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Standing Up for Standing Out

By Janina Monaghan


When I was 11-years-old, I desperately wanted my mum to shop at Marks & Spencer like all the other mums I knew. But she didn't. Instead, my outfits were made up of clothes from the local jumble sales, not colour coordinated separates from the latest M&S range. I also wished that my lunch box didn’t contain salami sandwiches - another reminder to the kids at school that I was half-German; pure teasing fodder. I felt different, and in so many ways I was. What I didn't understand then was that these quirks (and others) would shape me and that I should embrace them; but when you're at school, you don't want to stand out, you want to fit in - at least that was the culture back then.

This reflection got my nostalgic brain thinking. What if the pre-teen me had been sold my differences, differently? What if school had taught us to embrace our differentiators, be proud of who we are and respect what makes each of us unique?

Of course, by the time we reach the grown-up world of employment and mortgages we recognise that we are all individuals - right? Well, maybe not everyone would agree. If you're in a leadership role with line reports, you'll know that people management is one of the most important elements of your job. What works for one individual may not work for another. We need to be adaptable and unearth differences - the quirks - of our workforce. What if we looked at it differently? What if differences actually became unique selling points or, taking a playful approach, were even considered to be our super-powers?

We're always looking for a venue with a difference, a destination that offers something unique, a team-building activity which provides a different experience - these requirements are longed for (almost to the point that being different is no longer different, or that thinking inside the box is the new thinking outside the box). The same should go for humans. Imagine an interview scenario where you ask, or are asked what your super-power is. How would that make you feel? Establishing a culture where people feel confident to be themselves and where their super-powers are celebrated builds a feeling of trust (and often shared bonds) across an organisation. To do this, we need to create the right environment and make the time to reveal our stories and view each other as human beings, with feelings and emotions - not just people who turn up to do a job each day. For some, differences - such as physical traits - might be plain to see and often people are not able to see beyond these (either consciously or subconsciously). For others, it may not be so obvious.

Making time to listen and to be curious about your fellow colleagues can give you valuable insight into what makes them unique and could even be key in what sets you apart from your competitors. Being different means thinking differently. To be able to cope with the ever-changing landscape of business, the ability to approach situations or solve problems using a different mind-set will help you on your quest for innovation. Hearing the story behind a super-power will help to build a picture of why people behave in a certain way, or have a particular perspective on a topic, leading to empathy and a business where meaningful connections are created.

At Ashfield and SPARK THINKING we have developed lunch-time workshops called SPARK Shorts. These creative sessions are an informal peer-to-peer learning network of sorts, designed to provide our staff with the opportunity to flex their creative muscles by sharing their hobbies, talents or ideas with colleagues from around the business. This creative environment is a perfect platform not only to develop new skills but to collaborate and learn more about one another.

What the 11-year-old me didn't understand all those years ago was that my unconventional jumble sale clothes required me to use my imagination and creativity in putting together outfits. And as for being half-German, who can deny the benefits of being able to speak a different language and being part of another culture? All along I was adding to my toolkit and never realised it. Now I am the mum of an 11-year-old and - looking at his school environment - I can't help but smile to see how things have changed for the better. One of the school values is to be unique and rather than forcing them to conform or making them strive to fit in the children are encouraged to respect each other's differences and to celebrate that what makes them different, makes them stand out.

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