04/01/2014 04:29 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

Be the Bracket Buster: Breaking Out at the Office

You'd think that in my role as chief human resources and citizenship officer for a major corporation that I'd not be a fan of March Madness. By one estimate, it's costing U.S. employers $1.2 billion an hour in productivity because people are distracted checking on their brackets or quietly commiserating with the person in the next cubicle who saw his chances of winning Warren's billion burst. The truth is that I believe the NCAA tourney offers some good career lessons for anyone looking to advance to the next bracket.

Whether in sports, in life or in the office, none of us wants to be defined solely by our background or current status. We all want a chance to shine -- an equal shot at standing out, of showing what we can do, given the opportunity. Sometimes this seems hard to achieve at work, but don't despair. Even if you feel as if you've been pegged as the office underdog with long odds of advancing to the Big Dance, there's no reason you can't pull off an upset. Here are some pointers on how to shatter expectations and become a bracket buster in your career.

  • Get your head in the game. Not to mix my sports analogies, but the always quotable Yogi Berra said, "Ninety percent of baseball is mental, the other half is physical." The sentiment, if not the math, is right. All too often, I've seen people who never live up to their promise, because they've mentally sold themselves short. Don't count yourself out before the clock starts. It's not always necessary to know exactly what you want your next role to be, but it is important to understand your natural talents and strengths and be able to articulate them.
  • Play your position. Have an elevator speech to stress the strengths you bring to any team. In basketball, every position plays an important role. A team can't rely on just a power forward or a point guard, every player needs to execute their role well. Take the time to consider how your contribution to the workplace differentiates you and make sure others recognize your strengths and potential and how you contribute to the success of the team.
  • Find a coach. From time to time, we all need someone who is willing to call a time out and give us feedback. We can't improve what we can't see, so finding someone who can show us how we are perceived by others can be a powerful tool for getting ahead.
  • Never forget the fundamentals. It's the little things that trip us up in the end -- the missed deadline, the tiny typo, that slight slip. As much as we'd like to be judged as a whole, rightly or wrongly, we're often overlooked because of the things we overlook. Everything we do builds our personal brand and can help us stand out -- or get us shut out.
  • Practice, practice, practice... and perfect. Sure, we all have natural talents, but we can get better at new skills. Players with a low free throw percentage need to practice in order to provide maximum value to the team. Figure out what your "flat spots" are and get some practice. Join and participate in industry groups. Take a night class or any specialized trainings your workplace might offer. Volunteer to teach what you do to someone else -- a great way to learn about yourself.
  • Play the game, not the quarter. We live in an age where the two most painful words in our language might as well be "delayed gratification." It can be hard to wait for that raise or promotion, but waiting isn't the same as bench warming. The people who get ahead are the ones who concentrate on the payoff, not the payday. They don't just see the game, they see the season -- which sometimes means taking a lateral move to develop further or open up new opportunities.
Like many people growing up, I played sports -- and not always on a winning team. Whenever I would despair about competing against a dominant team, my father would remind me: "On any given day, any team can win." That's true for individuals as well as teams, as long as you believe in yourself and show up prepared to play.