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- from the desk of Ian Christie
CEO & Executive Career Coach
15 Sources of Professional Competitive Advantage
Getting Ahead Of The Competition
On your professional journey, you have competition for great work situations, bigger roles and client projects. What is your competitive advantage?
Manage your Destiny
In the realm of managing your career, I can make some safe assumptions. You don’t want to be interchangeable with the person next to you. You would like a surplus vs. scarcity of professional opportunities. You want to be able to negotiate for work and compensation at least as an equal partner in the conversation, if not from a point of strength. So, finding and building competitive advantage deserves your attention.
What is Competitive Advantage
Michael Porter defined two sources of competitive advantage for companies: lower cost and differentiation. Now, you may want to play the lower cost game, but I doubt it, so let’s focus on differentiation. This is not about wearing a power blue tuxedo to a formal business event (seen it), or formatting your resume in a wild font to get attention. Another definition of competitive advantage refers to it resulting from finding a match between the company’s core competencies and the right market opportunities. Bingo! True professional competitive advantage results from identifying and developing your areas of strength (defined in its broadest sense) and connecting with your natural target markets. When it comes to competing for key roles, the result is a natural, obvious fit between seller (you) and your target buyers.
15 Sources of Competitive Advantage
Keep these three points in mind as you go through the list:
Rarely is your professional competitive advantage one-dimensional
For most work, there is a base layer of competency required. Even if you have an area of exceptional strength, you need to have the bases covered
Some sources are a result of years of attention and performance. Others can be developed or enhanced in the short to medium term.
Superior Domain Expertise
When you are the go-to resource for X, you have created a competitive advantage. Your name is known outside of the walls of your department. Perhaps you have spoken at a conference. Whatever it is, possessing superior knowledge over most of the pack gives you an advantage when it comes to opportunities requiring that same expertise.
Rare Domain Expertise
In a category in and of itself, there are areas of professional expertise that aren’t necessarily new, but they are rare. Demand / supply curves being what they are, you can leverage this relatively scarce expertise.
Ahead of the Curve
While not always a permanent source, you having advance expertise and experience in something that is both new and important - a key technology or application, regulatory changes, the latest management fad, or in-depth knowledge and contacts in the latest emerging market, can be a real boon. It can put you in the spotlight in your current work situation and open up doors to new ones. Executive recruiters are often retained to find this ahead of the curve expertise, as well as rare expertise.
Superior Skill in an Area of Demand
Skills are similar to domain expertise. While rarely is just one skill involved, except for the most specialized professionals, your demonstrated excellent in an in-demand skill, or related package of skills is a source of differentiation and advantage. Particularly when backed up by respected industry credentials.
Network, reach, audience
The more relevant, engaged, extensive and supportive your professional network, or audience, the greater advantage you have. Why? Access to information, referrals and recommendations. The halo effect of being acquainted with key influencers. The opportunity to spread your message to a group of people relevant to your domain. This is a big one.
Reputation & Track Record
Longevity isn’t enough. What is your track record? Between similar candidates, the person who can demonstrate a track record of performance and making a difference will have the leg-up. And in career change situations, a track record of successfully tackling a diverse set of challenges can be an important asset.
Recruiters and experienced hiring managers have seen enough candidates to form an impression of a person’s total experience. The data that forms that impression includes your trajectory and progression, years of relevant experience, continuity of your professional story and whether or not there are questionable gaps.
Deserving of separate mention, and connected to your expertise are the special experiences that you’ve worked through. Product launches, turnarounds, acquisitions, regulatory approvals, campaigns, crisis managed. Two people could have similar job titles but have entirely different experiences. These situations, particularly when experienced more than once, can be a strong source of competitive advantage when a buyer is facing similar situations.
Pedigree / Brand Halo
All things being equal, employer and customer brands that are from my space, or that I at least recognize, if not admire, give you a head-start over someone who has worked for / with companies that mean nothing to me. Unfortunately, there is often a size bias. I am more likely to have heard of a company that has scaled or is in the news or on lists.
Polish & Finesse
While not the most important, polish and finesse count, particularly in those key career moments - the pivotal coffee conversation, the interview, the negotiation, the pitch. Skill, expertise and experience being equal, polish can take you over the finish line and in some cases trump one of the more tangible requirements.
Beyond an engaged network, having a senior champion who is willing to open a key door for you and lend their support for your candidacy can get you access to opportunities not widely available.
When it comes to getting in with a lack or direct experience, or competing for work among a host of other contenders, your tangible, demonstrated commitment to the business / topic at question can be immensely advantageous. Not the, I am very, very, very interested in this job approach. Even those two extra very’s won’t cut it. What you have done, attended, published, created, studied, developed, built, read, etc and how articulate you are about the area of business are what count. Your commitment should leave footprints in the sand.
Survivor of Cycles / Hard-knocks
Hey, I’d pay for someone who learned what needed to be learnt on someone else’s dime rather than mine. Gone through three startups and understand the ramp-up and funding cycles? Hugely valuable if I am a start-up CEO. Fought through tough market cycles and found a way to survive? Fantastic.
Atypical for your Field
Here’s a good one. There is a type for a lot of professions and fields. A common set of personality traits, core skill sets, shared values. What if you have the base layer AND something else that makes you atypical? Case in point: In the large accounting firms, it usually isn’t the best / most technically savvy accountants that rise rapidly through the ranks. Rather, it is those who have that base layer of competency combined with team leadership qualities, client relationship skills and the drive to build the business.
The market is big and you are not equally valuable everywhere. Your ability to identify and cultivate areas of opportunity - in your organization, profession, market and industry is a must-have component to your professional advantage.
Your Unique Combinations
Remember where we started on differentiation. At the end of the day, your professional competitive advantage is likely a combination of things. What you have focused on and how you articulate who you are professionally can make all of the difference. There’s no excuse to be a cog. What are your sources of competitive advantage?
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