‘Differentiate’ is an illusive word that no one ever really elaborates on when it comes to the topic of promotions.  The reason behind that is as varied as the number of career fields out there—we do so much as a force that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what ‘differentiating yourself’ looks like.

As we examine the climate of the Air Force, it has morphed into one where we are self-focused and always trying to do something to make ourselves stand out under the forced distribution system.  I propose we refocus that energy toward a greater purpose—a purpose you can actually control to weigh in on that forced distribution quota.  Overall, we sometimes focus on the wrong things to ensure we are competitive for promotions—checking our ‘blocks’.  If we are navigating a dark room, sometimes the best way to see our way through that room is by not looking directly at the path we want to take, but catching a glimpse of it through our peripheral vision while focusing our gaze on other points in the room.  A counter-intuitive strategy, but one that works and one that can be applied as a concept toward differentiating yourself.

As an NCO, one of your greatest responsibilities is to develop your subordinates—a fairly broad heading that encompasses several actions.  That is a great place to start and involves a focus not on yourself but on others–like navigating a dark room.  The goal is to focus on others while proving your worth to assume the next higher grade.  A question to ask then, is what strengths do you have that you can pass to others?  Differentiating yourself as a leader means influencing others—how you do that is purely based on your abilities, perception, knowledge and experience.

Do you see a gap in your work center that you have the knowledge to bridge?  Take advantage of it and be the team player that takes responsibility for it.  We all know about problem areas in our workplaces.  As an example, I have a subordinate in my work center that identified an obsolete maintenance training simulator component and worked to correct it.  He actually gained some notoriety at higher command levels because of his diligence—it literally took him a day to do some research and compose a change request for the equipment.  A feather in his cap.  Something out of the ordinary that was not self-serving; he saw an improvement that was needed for him and his peers to do their jobs effectively and he jumped at it instead of complaining about it or wondering why someone had not done anything about it.  Who knows how long that has gone uncorrected until he showed up!  He focused on one thing that allowed him to take another step toward proving his ability to assume a higher grade.

Much of my success has stemmed from influencing others, not a focus on myself.  I had personal goals I pursued but I’ve found through several positions I’ve held that focusing on others has actually helped my career.  While I was never fond of some of the positions I held, I carried out my duties to my utmost because in the end I knew I would take something from those experiences.  I have taken all of my experience and poured it into my current position and its personnel—it paid off big time.  My team won a command-level award for the first time in three years.  I used my experiences to educate and expand what was possible for my subordinates—they carried us as a whole and made it possible to win that award.  I like to think that my experience is my strength as a SNCO managing a section of NCOs, so I leverage it to the best of my ability to help them and the work center.  Imagine if I had a section filled with self-serving people—it would have truly been like the Hunger Games, where people would have simply been vying for the next opportunity to best each other with no teamwork to be had.  Innovation would have taken a backseat to people simply clamping onto the next big ticket volunteer opportunity.

You have a lot more control over your career than you might realize; be bold and step up to the challenges in your work center or use your strengths to pull others up!