One of the most confusing aspects about modern office life is that we’re told that we absolutely must make our CV shine when applying for a new job so that we stand out – but that we need to keep our heads down if we’re lucky enough to get hired. It seems to be a case of: stand up and wave your arms around screaming ‘Look at me!’ to get noticed… and then, if that works, get ready to retreat to the back of the room in your greyest work attire.
In truth, the idea that employees need to keep their heads down is a bit of an outmoded one – it is quite widely accepted today that in most working environments, you need to advertise your achievements and have a bit of ‘oomph’ about you in order to progress.
But there is a fine line between standing out in an appropriate way and being the office joker or know-it-all. Too far to one side and you could be labelled as annoying. How do you find the right balance?
Kamran Tork, a UAE-based executive and career coach (kamrantork.com), feels that one of the key things that people really need to be good at if they want to shine in the office doesn’t – on the face of it – have all that much to do with standing out: it’s teamwork. ‘While initially in your career you can be a successful individual contributor,’ he says, ‘if that success is to continue then the next natural career progression is be a successful leader of people and successfully facilitate teamwork.’
While some people are natural born leaders, others grow into the role – and being a lively and involved part of the team can stand you in good stead for picking up on some of the habits of successful leaders. ‘Good leaders listen, consider, strategise and guide,’ says Kamran. ‘They don’t leap in and seize control, and they aren’t bullies or wild jokers.’
To help people boost their chances of career progression and becoming better leaders, Tork runs a year-long Mindfulness for Leaders programme, and he claims it to be beneficial on multiple levels. ‘By learning mindfulness, you simultaneously build competencies in focus, self-awareness, self-regulation and teamwork, to name a few,’ he says.
But that alone may not be enough. Honing your soft skills could be the need of the hour.
This mastery of multiple soft-skills can enable you to become a more valued member of the team; someone who stands out for all the right reasons. It’s an area that Catherine Whitaker, CEO of EtonX (etonx.com), which specialises in equipping teenagers with the soft skills to do well in the workplace, explored in depth when her team were developing their first courses.
‘What we do is prepare students who are coming into the workplace,’ says Whitaker, ‘and one thing we’re seeing is that people often think their technical knowledge and their know-how and training are the most important things, when actually it’s those soft skills that really count.’
Soft skills are things like time management, assertiveness and problem-solving abilities, and competence in these will make an employee attractive to their superiors. People on the first few rungs of their career, however, often come up short.
As an employer herself, Whitaker says what she likes to see among new members of the team is a willingness to ask if they don’t know something. "I want people who will ask questions and contribute from the get-go," she says, "people who can show they’re working out what they should be doing as soon as they walk in the door."
She does agree, though, that not all workplace cultures are the same. Those in the UAE, for example, can be quite different to the offices of the US or Western Europe. For her own part, Whitaker recalls how she started her second job – in London – after a two-and-a-half year stint in South Africa. ‘I was British, and what turned out to be quite hard for me was coming ‘back home’ to work and finding out that English people are more reserved than in South Africa. I was just much friendlier and bouncier in the mornings than a lot of people.’
For this reason, it is important to gauge the working environment and any national differences that are at play before turning the spotlight on yourself and telling everyone how wonderful you are.
In most cases, however, managers aren’t looking to promote shrinking violets – they’re on the hunt for people who visibly excel on a multitude of levels, and who have the capacity to grow even further.
‘The world is changing so fast that you can start in a business with excellent technical skills and they can become obsolete very quickly," says Whitaker. "So it’s much more important that you show that you can learn, that you can listen, that you can work collaboratively in a team and that you are flexible and resilient.’
So celebrate your merits, advertise your wares and be open to new ideas. You don’t have to carry a loudhailer into work to make yourself stand out, but the ‘keep your head down and hope your hard work one day gets noticed’ approach could seriously hold you back.