Why Fit In? Stand Out and Win in Business

Twenty years ago, I graduated law school and entered the corporate legal world as an associate at a major law firm. Like many young professionals, I thought that career success required me to fit some mold of what my employer and industry wants. In my young mind, the legal world conjured up images of dark pinstripe suits, serious demeanor, and golfing at country clubs. That did not reflect who I am - an openly gay Asian man armed with a penchant for color, a bold personality, and no desire to golf. Even if I tried, I would never exactly fit into the still-conservative halls of law. So while I continued to strive for excellence, I stopped trying to fit in. Instead, I learned that you can truly win in business when you stand out . . . as yourself.

Whatever your chosen field is - law, marketing, technology, or underwater basketweaving - there is no substitute for being excellent at what you do. Above all else, quality performance and tangible results are paramount. But let's face it, many professionals have good skills. So it helps to be memorable - whether your goal is to win clients, get promoted in your organization, or rise to the top of an industry.

Standing out helps you to build a personal brand. People must: 1) know who you are; 2) identify you with skills or products they need; and 3) like you enough to support you. These elements are critical for clients to engage your services, for customers to buy your products, and for superiors to boost your career. And once given an opportunity, you need to deliver excellence so they keep coming back.

So how can you leverage everything unique about you to support business success? Here are five ways:

1. Be open: share unique aspects of your personal story.

Business success does not mean you have to always be professionally serious and impersonal. To the contrary, you will forge far stronger business relationships if you open up to share uniquely personal things about you.

When I was younger, I was much more guarded. Some of that had to do with Asian family upbringing and the caution that comes from being immigrants to the United States. Some of that had to with the experience of being gay and learning from an early age to hide my true self. But one day, I woke up to the fact that who you are -- your heritage, your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, everything about your identity - is what defines you and makes you unique.

In professional settings, I began to more openly talk about my family's journey to the United States when Saigon fell in 1975, the challenges of growing up as a racial minority, and being gay. In every day conversations with colleagues and clients, and in front of large audiences at presentations, I wove bits of my life journey into the dialogue when it was relevant.

Rather than being detrimental to my professional life, sharing my life story has become one of my greatest assets. It made me distinctive in big corporate America - especially at a time when diversity initiatives are receiving heightened attention. Colleagues want to learn more about my Vietnamese heritage. Clients now ask about my personal life at home and share their own.

The result was far stronger relationships with all my professional contacts because we see each other as persons, not just job titles. I can't quantify the business or opportunities I have received over the years because of this nor should I even try. But I do know that my career rose, my business increased, and my professional satisfaction grew.

So talk more about your life story. And you don't need fit a diversity category in order to have unique experiences to share. As I say, everyone has a diverse story - even straight white men.

2. Be passionate: network in ways that reflect your personal passions.

Professional networking is important in any industry. But I'm not country club guy. So what's a gayasian lawyer to do? I decided to do professional networking in my own way, reflecting my personal passions.

It is cliché to say but I am a huge figure skating fan. (Yes, I still root for Michelle Kwan to win the Olympics, even though she no longer competes!) Rather than feigning interest in another sporting event to entertain a client, I have taken clients to figure skating competitions. We laughed, even met some famous skaters, and had a great time.

Think about sharing work you do on non-profit and community projects. For example, I helped produce the "it gets better" tour - a theater show and community outreach program based upon the famed online project to help stop bullying of LGBT youth. To watch its LA premiere and tour stops in other cities, I have brought clients and professional contacts - both gay and straight. This was not directly a business event, nor did I want it to be. But I know my guests enjoyed the show and got to see a theatrical manifestation my passion for advancing LGBT rights.

Distinctive passion can even be infused into your planning of business meals. For business lunches and dinners, I like to suggest cuisines from other countries I've visited. That's because I love world travel and global cuisine. Choosing more exotic restaurants provides opportunities for both tasty food and exchanging travel stories about riding camels in Morocco. In fact, I often ask whether Vietnamese restaurants are of interest. Not only can I eat Vietnamese food almost everyday, going to a Vietnamese or Euro-Vietnamese restaurant sparks interesting conversations about my heritage, and whether my dining guest has traveled to Vietnam or other parts of Southeast Asia.

Of course, you need to match up your interests with those of your contacts . . . because figure skating is not for everyone! But everyone has shareable passions that make you memorable.

3. Be vanguard: pursue innovative new trends.

When I began my legal career, I was still quite young (graduating law school at age 22). And being blessed with Asian genetics, I looked even younger. So it was not easy to immediately win credibility in the eyes of major corporate clients. Heck, I've been confused for the messenger, a court reporter, and even aother Asian lawyer in the office. And my desired fields of practice - entertainment/media and intellectual property - were very crowded with established senior lawyers, especially in the Los Angeles market.

Rather than trying to directly compete, I saw an opportunity to stand out in the emerging area of Internet and digital media. This was the mid-to-late 1990s and the Internet boom was here. Evolving technologies triggered a host of new legal and business issues - and lawyers are notoriously behind when it comes to technology. So I decided to build expertise in this new digital era. It was new, it was exciting, and it made sense for a young lawyer to have credibility as being tech-savvy. It's a choice that has since defined my career - because it helped me stand out.

For every industry and career, there will always be new trends emerging. Look for ways to get ahead of an important trend - so you have a unique niche to offer in your skills, services or products. That will create more opportunities, often with less established competition, for you to succeed. And your personal brand gets an added plus of being innovative.

4. Be creative: present yourself in ways that are memorable.

It's not just what you say that matters, but also how you say it. In business, you must routinely present yourself, your firm, your services, your products, or your ideas. No one likes a nap-inducing meeting presentation, a memo laden with boring text, or a drab sales pitch. Infuse how you present with a dose of creativity.

When you give speeches and presentations, do something different. For everyone's sanity, please stop reading off text-heavy PowerPoint slides! Begin with a personal story; show catchy pictures or diagrams; play a video or a song to illustrate a point. By trying something out of the ordinary, you can better convey your message, be more memorable, and over time, increase chances for business success.

Even if you don't like public speaking, you can still find ways to creatively present yourself. Liven up lengthy memos or boring meeting agendas with diagrams and photographic images that convey a theme. When sending holiday gifts to clients and customers, skip the cheese basket! Pick gifts that reflect something personal about the recipient or you. Or go old school with handwritten thank you notes; in today's email era, it always stands out to me when someone takes the time to use a pen and write a thoughtful sentiment.

Thinking long term, develop a signature element that identifies you. One of mine is a simple holiday card. About 10 years ago, I was frustrated because law firms typically produce rather mundane holiday cards to send to clients. Needless to say, an unoriginal "Happy Holidays" on a navy blue card did not fit my personality. So I decided to create a custom photo card. The front cover featured one of my travel pictures from that year; inside, I left an inspirational thought. Clients liked it. . . even more than I could have expected. I have done it every year since then - even as the world has moved to digital e-cards. Clients (and even their assistants) have told me that it is a card they anticipate each year, and one of the few they don't just throw away. A personalized travel photo card with an inspirational message drawn from my life . . . simple, but it stands out from a maze of "corporate-safe" printed and e-cards that seem impersonal.

Find your own distinctive voice in presenting yourself, and stand out from the pack.

5. Be authentic.

Above all else, you must be authentic. People can sniff out the fake and uncomfortable, so do not pretend to be something you are not. If you are genuine, people will relate and want to support you.

I am a ball of energy. I like spreading joy. I push for new ideas. Those are not characteristics typically ascribed to lawyers, but they are personality traits which I let shine in my professional life. Certainly, there are many occasions which call for serious demeanor. (Federal court hearings are not the place for Britney Spears jokes!) And when I am digging into work projects, you better believe I become hyper-focused. But in addition to striving for excellence in work product, I've learned that it's not just acceptable - it's beneficial - to just be you.

But let me give you a dose of harsh reality: being your authentic self means there will be some jobs, clients, and customers that won't be a fit for you. Accept that and move on. You'll discover that even more opportunities will emerge, and the right ones will find you.

Take it from Oprah Winfrey, who said: "I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I've become. If I had, I'd have done it a lot earlier." We all won't become Oprah Winfrey. But you don't have to be; just be you. Stand out, with everything unique about you, and you can win in business . . . and in life.

In his law life, Jimmy Nguyen is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. He still does not like golf - but looks forward to sharing figure skating stories, Vietnamese food, world travel adventures with anyone who cares to listen.