Thought Leadership

Learning to Stand Out in a Crowd

By Dan Norenberg, Executive Ownershift

Are the interesting opportunities going to others? Why is someone else chosen over you? Have you ever wondered why others stand out in the crowd when you believe you are capable of doing the job equally well or better?

Being in the crowd is great if you are trying to keep warm on a cold day, but it is a miserable place to be if you are trying to build a career or create a successful business. While technology has made it easier to share who you are with billions of people, Facebook likes and LinkedIn endorsements will not help you stand out in a crowd.

Moreover, it certainly is not about being the most experienced, most intelligent or even the biggest to stand out in a crowd. Remember the story of David and Goliath? David is one of the greatest crowd standouts of all times and he was anything but the biggest in his crowd.

When Goliath stepped from the ranks of the Philistines to challenge King Saul’s army, nobody wanted to step forward and face Goliath. Except a shepherd boy named David. David was small and not even old enough to be a soldier but this did not stop him from eventually convincing Saul to let him face Goliath.

David, refusing to wear the heavy armor that Saul offered him, stepped out of the crowd and killed Goliath with a rock from his slingshot and the Philistines fled.

Looking closer at this story, we can identify three characteristics that help us stand out in a crowd:

  1. David was clear and confident about his strengths.
  2. David was willing to be different. David’s refusal to wear the battle armor must have surprised a few (including Goliath) but by being different, he was able to leverage his strengths.
  3. David’s small window of opportunity opened when none of King Saul’s soldiers responded to Goliath’s challenge. David stepped forward and demonstrated he could deliver.  The rest is history.

We all have some David in us. Every one of us has personal strengths. Yet strengths alone will not guarantee our ability to stand out. We also have to learn where and when to be different and how to recognize and jump through the small windows of opportunity that appear before us.

Through my business experiences in California, setting up a business in a foreign country and now as a leadership coach and talent developer, success has always closely tied to my ability to stand out in a crowd. I am convinced that if you apply and practice one or two ideas from the following principles, you will dramatically increase your ability to stand out. Sometimes it’s the small things make the difference between David and Goliath.

Six Principles to Stand Out in a Crowd

1. Use Your Strengths, Differently

In one of my early managerial roles, I supported a distribution network of sales people in Southern California. These people didn’t work directly for me, but their efforts as sales professionals influenced my success as a newly appointed territory manager. While I believed strongly in my abilities, I couldn’t get these sales people, many who were twice my age, to see me as a credible resource to them.  (In their eyes, I was simply in the crowd.)

It wasn’t until I started to go to their offices and using their old leads to set up appointments for them, taking them on sales calls with me the following week, demonstrating the equipment, winning the business and then letting them write up the sales and take the commission that I began to stand out in the crowd. It didn’t take too long before everyone wanted “sales meetings” with me.  I had become an object of interest because I was using my strength (ability to sell our office solutions) differently that actually created immediate value for them and helped my establish credibility as their new territory manager. Through this process, I was able to establish a positive reputation and their willingness to work with me increased dramatically.

2. Make a Personal Connection

If you have ever moved somewhere where you didn’t know a soul, you will appreciate this situation. After some years as a territory manager, I was backpacking through Europe when I discovered the lovely city of Munich, Germany. Initially planning to spend three days there, it has now been home for over 20 years. When I arrived, I didn’t speak any German, didn’t have any work papers and didn’t know anyone. Anyone that has ever lived in Munich or any other attractive city knows how difficult it is to find an attractive (and affordable) place to live. I felt even more challenged when I showed up at a potential apartment and there were 20-30 other people looking at the same apartment. Dressed sharp, many with Dr titles and a solid job in hand, I thought, “how in the world will I ever stand out in this crowd and get the apartment of my choice”?

My German was poor, my financial situation wasn’t much better yet I knew that if the owner or the real estate broker could get to know me personally, I would have a good chance of demonstrating that I would be a reliable tenant for them.

During the apartment showing, everyone filled out a rental application on the spot. I politely asked if I could take an application with me, explaining that I was still learning German and I wanted to fill out the application correctly. After completely the application, I faxed it to the real estate agent, called to see if they received it, sent the hard copy to the agent in the mail, called again to see if they received it, each time expressing my deep interest in the apartment for rent. I was always selected as one of the “final three” applicants and once I got to that final meeting, I had had a least four contacts with the decision makers, two of which were phone calls. Honestly, during these final interview sessions, I felt I knew the people and they obviously felt they knew me as I always got the apartment I wanted.

In the age of social media and technology, you have to take the initiative, be creative and develop a personal connection with people if you want to stand out.

3. Enlist Your Network

Fast-forward a few years (and a few apartments later) and we come to work. I founded N Vision Learning Solutions, a consulting boutique that specializes in leadership development. N Vision Learning was like David in a marketplace of Goliaths. A goliath in our business could be a large business school, a global consulting firm or a group of former C level leaders who want to try their hand at coaching and mentoring. So unless we, the Davids of the world, knew how to stand out in a crowd, we had no chance of being successful. This would have been a pity (for our clients) because we are very good at what we do.

We ask our clients to help us stand out in a crowd by;

a) writing personal testimonial letters that described how we helped them create the results they nvisioned for themselves

b) actively referring us to professionals in their network who they believe we could help as we helped them

c) participating in professional community building and experience exchanges with prospective clients, such as our annual Leadership Summit and our Executive Edge Breakfast Exchanges

No man or woman is an island nor is anyone expected to do everything on his or her own. When you look closely at those people around you who really stand out in a crowd, you will find they have alliances, networks, mentors and others who help them achieve this. Make your list today of prospective supporters who believe in you and approach them with you request.

4. Deliver Beyond Expectations

Let me use the movie analogy. When you go to the movies and you see something good, better than you expected, you don’t hesitate to tell people about it. It’s not just the movie business, it’s every business. When we exceed people’s expectations, it triggers a reaction and they naturally talk about this to others.

This has been my mantra for years. Seek to understand what your clients, partners, colleagues expect and give them a little bit more. This will skyrocket you out of the crowd.

We have also used this principle to reframe our business model. In the coaching and consulting business, most people charge clients for their time, rather than the value (tangible and intangible) that they create with their clients. This seemed odd to me, charging people for the time I spent, rather than how we help them achieve their results. Today our projects fees are based on what our clients expect to achieve and the value they perceive it brings to them. This helps us stand out, as our clients know that we share their expected outcomes instead of simply focusing on how much time we invest.

5. Two to Tango Rule

At the end of the day, it is how people experience you that determines whether they will choose you or not. We have all felt the disappointment and frustrated by not being selected by someone, especially if it is something that we really want to do. If this happens once, it could be an accident. If it happens twice, is might be a coincidence. However, if it happens three times, you surely have a pattern occurring that you want to change. If your boss, your clients or those you wish to attract are not selecting you, invest the time and energy to learn how they experience you. This can be painful, as our ego tells us that we are “legends in our own mind”. The truth is, people often experience us differently than we see ourselves – think back to the first time you saw yourself on video tape.

Make it a habit to ask clients, potential clients and business partners how they experience you. Did the meeting go as they expected and what were their impressions of you? What suggestions would they have for improvement? People will be incredibly candid if you just ask them and if they are not, well that might tell you something as well.

6. Stand Up to Stand Out

You cannot stand out until you stand up. There are three modes of action. The first is re-action, watching and waiting and then acting when something requires you to act. The second mode is action; this is behavior that is generated out of routines and patterns. It is moving with the herd and staying with the status quo. The third mode of action and the one that correlates with standing out in the crowd is pro-action. Pro-action is the mode that David used when he faced Goliath. He did not wait until he was choses (re-action), nor did he accept the status quo and hide back in the crowd behind the soldiers. David stepped forward, confident in his strengths, courageous enough to be different and his story remains as one of the greatest examples of stepping forward that ever happened.

The pro-action mode does not mean doing everything for everybody.  Being proactive is not the same as being a busy bee. Standing out mean being distinct and delivering or creating something of significance.  Do not confuse being busy with being significant. Only the second leads people to recognize you as someone who stands out in a crowd.

The reality is that you will not stand out every time you stand up. Accept this and get used to it. It is the most crucial principle in learning to stand out in the crowd. Have you ever heard someone say, I tried that one time, it did not work and I will never try that again? It is like the parable of the cat jumping on a hot stove – the cat will never do that again. While it is true that a cat will not ever jump on a hot stove again, it is also true it will never jump on any stove again. Perhaps good for the cat’s owner, but sadly true of so many people who stood up once, were not chosen and therefore never stand up again. Learning to stand out in the crowd is not about having a perfect record, none of us have that. It is much more about success than perfection and if you do not stand up, you will never stand out.

At the end of the day, it does not matter if you are an employee, an entrepreneur, a teacher or student or just someone who would like to enjoy the better aspects of life. When you learn to stand out in a crowd, you will create more meaningful opportunities to grow yourself, your life and those around you. What are you waiting for, stand out in your crowd today!

Dan Norenberg improves leadership performance and organization results through his transformational growth process called Executive Ownershift®. As a trusted advisor, consultant and professional speaker, Dan’s mission is to enable executive teams and their organizations to play at their best. You can follow Dan at LinkedIn, at his blog or receive regular growth updates through his web site at


Contact Information

Dan Norenberg
Wensauerplatz 11
81245 Munich
Phone: +49 172 862 5123

About Dan Norenberg

Dan Norenberg improves leadership performance and organization results through Executive Ownershift®, his transformational growth process for executive teams. As a trusted advisor, consultant and professional speaker, Dan’s mission is to enable executive teams and their organizations to play at their best.