-sized businesses), which was really the right type of client for this boutique consultancy, a much clearer world of offerings and messaging came to the surface.

You need to speak your language, and speak it in value-terms that the marketplace will understand. Sometimes, it takes a relatively small tweak to have a dramatic effect (see Matt Riding‘s fascinating account here: Clarity Above All).

Everyone around you will be willing to place your in their boxes. Create your own. The most important label you can wear in the marketplace is yours.

Also on the blog: The Feeling of YES!


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