There is a folktale in my family that happens to be true. My older sister had just graduated from getting a master’s at NYU and was on her fifth interview at a major publishing house. We will use the name “Putnam” to protect the guilty, but it wasn’t actually Putnam. My sister wasn’t an in-your-face kinda gal; she was more like Emily Dickinson, but with a sense of style beyond the white dress. Anyway, my father, who was a top-management guy at Ford Motor Company, told her, “Cheryl, you have to stand out. Send them a telegram. Have it read, ‘The tide goes in and the tide goes out. I need your answer today.’” My dad was a “do what he says” man, and so she sent it. The company’s response arrived by telegram a few hours later. “The tide went out. Wishing you success in your future endeavors.”
Fast-forward to an interview I listened to recently. Aaron Sorkin, the writer of such masterpieces as “The West Wing” (where lessons on business abound), mentioned that Mary-Louise Parker, who played Josh Lyman’s girlfriend, Amy Gardner, in seasons three and four, was one of the finest characters in the series. Click here to watch her entrance to “The West Wing,” which makes my heart soar each and every time I watch it. He told the story of how the character, and Mary-Louise Parker playing her, came to be. “Mary-Louise Parker left a voice mail on my machine, saying, ‘I think Josh Lyman needs to get laid and I’m just the girl to do it.’” Sorkin agreed and wrote her in.
Yes, standing out matters. Differentiating yourself from the pack matters. It matters when presenting your product or service, and it certainly is imperative when presenting yourself. But the difference between my well-meaning father and the Sorkin tale is that in the case of Mary-Louise, she used a vehicle that Sorkin would appreciate. She mirrored his style. Bold. Clever. She told a story about what Sorkin cared about (“The West Wing”) instead of a story about what she wanted (to be on the show). She gave him a visual of where she would be a perfect fit. And she was oh-so right. My father’s recommended approach was all about my sister, not the company. The style was so out of line with the culture of the company that it may have been received the same way a dead fish in newspaper would have been.
Lesson learned. And if you are looking for a job at Blue Shoe, I suggest chocolate. We all love it.