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RISMEDIA, February 24, 2009-While you were ringing in 2009, it’s likely that there was a dash of worry and stress mixed in with your champagne. With the economy in a full-blown recession and more companies announcing layoffs every day, you could practically feel your career trajectory dropping alongside the ball in Times Square. If you’re wondering how you can alter your workplace behavior to increase your survival odds-Kiss up to the boss? Lay low? Aggressively jockey for position?-author Robin Fisher Roffer has some surprising (and comforting) advice. Just be yourself.

“You know how at work you sometimes feel the need to squelch or at least downplay your off-beat interests or your cultural attributes or your unorthodox approach to projects?” asks Roffer, author of The Fearless Fish Out of Water: How to Succeed When You’re the Only One Like You (Wiley, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-31668-9, $24.95). “Well, this is the year to quit hiding your differences and start embracing them. Quite frankly, it’s easier to downsize employees who are too homogenous. ‘Blend in’ too well and you seem expendable.

“The real movers and shakers in this world live their lives with conviction; they never hide who they are,” she adds. “They’re what I call ‘fearless fish out of water,’ and their fearlessness is the one thing about them that should be emulated. The secret to getting ahead at work, or for that matter, forging strong relationships with friends and family, is to make the most of those qualities that make you different from everyone around you.”

The trick, Roffer writes, is to realize that your unusual personality, outlook, appearance, or background-really, any attribute that sets you apart-is not a liability but an asset. Whether you’re the quiet one in a group of loudmouths, the non-athlete in a group of jocks, or the free spirit in a group of buttoned-down corporate types, being different gets you noticed, which is the first step to gaining influence. But even more important, refusing to hide or downplay your uniqueness makes you more authentic-and people gravitate toward those they like, trust, and believe in. (Not incidentally, that includes employers, coworkers, and customers.)

Here are several ways you can learn to capitalize on your authentic self to get ahead:

1. Let go of your 2008 fears. Think about the toll your fears took on you last year. What did they keep you from achieving? Did a colleague get a promotion instead of you because you were afraid to put yourself in the hot seat? Did you lose a client because you didn’t speak up when you knew they were going down the wrong path? When you let your fears squelch your true nature, you lose your creative spark and become a pale shadow of yourself. And if you fear losing your job in 2009, your first instinct might be to retreat to your office and “shut down.”

This is the exact opposite of what you should be doing right now, not just to save your job but to help keep your company viable in tough times.

“Remember, being authentic as an employee isn’t about self-expression for its own sake; it’s about bringing all your unique gifts to the table in order to benefit your company,” says Roffer. “You have to put yourself out there completely and fearlessly in order to keep your organization alive and growing.”

2. Unleash those marketable parts of your personality you normally keep bottled up. Let’s say you’re highly creative or a great problem solver. Have you really been making these traits work for you? Or do you just come to work every day, head for your office, and complete your projects the way your higher-ups have taught you to-even if you’ve come up with a better way of doing things that will save you time and the company valuable dollars?

“Stifling these personality traits at work will only harm you in the long run,” says Roffer. “Sure, to your higher-ups you might be known as the guy who does a good enough job and stays out of the drama, but think about how pleased your boss would be if you came to him with a money-saving idea right about now.”

3. Pick a boundary. Resolve to push it this year. Have you morphed from warm and outgoing to rigid and back biting simply because you think that’s what the business world demands? Or have you become bland and businesslike just because your boss operates that way? If you’ve been hiding a part of yourself just to fit in-whether it’s your flair for the dramatic, your offbeat sense of humor, or your uncanny ability to get people to open up to you-Roffer suggests you take a hard look at what you’re giving up to fit into the accepted mold and make 2009 the year you break out of it.

“If you’re convinced you’d accomplish more by taking an active role with customers rather than toiling behind the scenes, for example, approach your boss with the idea,” she says. “It may seem scary to make such a bold move in tenuous times, but leaders will appreciate any innovation that will get business moving right now.”

4. Take your talents straight to the top. Don’t keep your ideas for the business within your department. Ask your higher-ups for a chance to share them. Point out to them how your ideas align with those aspects of the business they care about. And if you’re working for a stratified corporation, don’t despair-there are ways for savvy employees to penetrate the boundaries of the organizational chart.

“Read the company website,” suggests Roffer. “Listen carefully to team pep talks from higher-ups. If you can manage it, introduce yourself at company events and ask at the appropriate juncture in your conversation, ‘What’s keeping you up at night?’ The answer should reveal the challenge they need to meet or the special project they want to put into motion. You could be the person to support their efforts.”

5. Speak the language of benefits. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in your own ideas that no one can relate to you. It doesn’t matter how clever you are if those in power don’t “get” what you’re trying to do. As a fish out of water, it’s your job to find a common language that allows you to communicate your thoughts and ideas. You must take the time to understand what’s important to the person you’re trying to influence. It’s all about preparation and performance.

“While there isn’t exactly a wrong way to be at the office, there is a wrong way to express your ideas,” notes Roffer. “Sometimes an idea that seems perfectly clear to you might not be so obvious to those around you. A successful fearless fish will stand in the shoes of the person she is pitching and explain with visual words and concrete examples how the idea will benefit the business.”

6. Don’t wear a mask or manipulate. When you unleash your inner fearless fish, make sure you’re being the real you and not wearing a mask or manipulating your personality in order to steal attention or get along with everyone from Joe in the mailroom to Bob the CEO.

“Fearless fish are comfortable in their own skin and know that they can’t please everyone,” says Roffer. “And rather than avoiding or resenting those who are different from them, they accept and even enjoy the differences. If, in 2009, you use your own fearless fish nature to start nurturing the unique qualities of everyone around you, I think you’ll find that at your office problems are solved more quickly and with better results and that the general mood is lifted.”

7. Let your style shine, not shock. If you’ve deliberately adopted an unusual form of dress to stand out at work, you may be coming across as contrived rather than unique. Instead of wearing torn jeans in a workplace filled with tailored suits, simply adapt your look for the most harmonious collaboration. Show your style by the colors you choose and by how you accessorize. Something as small as an interesting watch or a fashion-forward pair of shoes or tie can say, “I’m so much more than what you think I am.”

“Dressing provocatively just to stand out isn’t the proper course for a fearless fish,” says Roffer. “People will see right through and will start thinking of you as someone who is desperate for attention. It’s not authentic, and you’re not fooling anyone.”

8. Find (and be) a fearless advocate. It helps to have someone around who “gets” you, especially when it’s someone you admire. Such people can help strengthen your trust in yourself and show others you’re someone to notice. If no one advocates for you now, look for the person in your office or your field with whom you can establish a connection. Communicate your interest and admiration, and open yourself up to that individual. Both of you can gain from it.

“Once you’ve found an advocate, you should start advocating for someone as well,” says Roffer. “Be a leader to the newly arriving fish out of water at your office. Compassionate leadership benefits everyone. Learning from younger or less experienced people spurs evolution and creates staying power for the senior members of the team. For the fish out of water, an added benefit is that by generously sharing your own expertise, you become involved and integral.”

9. Be different. Make a difference. It’s not the wallflower who’s going to help a company go green, or the conformist who will invent the new business model or product. As a fish out of water, you can create change-and be an inspiration-because you don’t blend in, you do get noticed, and when you put the tools for being a fearless fish into practice, you’ll also be heard.

“Fearless fish out of water are nonconformists who are good at taking the bull by the horns and creating positive change for themselves and others,” says Roffer. “You can make a difference, while capitalizing on the power of your company’s brand and resources. Perceptions about you and your corporation can change as you make them change.”

10. Just like your company, you must change with the times. Whether you were once the hot ticket whose star is now growing dim or you simply want to keep up with new opportunities on the horizon, evolution is essential. Remember, when you’re a fish out of water, the light is already shining on you. You’re more visible and, therefore, more closely scrutinized. If you slack off, it will be noticed.

“You can’t be like one of those reality show contestants who go under the radar to stay in the game longer,” says Roffer. “You have to be the one who’s playing to win. To do this, you must keep growing, stretching, and reinventing yourself. Don’t be like a dinosaur and suffer career extinction because you are unable or unwilling to adapt to a changing marketplace.”

An attitude of fearless authenticity will take you far in life.

“For fearless fish, there are plenty of options available, even in a bad economy,” says Roffer. “It’s just a matter of going for it. Become fearless by setting your intention each day and finding something that brings you back to what’s positively different about you. Once you embrace your authenticity, you’ll be amazed at where it can take you.”

Robin Fisher Roffer (Los Angeles and New York) is CEO of Big Fish Marketing, one of the entertainment industry’s preeminent brand marketing and digital advertising agencies. She has provided the rocket fuel that has ignited the launch pad of dozens of brands all over the world, developing brand-building marketing plans and promotional campaigns for top media companies like Sony, Time-Warner, and Twentieth Century Fox.

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