This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Here’s an epiphany: Anyone can be a difference-maker.
I’d like to share a surprising revelation about how successful people think about themselves and their work.
A comprehensive set of new studies from the O.C. Tanner Institute shows the mindset of people who achieve groundbreaking results: Great difference-makers shift from seeing themselves as workers with an assignment to crank out to seeing themselves as people with a difference to make.
Here’s an example: In the spring of 1986, a young man named Ed landed his first grown-up job selling airtime for a local AM radio station. He pounded the pavement day after day, landing only a small carpet store or two, while the senior reps at the station kicked back on the gravy train of their well-established accounts.
Great work didn’t seem possible here. But then Ed heard a simple story that transformed the way he thought about his seemingly dead-end job.
As the story goes, a rep just like Ed walked into a neighborhood video store to sell advertising, but the owner was moving and stopped him cold. The rep was dejected, but a few ideas nagged at him and he started thinking differently. He returned to the store owner and proposed a campaign offering free rentals to customers if they picked up movies at the current store and returned them to the new one.
The owner went nuts for the idea. The rep landed the sale, and they went to work. Did the idea make a difference?
Yes and yes. The overall cost of the radio campaign was a pittance compared to the upside. The store’s customers were thrilled by the free videos, and they got a kick out of helping the store move. The store owner was ecstatic because his customers visited his new location while moving 90 percent of his inventory. The radio rep landed a customer who saw him as a trusted marketing adviser.
After hearing this success story, Ed had new energy. “I’d been thinking about my job in such a limited way,” Ed explained. “I’d tried to build a client base by cold-calling businesses around town, a technique the senior reps already had a monopoly on. I would always be a small fish in the pond they owned. The question was: Could I find a new way to delight customers? Could I create my own pond?”
So the 24-year-old rookie radio rep started to look for difference-making opportunities where he could become a trusted adviser who helped businesses thrive. He came up with a handful of ideas, but the most inspired was to go after big-budget clients who had refused previously to advertise on radio.
He learned that food brokers had gigantic ad budgets and lucrative co-op deals with their manufacturers, but that they didn’t believe radio ads could give them the same measurable results as coupon-driven print ads.
He joined the food brokers association. He made friends with brokers throughout the city. He talked to prospective clients, not to make a sale initially, but to understand their business and their advertising needs. He brainstormed ways radio ads could yield measurable results. He stopped seeing other media as competition to be eliminated and began to suggest that brokers use coupons in combination with radio to get better results. In time, the days of signing little deals gave way to lucrative deals with some of the largest advertisers in the city.
Ed took food brokers ideas they loved. Their sales increased. Their customer awareness improved. And their appreciation for Ed grew with every radio ad that hit the airwaves.
Three years later, Ed left the station as the No. 1 sales rep.
University of Michigan professor Jane Dutton and her colleague Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale have done extensive research into what makes people like Ed rethink their roles so capably. They coined the term “job crafting” to explain how people often take existing job expectations — or job descriptions — and expand them to suit their desire to make a difference. Job crafters are those who do what’s expected (because it’s required) and then find a way to add something new to their work, something that delights and benefits. Creating results that benefit both the giver and receiver is at the heart of job crafting.
As for our rookie sales rep, Ed went on to management roles for Procter & Gamble and for the past seven years has served as the lead marketing and communications rep for O.C. Tanner and the O.C. Tanner Institute that is publishing results of the most extensive set of studies ever undertaken on achieving “Great Work.” I’d say he’s supremely qualified.
Now comes the critical question: How do you see yourself? Are you defined by your job description? Or something more? I look forward to a continuing dialogue.
David Sturt is an executive vice president at O.C. Tanner and author of "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw Hill). You can follow him on twitter @david_sturt or visit www.greatwork.com.