oct15-06-79666421In 2013, Jayne Juvan became one of the youngest partners ever at the Cleveland-based law firm Roetzel & Andress — thanks to Twitter.

When Juvan started using social media a decade ago, very few lawyers used such tools.  They didn’t see the opportunity.  But after only a few months of blogging, Crain’s Cleveland Business interviewed Juvan on the use of social media for lawyers. She then began to land clients through social media.

Juvan got some political flack from fellow lawyers, but she didn’t back off.  Good thing.  In 2007 and 2008, the economy collapsed.  She sidestepped layoffs, in part because of her social media efforts. In 2013, when she was being considered for promotion to partner, the fact that prominent professionals were following her on Twitter bolstered her case in a major way.

Two years after making partner, at age thirty-four, her billing reports placed her in the small percentage of women with over $500,000 of business a year. Once Juvan had acquired the competency she needed to practice the law, social media became a distinctive strength, propelling her into the partnership ranks at a law firm.

We often emphasize the importance of identifying and playing to our strengths. One of my favorite pieces of advice on this score is Marcus Buckingham’s explanation that “strengths clamor for your attention in the most basic way, [and] using them makes you feel strong–invigorated, inquisitive, successful.”  What’s notable about Juvan’s strength is that she’s not only good at social media, she’s good at something other lawyers typically aren’t. This is more than a strength — it’s  a distinctive strength.

A distinctive strength is something you do well that others don’t. Consider Horace Dediu, one of the foremost analysts of Apple.

A Romanian-born, US educated analyst, Dediu studied engineering in college, received an MBA but kept a lifelong passion for technology.  After observing the technology market in the 90s as a developer and manager, he came to believe phones would disrupt the PC, and chose to work at Finland’s Nokia. But instead of phone companies disrupting the computer companies, a new set of platforms emerged, changing telecom’s direction. After nearly a decade at Nokia, Dediu used the knowledge he’d gained inside a “disrupted” sector to start analyzing the disruptors. Throw in his willingness to think and iterate out loud, something that highly regulated Wall Street analysts can’t do, and you have a distinctive strength.  Dediu has become a pre-eminent analyst of Apple, known for his spot-on predictions of their financials.

Sometimes you land upon your distinctive strength out of desperation. That’s what happened to Lieutenant Joe “Duck Duck” Geeseman. He had planned on teaching neuroscience at the college level, but when he graduated the job market was abysmal.  So he started looking for unmet needs outside of academia. He applied to Facebook and Google (to possibly work with data algorithms), to Hershey’s and Kraft (to be a food scientist), and to casino game companies (to make algorithms and stimuli that would keep people playing longer).  Because his mother was an army officer, he also applied to the military.

It turns out the military was really interested in his PhD in neuroscience. (The United States Navy has more than thirty active duty aerospace psychologists). Lieutenant Geeseman’s expertise in neuroscience and psychology has served as a distinctive strength as he designs aircraft and pilot interfaces.

Disruptive companies and ideas upend markets by doing something truly different— they see a need, an empty space waiting to be filled, and they dare to create something for which a market may not yet exist.  But ultimately companies don’t disrupt; people do.

So inventory your strengths, yes, but make sure you identify what you do well that others don’t. Just as companies can create new markets by being distinctive, so can you.


This post originally published at Harvard Business Review.