25 years ago, I was like you, young and beautiful, a new graduate out of university worked as a technician at this German factory named Heimann Optoelectronics. At the time, 70% of the cameras in the world had their photoflash tubes made in Heimann. The production line was moved from Germany to Singapore in 1970s and from Singapore to China in 1990s. The machine was really, really old. It often broke down. When it did, production stopped completely and hundreds of operators sat around idling, doing nothing. We had this engineer in his 40s. He tried to trouble shoot the machine with no manual, no diagram. He was good. He was able to isolate the problem to a circuit board, then he was stuck. Days went by, then weeks, our general manager received phone calls from customers complaining about late shipments. Everyone was under enormous pressure.
I was the only technician speaking English. I volunteered to call head office in Germany. I described the circuit board and asked if by any chance they had a spare part. They said yes. I asked them to rush it to China. We replaced the circuit board. A few minutes later, we were in business again. Two weeks later, that engineer traced the problem to a little capacitor that had gone bad. He fixed the circuit board. He was awesome!
After that incident, I suggested to the general manager that we build a small warehouse of spare parts. I asked the engineers what parts could potentially go wrong and compiled a spare parts list. I faxed the list to Germany, they found most parts and shipped them to China. With spare parts always in stock, we were able to reduce production down time to minimum. Six months later I was promoted to supervisor. A year later I was running the department. I was 24 years old that year, the youngest manager in Heimann Electronics, with 15 engineers and technicians reporting to me.
I still don’t know how to fix that circuit board but I figured out three things at a young age that helped with early stage of my career development. One, I always have the big picture. Two, I don’t need to know everything to be a manager. Three, there is no single skill more important to my career advancement than the ability to communicate. While most people have a worm’s view, I have a bird’s view. I knew less English than the general manager’s secretary, I had less experience than my engineer, but I knew a little bit of both, enough to solve a critical problem. Strategically I was able to combine two attributes in me – English and engineering – and became 11 times powerful. 1 + 1 = 11. I admit that I have been using the same trick throughout my career to stand out from the crowd: combining attributes, not randomly, but strategically to answer the question that we get asked most often: Why you? What makes you so special?
I used to work for Scotiabank International Banking. For instance, a level 7 manager position working in analytics team in Toronto head office may require the candidate to speak Spanish, is analytical, and has prior experience working in the bank. Try adding the attributes one by one and see how the ratio of qualifying candidates to total job seeking population in the Greater Toronto Area decreases.
Speak Spanish (1 = 1): 5%
Speak Spanish + Is analytical (1 + 1 = 11): 2%
Speak Spanish + Is analytical + Has banking experience (1 + 1 + 1 = 111): 0.3%. I think I’ve made my point. If you have all three attributes, you are among the three out of a thousand people. You are really, really special!
When you say “I’m special”, people say really? They challenge you. So don’t say “I’m special”, in fact, don’t use the word “special” at all. But everything you say, everything you do that point people in one direction and lead them to discover in you, is: you’re really, really special! You want to make that impression on people. You want to send them that message —
I’m not a stone. I’m a diamond. I’m rare, that’s why I’m valuable.