How To Stand Above The Crowd (Even If You’re Short)


Let me just get this out of the way: Yes, most CEOs I’ve met are at least 6 feet tall. If you’re short, here’s how to overcome this tall obstacle to success. Plus, the secret of how I’ve been able to snag every promotion I ever sought.

I’ve written a lot about the power of cutting expenses since it’s a faster route to financial health and something you can do immediately. As with the prior post, time to turn to income. It takes longer, but when you layer it on top of your cost savings it will quicken the path to your financial goals.

Today, I cover how to follow through on the goals you and your boss set for yourself during your performance review to position yourself for a raise and promotion. If you’ve cut as much as you can and it’s still insufficient, the path of least resistance is to try to make as much as you can with your current job within the regular rhythm of annual salary increases and promotions.

“Keep it up. You’ll make manager soon.” Burger King management thought I had “It.”

“You’re not meeting expectations.” The business school where I worked next didn’t see “It.”

“It” is like art—hard to define, but you know “It” when you see “It.” You’re going to need this nebulous “It” if you want to ascend the ladder.

So, what is “It and how do we get “It?”

What It Isn’t

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell argues that we think “It” is tall, dark, and handsome. We fell for “It” so hard, he says, that we elected someone with average intelligence and a nothing political career… Warren G. Harding. The tall, dark, and handsome Harding, one of the worst Presidents in history, was elected, writes Gladwell, mainly because he looked like a president. But height and looks alone are Fake “It.” It may get you the job, but on the job, you’ll need substance.

So what is “It?”

I’ve come across a lot of CEOs in my life. You could say that most of them have “It” to some extent, otherwise they wouldn’t be in that role. I’m often asked what I think of them, so I’ve made it a habit to carefully observe them. Here’s what the best of them have and the strategies I’ve actually used to get “It.”

(This is usually what we think “It” looks like)

3 Tips To Get It: Look It, Say It, Do It

Here’s your challenge: Impressions about you as an employee have already formed. You want them to see you with fresh eyes, so your change needs to be dramatic.

  1. Look It:

Gladwell writes that “In the U.S. population, about 14.5% of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58%.” My anecdotal observation (of even non-Fortune 500 CEOs) is consistent with that statistic.

Some of you are tall, dark, and handsome. Congratulations! Life will be easier for you. But for those of you who aren’t, there’s hope. When someone has the look, it’s really not attractiveness…but presence. And presence can be learned.

  • Stand tall and wide: Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy says that “our body changes our minds, and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes.” Basically, no matter your height, stand tall, and you can get many benefits that a tall person does because you project confidence. Although some have called her study scientific overreach, I will say that I rarely see a CEO with shrinking posture.
  • Keep calm and carry on: Even if your stomach is a spaghetti of anxiety, don’t express your stress. Keep your voice even and body motions controlled. (Don’t suppress your stress either—definitely talk to your friends about it, just not your co-workers.) Would you rather go into a big meeting with someone who is freaking out or with someone who is calm and confident? You want to convey a sense of command.
  • Wear clothes that fit: Notice I didn’t say “buy expensive clothes.” Loose and baggy make it seem like you’re hiding behind your big clothes. Expensive clothes that don’t fit look cheap. Affordable clothes that fit make you look like a million bucks. These CEOs weren’t a good-looking bunch, but they do dress well.


  1. Say It:

When they talk, people listen. What is it about how they communicate?

(Do you have their attention?)

  • Articulate to captivate: Many CEOs can take a challenging concept and explain it in a simple way. One method is using analogies and storytelling. They can also tell a joke at the appropriate time. Pick 3 stories that can be adapted to most situations and practice them (and your joke telling) to make yourself appear more extemporaneous.
  • Make recommendations: Anyone can ask advice or spew facts. It takes confidence and guts to make a recommendation. So if an issue comes up at work, the average worker goes into his boss’ office to ask her what she thinks and what to do. The exceptional worker lays out the issue and a recommendation for what should be done and why. Your boss may disagree, but she will respect that you’ve taken that extra step. Basically, you are thinking like an executive. Of course, this requires that you carefully think through your recommendation and all of its implications before you speak with your boss.
  • Ask good questions: In a meeting, who stands out? The one who asks the best questions. What are the best questions?

I think of questions in 3 levels:

Level Example
1: Surface What were your sales?
2: Probing What caused your sales to fall?
3: Strategic How are you diversifying your line to reduce your reliance on one product? The money you spent developing this product has taken away from your marketing resources—what is the impact of that spending allocation when you’ll need those marketing dollars to introduce this product?

While the others are still working on level 1 questions, skip right to level 3. Connect the dots—fast. It will be noticed.


  1. Do It:
  • Choose Carefully: When you Promote Yourself by asking for responsibilities of the level above you, make sure you pick the right things. How do you know what they are? Follow the money. Revenue generating positions are the quickest path to promotion.

How do you figure out revenue generating positions? By understanding what your company does. In an accounting firm, the accountant is closer to the revenue than the IT person. In a technology services company, the IT person is closer to the revenue than the accountant. But someone sits above them both, and is so close to the revenue that they are the revenue: the sales person.

Big Law Partner? Basically an important sounding salesman. Investment Banking Managing Director? Just Willy Loman in a fancy suit. Oftentimes, the CEO is the highest ranking salesman. The beauty of Promoting Yourself is that you get to try it on before it becomes your actual responsibility to see whether or not you like it.

  • Do no harm: You asked for this new responsibility in addition to your core work. Make sure you don’t slip on your main work or else you lose credibility.
  • My Secret: I saved the most powerful for last. If there is one thing that I’ve done that attracted the most positive attention—that was the biggest factor in my promotions—it is this secret. Remember how I didn’t meet expectations at the business school? My next job at the Department of Chemical Engineering was basically the same job, but a completely different experience. What happened?

I found the secret: Creating Solutions.

If my department had to order anything, we had to use a clunky form with too many blanks to fill in. The form we did have was photocopied so many times that instructions were almost impossible to read. Worse yet, if we ran out of forms before we got to photocopy a blank version, we’d have to take the elevator down, walk to a different building, take the elevator up, and grab the form.

So, on my own initiative, I recreated the form on Microsoft Word. Now, all we had to do was type in most of the information once, and print out a crisp form whenever we wanted. Right after that, news traveled and other departments not only wanted a copy of the form, they tried stealing me away.

“You’re going to go far in life,” said a co-worker.

“You’re a star,” said my boss.

I had transformed into the tallest, most glowing person in the room… based on one Word document.

It was so simple. Anyone could’ve done it, but no one else took that extra step. Guess what? Most solutions at your job are just as simple… it’s just that no one bothered to spend 15 minutes making it. Since then, in every job I’ve been in for at least a year, I found an inefficiency in the process and created a solution on my own initiative. The response has always been the same: numerous internal job offers.

Some years ago, I was grabbing drinks with a young analyst. He was stuck in his role and looking for career advice.

“I’ve seen your group’s model and it sucks,” I said. “Make it 10x better and your whole group will benefit. Then you’ll benefit.”

He did make it better. And he got promoted within a year.


From Role Player to Superstar:

For the most part, I excelled at my jobs but I wasn’t a star. The difference? I was a very good rule follower. But anyone can follow the rules of a job. You’re supposed to do that. People who just follow rules aren’t stars. Let’s summarize the levels:

Worker Level Description
Role Player = Do Your Job Nothing special. If you leave, they can hire a replacement fairly quickly. Most people fit into this category.
Starter = Do Your Job + Do the Important Job of the Person Above You You’re valuable. Not many come along like you. Sure, some people can score. Others can rebound. But not many can score and rebound.
Do Your Job + Do the Important Job of the Person Above You + Create a Solution that Improves Your Team’s Output = Superstar When you create solutions that improve your team’s output, you make everyone around you better. You can score, rebound, and pass—a triple double machine. This type of talent comes along very infrequently. You have “It.”


Wrapping “It” Up:

(Don’t look like this? There’s hope!)

I received every promotion I ever wanted, but this needs some more explaining.

See, growing up, no one would’ve said I had it, or even that I had all that much potential. I was rail thin, even though I grew up to be 6 feet tall. I wasn’t valedictorian. You won’t find my picture in the year book under “Most Likely to Succeed.” At college graduation, they called a special group of high achievers up and said, “we will be tracking your career.” I’m being kind to myself when I say that they weren’t tracking me.

In fact, the most distinguishing characteristic I had when I was younger, everyone agreed, was that I was “nice.” Nice? That’s the participation trophy of adjectives. And nice guys finish…in the not-tracking-career group. I’ve been rejected for job after job after job. I’ve been turned down for promotions.

Wait, what?

Yes, I’ve been turned down for promotions…but I eventually got them. All of them. How? I had two things that the “It” calculators all missed: persistence and this unshakable belief that our abilities are not fixed. Every time I was turned down, I kept taking on responsibilities of the job I was aiming for and creating solutions until finally I was basically in that role, too vital to lose, and it was a foregone conclusion that I would be promoted.

So you’re not tall, dark, or handsome. So what? If you work with purpose and are persistent, you can still stand above the crowd. None of that is from winning the genetic lottery.

Circumstance is not fate, thankfully.

Time for Fresh Start?

Working hard but unable to change their impression of you? It might be time to allow someone to see the new “It” you with fresh eyes. Whether or not you’re actively looking for a job, you need is a killer resume. Lucky for you, our very own M just happens to be a ninja at resumes, advising the best MBA students in the world.  Resume professionals can charge hundreds of dollars for services. But we want to give this to you for FREE!


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