I recently interviewed Rod Brooks, chief marketing officer of PEMCO Insurance, about career development. He shared with me a conversation he once had with his boss.

The lesson was so profound that he’s given dozens, if not hundreds, of speeches on the topic. It has shaped both his team and his personal decisions when it comes to business strategy. Here is that story, as told by Rod.

***
One day I was brought into my boss’s office. I had been there many times, and we had a great mutual respect for each other. He pulls something out of his pocket and says: “What do you see?”

He moves it into my hand. I say, “Ah, you have a quarter.”

“Tell me more,” he says.

Thinking I was a pretty sharp guy, I say, “It’s heads.” He looks at me over his reading glasses like he’s looking for more information, so every few seconds I give him something else. “It’s silver; there’s a picture of Washington on it; it says ‘IN GOD WE TRUST,’ 1977. It’s a great looking coin.”

He reaches out to my hand and flips it over. I say, “I didn’t know I could handle it. So you wanted tails, an eagle, the other side of the coin.”

He reaches back, takes the coin out of my hand, puts it back into his pocket and says, “OK, I was wrong.”

I was struck by that. He was an imposing figure, accomplished, and I wasn’t. “Sir, apparently I was wrong,” I say. “I don’t understand why you say you were wrong.”

“I thought you had what it would take to be a merchant, but I was wrong,” he says.

Merchant was his highest form of flattery. One day he had told the team, “On my tombstone, I want it to say: ‘Here lies a merchant.’ ” That was a big deal, he went on to tell me. A buyer or an advertising manager — people in those roles play checkers. People who are merchants play chess.

The difference, he says, is that a checker player observes the board and makes a move; often it’s a play at a time. But a chess player thinks, “If I make this move, my competitor is most likely going to make that move, and then I would make this move, which would force them to make that move — and then they would checkmate.” Chess players anticipate the needs and reaction of the competitor.

“You got all that from this coin?” I say.

“Well, it’s similar,” he says. “Most people see the obvious — some people see heads, some people see Washington. But if you look carefully, around the surface of the coin is the edge. If you combine all that space and add it up it’s a lot of space, but it’s rarely seen, rarely described, rarely identified.

“It’s a true merchant, someone who’s a chess player, that will take the time to see beyond the obvious — see the edge. I thought that was you. Turns out it’s not.”

***
Rod’s career advice was to look beyond the obvious and see what others don’t, or see it in a way that isn’t clear to everyone else. That’s true differentiation. It could happen when you’re writing a purchase order; how would you shape the terms? If you’re trying to sell a new product, how would it best be displayed?

When it comes to selling insurance, Rod asked his team, “How do we make it interesting for people to talk about?” In that case, they decided it would be more interesting to talk about the people they served versus the policy they sold — hence PEMCO’s campaign “We’re a lot like you, a little different.”

Rod writes a great business blog called “Seeing the Edge.” It offers several lessons and practices for differentiating yourself from your competition.

How will this lesson affect your job search or career? Can you see the edge?

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