Just about everyone wants to do great work, look good in the eyes of their boss, and earn the respect of their peers. In my 15-year career I’ve worked at a large number of different companies and held a wide variety of positions. I’ve seen how this works from every angle, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on what’s worked for me and what I’ve learned along the way.
Two things before we get started: First, the theme of ItStartsWith.Us is to focus on ways that we can make a positive impact in the lives of the people around us. I hope that some of these ideas will help you do just that. But please keep in mind that using these tips to try to get ahead at your job isn’t what it’s all about. You’ll start to see a huge benefit when you treat everyone like this, not just the people you want to impress. It took me a while to see, but I now realize that living this way (for others) makes me a better person, and that’s more valuable than any job advancement.
Secondly, I chose the word “simple” in the title because none of these tips are very complicated. They’re easy to understand, and anyone can begin using them immediately. They are not necessarily easy to implement, however. Many of them may require a dramatic shift in the way you act, or the way you think about yourself in relation to other people. I’ve finally accepted the fact that there are no quick fixes out there. If you want to see a big result, you have to be ready to put in some hard work. The good news is, the more time you spend doing these kinds of things, the less it feels like work, and the more if feels like a natural part of who you are. And once you get there, the rest becomes easier, and the rewards start coming in.
So here we go.
- Care about people
I put this one first because it’s the foundation for everything that comes after. Caring about others is an absolute necessity. If you don’t care about them, and you’re only in this for yourself, people will know. They can spot insincerity a mile away. If you’re labeled as insincere, it won’t matter how much you do for everyone; they’ll always be assuming you have an ulterior motive, and you’re just trying to work an angle to come out on top. The only way any of this will work in the long run is if you are truly interested in seeing other people succeed, and you do your best to help them along the way.
If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you may as well stop reading this article right now – it won’t help you. Do us both a favor and go play some Flash games online (my kids highly recommend Dino Run). But if you do care about people, or at least want to make an honest effort to do so, read on.
- Always be honest
This is the second foundational element. The most valuable resource you have with others is their trust, and it’s much easier to lose than it is to gain. This is a lesson we’ve all learned from childhood on up, yet we continue to tell lies or half-truths to make ourselves look better in certain situations. Don’t do this. Ever.
If you have a habit of lying about big things, then obviously you have some work to do, and you should get on it. But what I’m mostly talking about here are the small things. For instance, if you mess up with someone, and fail to meet a commitment you promised them, don’t try to make excuses to cover it up. Apologize and ask what you can do to make it right – you’ll be respected for it. Doing anything else will show people that you’re willing to say whatever’s necessary to avoid the consequences of your actions. And if they see you doing that with small things, it’s a solid bet that they assume you do it with big things as well.
You can sometimes break the rules, but you can never bend the truth. Losing trust is the worst thing that can happen, because it makes all the other things you do nearly worthless in the eyes of others.
- Speak your mind
If you’re always honest, you shouldn’t have much of a problem speaking your mind when the situation warrants. This doesn’t mean you have to talk all the time (I’m one of the quieter guys in most of my meetings) . . . you have to determine when it’s important to talk, and when it’s okay to stay quiet. But if you’re always honest, people will know that when you do speak, you mean what you say.
Here’s an example. The first time I wrote a big email to the CEO of my large company, it was to criticize him for something he said at an all-company meeting. Since this was my first major interaction with him, I was taking a big risk – and I’m not gonna lie, some of the things I’m talking about doing will sometimes put you at risk. But when you don’t put yourself out there and take a chance, you don’t get a shot at the big payoff.
Because my CEO is a great guy, he thanked me for my feedback and took it under consideration. The next time I emailed him, it was in high praise of something he did at an all-company meeting. What do you think his first thought was when he saw another email from me with the subject “Feedback?” Probably nothing good. But when he opened it and saw my sincere thanks and appreciation for his recent actions, I’ll bet he realized something: that this guy is not a suckup, and will say what he thinks, no matter what the situation. And that is a valuable relationship to have with your leaders. Going forward, as long as you continue to remain honest and speak your mind, you’ll be building up trust with each interaction.
One caveat to this point: you must be aware of the situation when speaking your mind. No one likes to be called out in front of their peers, so if you have criticism to give, do it in private, and be sensitive to the feelings of the person you’re talking to, especially if it’s a high-level leader who may not be used to receiving it.
- Be respectful – with an edge
You always need to show the proper respect for anyone, be it your boss, your spouse, your friend, or even a stranger. That’s a given. But when you start giving your boss too much deference, and turn him into a demi-god, it doesn’t help anything. He’s just a person who happens to be in a higher position than you. And if he’s the kind of guy who enjoys it when people suck up to him, he’s probably not the kind of guy you need on your side anyway. I’d rather have the rest of the office backing me up in that situation.
As a boss, I can tell you that I hate it when people suck up to me. It automatically drops you a few notches on my “trustworthy” list. Why aren’t you trustworthy? Because I can see that you’re willing to compromise your true thoughts and feelings to be viewed in a more positive light. And that tells me that you’re in this for yourself, and I can’t trust you to be someone who will help me or another team member with something that’s important to us.
When you’re dealing with people who are in a higher position than you, remember that it’s not always what you say, but the intent behind it. I get away with saying a lot of things to senior leaders that other people can’t say. This is because I’ve built up a reputation as someone who always works hard to help others succeed. They know that I’m here to help support them, and if I have something that I really disagree with them about, I’ll be sure to let them know, and not go behind their backs. They trust me, so I can be free to joke around a little more, and have a bit more of an edge than most people, as long as I stay aware of the current environment and don’t overstep any bounds of respect.
- Ask for help
If you don’t know what you’re doing in a certain situation, don’t pretend like you do. Admit your ignorance and ask for help from someone who knows what they’re doing. I see two benefits to doing this. First, it helps you learn something new. Second, and more importantly, it makes someone else feel important. Their interaction with you, where they were able to help you out and feel good about their own knowledge and generosity at the same time, may well be the highlight of their day. Give them that gift, and pay attention to the friendliness and respect you’ll get in return. This is especially true if you’re in a leadership position. Never be too proud to learn from anyone else in the company. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that there’s always at least one thing you can learn from everyone you meet – so don’t take anyone for granted.
- Plan to wing it
This sounds a bit contradictory, I know. We usually want to control our circumstances as well as we can to make sure everything works out in the best possible way for us. But the fact of the matter is that we’re rarely as in control as we think we are, and occasionally we’re thrown into complete chaos. In fact, we’re quite often judged more on how we handle the curveballs thrown at us, so it’s good to have a plan in place for dealing with them.
I like to prepare for these situations by practicing once in a while. Take a controlled situation that you’re going into, and resist the urge to plan every detail. Decide that in this instance, you’re going to wing it, because the worst that can happen is not that bad. Voluntarily practice thinking on your feet, so the next time you’re forced to do so, you don’t freak out. People are always watching you, and if you can handle unexpected and difficult situations gracefully and effectively, your perceived (and actual) value will soar.
- Work hard to help others
Everyone knows that there is incredible value in hard work. But when you work hard to help other people, that value is multiplied. If you make it one of your goals to help others achieve their goals, you’ll go through life being recognized as a great worker, but more importantly, you’ll also be seen as someone who cares about others. This will do wonders for your own attitude and personal satisfaction, but in addition to that, it will cause people to think of you first when they want to work with someone. And having everyone in the company wanting to work with you is a great card to have in your deck. [This comes from one of my favorite posts.]
- Ask questions and look stuff up
Don’t be that clueless guy in the meeting who just nods like he knows what’s going on. If I’m talking and I see that going on, I’m always tempted to directly challenge that person on their knowledge of the topic. Of course I don’t, because I’m not in the business of making people look foolish, but for the love of Pete, if you don’t understand something, ask a clarifying question.
I do this all the time. Sometimes I’m ignorant and need to be educated, and sometimes I catch the presenter being unclear or flat-out wrong. Either way, your boss will respect you for it. If you don’t have the confidence to ask the question during the meeting, follow up with the person individually, or look it up on your own. Do not walk away without understanding the topic or being prepared to learn about it. I was home-schooled through eighth grade, and I think the line my mom used the most was “Look it up.” What kind of teacher is that? Well, she’s the kind of teacher who helped me understand that we have all the knowledge we can handle readily available to us, and usually the only thing stopping us from learning is laziness.
One final thought: when you do look stuff up and learn something, share it with the group. Don’t hoard information. Ever.
- Do what you’re not supposed to do
You heard me right. Stop following all the rules. Rules exist mainly so that people don’t have to think about the right thing to do all the time – they can just follow the rules and pretty much be okay. And that’s fine for most people, but if you really want to stand out, take the time to figure out which rules can be bent, and which can be broken. But don’t just go around breaking rules and expecting good things to happen – be very deliberate in when, how and why you break a rule, and make sure it’s something that benefits other people, not yourself.
If you break the rules for yourself, even if it’s for a perfectly legitimate reason, you’re viewed as a selfish, pompous, I’m-better-than-you-type person. But if you break the rules to help out other people, even for something small, you’re viewed as an altruistic, charitable person who goes to great lengths to help others.
Here’s an example of what I mean: I was at an all-department meeting at work, and we were served lunch. The buffet line was up near the presenters, and everyone had had their lunch and dessert already – the presenters were in full swing. I was at one of the tables in the back. I had a little bit of a hankering for another brownie, but the rule says that I shouldn’t go up near where they’re speaking to go grab one – it could be viewed as rude. So I didn’t go. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve built enough of a reputation that if I wanted to go up, people wouldn’t think twice about it – that’s just me being me – not one to observe proper etiquette all the time. But in this case I had decided to stay put. A young intern at my table, however, mentioned that she would love another brownie, but was afraid to go up and get one. I waited a moment, then walked up there, grabbed a brownie (with the tongs), and put it on a plate. I walked back to the table, sat in my place, and wordlessly slid the brownie plate over to her. I used up a tiny bit of my political capital by walking up near the presenters, but think about how much of a positive reputation I gained from the seven other coworkers at my table, along with anyone else who saw what I did. This is the kind of rule-breaking I’m talking about.
Know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it at all times, even if it may look strange to people who don’t know the whole story. You gain two things by approaching life this way. 1) You’re looked at in a positive light by those whom you help (and those who see you help others). 2) If you consistently break social norms in small, relatively inconsequential ways, people just note that you’re “a little odd”, and ascribe anything off-color you do to that mental model. If you’re okay with people thinking this way about you, it frees you up to make a lot of unintentional faux pas in the future and come away unscathed. It also frees you up to try a variety of social experiments, but that’s a different article.
- Give people more than they expect
Seriously, this is way easier than it sounds. I do this all the time in very small ways, but they eventually add up. For instance, if someone asks me to provide them with some data, I’ll email it over to them, but I’ll also throw in a little note with a few related links that may also help them with their project. I’m pretty good at finding things online, and it doesn’t take me very long. For my extra two minutes of work, I may save them 30 minutes of additional searching. And even if it doesn’t help them this time, they’ll remember that I gave them more than they asked for, and that I’m a really helpful guy. If you can consistently produce small, positive interactions with people, pretty soon their image of you will begin to include all the things you want to be known for. [More on this topic here.]
- Get organized
How are you going to do all these great things for everybody if you’re not organized? There are a thousand different ways to do it, and I can’t help you choose the right one. I have a habit I picked up when I used to do some fiction writing – I carry a miniature notepad and pen around in my pocket at all times. This helps me capture any idea, question or task that may be important. Once you start doing it, it’s really cool to know that you’re not missing anything anymore. Of course, you still need a good system to help you process everything. For that I recommend David Allen’s “Getting Things Done.” I intentionally didn’t link to the book on Amazon, because I want to make sure you know that I make no money by promoting this book. It’s just a method that has worked well for me, and it may be a good starting point for you. Staying organized makes doing all this extra work a lot easier.
- Whatever you do, do it with a touch of “you”
I cannot stress this enough: Know who you are, and BE THAT PERSON. If you’re funny, don’t try to be too serious. If you’re serious, don’t try to be too funny. Look for ways that you can work in the things you’re good at, and stay under the radar when you’d be forced to play your weakest hand. Don’t try to fix all your weaknesses – that’s a losing game. Just mitigate any ill effects from those, and then capitalize on your strengths. The point is to be genuine and memorable in a positive way, and you can best accomplish that by doing what you’re good at.
For me, one of the personal touches I put on email correspondence is by communicating in funny pictures, even to people I don’t know. I have a huge repository of images saved by the name of the idea they represent, and it’s become second nature to pop these into emails as I go. This doesn’t take me any extra time, but it makes my day more fun, and I’ve gotten numerous responses about how the recipient broke out into laughter during a meeting, or otherwise appreciated the gesture. Little things like that are what make you unique . . . don’t be afraid to use them to become memorable as well.
There you have it, folks. I know that was a lot of information to cover, but it’s some important stuff. You probably came to this page looking for some quick and easy things you could do to look better to your boss, but here’s the beauty of this system: if you actually do these things, you’re going to look better to everybody. And not in any kind of tricky or gimmicky way, either. You’ll look better because you’ll be better. If you want to be known for all the positive things mentioned in this article, the only way to achieve that goal is to actually be that kind of person. There are no two ways about it, and there is no substitute for hard work.
I hope this article helped give you some ideas about things you can do to make a positive impact in the lives of the people around you. If you have more ideas to share or examples of other things you do, or even if you disagree with some of these tips, I’d love to hear what you think. Please leave a comment below, and I’ll be sure to respond.
Good luck at work (and life) tomorrow!
p.s. If anything in this article really appealed to you, you may be interested in a small project I’m running. Check it out.