Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry. He is the author of Advance: The Ultimate How-To Guide for Your Career and Lose the Resume, Land the Job. For more information, see KFAdvance.com.
Early in my career, someone gave me some invaluable advice: “Be known for something.”
At the time I received that advice, I had no idea what that “something” would be. Certainly, becoming the CEO of a publicly traded company was not on my radar. But over the course of my career, I discovered how I could make a unique difference—how I could be indispensable to others.
This requires specialization. To be known for something, there has to be one or two things you can do better than just about anyone else. Your goal is to be indispensable—especially to your boss—because of the knowledge and skills you have, and your willingness to share them to help others.
At the beginning of one’s career it’s tempting to be a jack-of-all-trades. The thinking is that if you can do a little of everything, you’ll always have a job! The problem, though, is being a jack-of-all-trades means you know a little about a lot of things, but not a lot about anything in particular. Moreover, being a jack-of-all-trades will only dilute your focus and make it harder for others to see your true value.
Over time, as your career develops, the choices will narrow. As you find your passion and allow yourself to grow and develop, your expertise will build. Some people, especially those in highly technical occupations, do a deep dive into one narrowly defined specialization. If you’re, say, a materials scientist with a background in organic chemistry, you may go very deep. It’s also possible to specialize in an area, such as research and development, while expanding and complementing your skill set with leadership capabilities, for example—being able to inspire and motivate others and create and build a team. It’s no longer just about your technical knowledge, but also about how you can develop others and their expertise.
Here are three important ways to find your specialization:
Experiment to find your passion. Learn all you can and be knowledgeable about functions across the organization. This allows you to explore and experiment to discover what you’re really good at and passionate about. That’s why I advise young professionals not to think too long term; 12- to 18-month increments allow for experimentation in different areas. Large companies often offer promising new hires rotational assignments, moving them from department to department over the course of a year or two until these employees demonstrate where they fit best.
Be indispensable. This is the reward for being “known for something”: you are indispensable, especially to your boss. Your number one job, at every level, is to make your boss’s life easier. You want to elevate the performance of the whole, whether it’s your team or the entire organization. Becoming indispensable can happen at every level, including as a new employee. Take on the project that no one else wants. Learn or perfect a skill that others avoid (mastering Microsoft Excel, for example). This isn’t just strategic for your career, it’s also a great source of satisfaction as you let your curiosity take you on an adventure of lifelong learning.
Be a learn-it-all. The most important reward from your new job—far more than salary, bonus, or title—is what you learn. The main reasons to take a job are to gain new skills and to expand your experiences. Whether it’s your first job or your 10th, seize all the opportunities you can to learn more and become a better contributor to your organization. I have a favorite saying: “Knowledge is what you know. Wisdom is acknowledging what you don’t know. Learning is the bridge between the two.” Avail yourself of every experience and chance to learn. Let your curiosity lead you and commit to continuous learning.