The X Factor

Don't feel overshadowed by firm stars, instead focus on what you can do to be successful
Don't feel overshadowed by firm stars, instead focus on what you can do to be successful

 Dear Sandra,
I’ve always considered myself pretty bright. unfortunately, I am working with another associate who is considered a genius by all. The other day when a partner suggested I use her memo to improve my own, I actually broke down. How do I compete with the firm star?

—Shadow Puppet
Oh, Puppet — we’ve all been there. Some people seem blessed by the gods when it comes to career success — they have a certain X Factor, if you will. They sail into the firm on a wave of goodwill and jubilation that lasts from their articling year until they are fast-tracked into partnership. They make the right connections with the right people from the get-go. They are way ahead of the curve in every way. They are always at the centre of the action. They can do no wrong. They just get it. It doesn’t seem fair to have to compete with the X Factor. And it isn’t fair, so the best advice I can give you is to stop trying to compete and start focusing on what you can do to be successful.

A friend of mine shared an office with the firm star at a large New York firm. This girl was practically quarterbacking her own deals. The firm loved her. The associates resented her and she ignored them. Finally, my friend decided to talk to her. Turns out she was sweet and generous. She also became the most influential mentor in my friend’s career.

Puppet, before you lose hope, there are a few things to remember about the X Factor. First, it is, by definition, a rare quality; this is not like getting shunned by the good dodgeball team.

Second, it’s not effortless and not a matter of luck. The firm stars just make it look easy, kind of like how posing for a photo shoot looks like a snap. It’s not. Just ask Tyra Banks. The recipe for X Factor–like success is obvious in theory, but difficult to execute. You already know professional success is contingent on factors beyond book smarts: Effective networking, branding, communication and obvious and unflagging commitment to the firm, not to mention a deep understanding of what it means to be client-focused. Much like eating well and exercising regularly, it’s easier said than done. The stars at your firm know how to execute this formula — and, more importantly, they want to.

The third thing worth noting is that these folks often personify and mirror the environment in which they thrive. Simply put: They fit in and will always vindicate or strengthen prevailing culture. This might explain why large law firms often cannot easily assimilate the idiosyncrasy in those insurrectionists who demand a change to the old agenda, like work-life balance. The stars are not interested in regime change. They are ambitious, smart and focused. I often wonder whether they should inspire pity or breathless admiration. Maybe both.

What matters, Puppet, is not whether you measure up — she’s not a projection of your failings or a blinding supernova. This is about you setting your own career benchmarks and objectives. The final thing to remember about the X Factor: You shouldn’t try to compete with the X Factor, any more than you should try to compete with Tyra on the catwalk.

Hey girl genius…

It can be lonely at the top. Here’s how to win over your colleagues:

  • Believe it or not, you don’t know everything — spend more time listening. Even if you don’t learn something your coworkers will feel more valuable
  • Acknowledge colleagues’ accomplishments by sending them a congratulatory email or memo. Copy it to your boss
  • Don’t dumb yourself down — the only thing more annoying than being the smartest person in the room is being the most insecure smartest person in the room
  • Helping others along their path is a useful skill for any leader; cultivate it and rise even higher. Plus when you do become the all-powerful mastermind you’ll have a loyal army to command
  • Flush your enemies out: Confront sabotage, rumour and betrayal head on
  • It’s hard being the best — but hey, it feels way better than being the worst

Sandra Rosier is a tax advisor in Toronto. Need advice? Email

Illustration: Bob Hambly