How to Stand Out in Any Job
Regardless of what kind of work you do, it’s usually not difficult to set yourself apart by going beyond the status quo of being average.
All too many working environments are filled with all kinds of people who are just ambling through their jobs. Many don’t want to be there at all, and never miss a chance to let everyone know how much they’d rather be somewhere else.
Others are embarrassingly opportunistic, focused entirely on themselves and “what’s in it for them.” Their every move is built on pleasing the people they think will determine their future. Still others in most workplaces base their time and energy on the goal of just getting by. They do what they need to do, for the most part, but they rarely take risks and rarely excel.
Sadly, these characterizations are true even in a lot of “helping” professions– in academia, in non-profit organizations, in the clergy, and so on. Setting a goal of doing the least amount expected of you may have started in the corporate cubicle world, but the norms of mediocrity have since spread throughout most professions.
Fortunately, there is a clear alternative to ambling through your workday. The alternative is to be excellent, to make a huge difference in your working environment, help others do better, and increase your own workplace stock along the way.
Focus on these eight principles to become a superhero in pretty much any job:
Never turn down a project by saying, “That’s not in my job description.”
We’re often taught that high achievers carefully select the tasks and projects that they work on. This is true in the long run, but when you’re getting established somewhere, you shouldn’t be so selective. Instead, do the things that need to be done but that no one wants to do.
You can always point out later that you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do and a lot more, but don’t whine about your projects while they’re underway. If someone asks you to do something, it’s usually because they think you’ll do it well. Impress them and do it even better.
Focus externally and continually ask for feedback.
Ask your boss, your colleagues, and your subordinates the same question every couple of weeks: “What can I do better?” If they don’t give you a straight answer, they’re usually just being polite. Ask again.
Also ask all of these people, “How can I help you?” Spend time every day focusing on the people around you. Think about their needs and preemptively help them. Make it clear you’re not helping them so they can help you later; just make their lives easier and help them look good to others.
Build a strong team even if you’re not the boss, and be a leader no matter what your title is.
You don’t need to be in charge to be a team-builder. Just start doing it. Take notes at meetings and email them out to the participants. Begin asking follow-up questions: “Who will take responsibility for this? When will it be done?”
Leadership rarely involves telling people what to do. Instead, it’s usually about helping people and teams create synergy and accomplish great things by working together. You can do that without any title at all. When the time comes where you do need to tell someone what to do, they’ll listen to you if you have taken the time to build the team well.
You know you’ve been successful when people start looking to you for the answers even when more experienced or more senior people are around. If you’re not at a meeting and people notice your absence, that’s a good start. If they wait to begin the meeting until you can be located, that’s even better.
Propose and Support Amazing Ideas…
Think about how you can make your organization or your workgroup great. Think really big, but also think small—sometimes the most effective changes require relatively small shifts in behavior or perception. Ask others for ideas. Most people have them, but they often don’t know how to present them, or they feel shut down from a previous negative experience. Get the best ideas out of the best people, and start pitching for them.
…but don’t pitch your biggest ideas in a group meeting.
Your ideas will “travel” further if they have the support of others, and it’s much easier to get buy-in through individual meetings. This is why the “meeting before the meeting” is usually more important than the meeting. Test out your best ideas. Give them time to settle with others. Go to each key decision maker to share your idea before the real meeting starts.
Then at the meeting, introduce the idea by saying, “I mentioned this to a couple of people earlier…” Everyone you talked with earlier will feel validated that they were involved before the big meeting, so talk to as many people as possible.
After you’ve established some credibility, start a small but meaningful rebellion.
Make sure you pick something that is easy to win but still makes a positive difference for most of your colleagues. Good ideas are dress codes, mandatory but useless meetings, and any long-standing practices that don’t make sense. Start violating these norms, slowly but boldly. Because you’ve taken the time to establish credibility, your rebellion will be closely watched. And because you’ve picked something that’s easy to win but meaningful to others, you’ll have good support for it. After you achieve the change you were seeking, share the credit and plan your next rebellion.
Don’t get tangled up in long email threads.
Never be a slave to your Outlook folder. Check it twice a day, turn off the “ding” sound that alerts you to new mail, and set up an Action folder to process important items instead of continually looking through your Inbox. As an inexperienced leader who derived too much self-worth from my Outlook addiction, someone said to me once, “Chris, don’t try to be the fastest person to reply to these long email threads. Just take your time, listen to other people, and then contribute something meaningful.”
Work smarter and harder.
Yes, you should find ways to work smarter and avoid repetitive, monotonous tasks. But you should also work really hard. Show up early and leave late. After you’ve established some authority, you can get back to pacing yourself. It’s a lot better to have a reputation as a hard worker from the beginning. When you relax a little later, no one will notice.
If you feel threatened by someone, don’t show it.
Most people who lead by intimidation are quite insecure. Don’t reinforce their insecurity by pandering to it. Even when it’s working for them and you feel intimidated, never let them know. Instead, do your job, keep excelling, keep looking out for others, and eventually the tide will turn. You may even end up as their boss one day—it happens all the time.
These general tips below will also help:
Share Credit, Accept Blame. Many people try to pass the blame to others. It’s very different to say, it’s my fault. I’m sorry. Try sending an email with the subject “Hey everyone, I’m sorry” sometime and see what happens.
Compliment others every day. Do it by email, phone, notes, any way you can. Find out how people like to be complimented and do it the same way. Don’t make it trite. Most people know when you’re being genuine.
Go above and beyond. Deliver more than what’s expected. Don’t do it to be rewarded; do it because it really adds value.
Be excellent, and a remarkable thing will happen: by helping others look good and improving your overall environment, you’ll look good as well. You’ll do it without backstabbing and without doing stuff that has no real value. Instead, you’ll inspire others.
And then you’ll be a leader, just like John Quincy Adams said:
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
This is real leadership for any generation and any workplace. If you don’t yet know how you’ll change the world, this is a great way to start.
Wow, Chris, this is AMAZING. You are so RIGHT ON with everything you write here! When I read this it seems like it would come from a 50 year old or something. You are very wise beyond your years. And, to think, you haven’t even had a “conventional” job before, and everything you say in this article is so correct! Uncanny.
There are some things listed here that I definitely needed to be reminded of in my own professional life.
Thanks, Rachel. That is very nice of you to say. 🙂
@ Everyone else –
This post went up a while before our comments section was very active, so if you happen to be reading it now that the audience has grown, please feel free to add your own thoughts here, or a different perspective if you’d like.
I have spent the last year or so volunteering for every stray project in sight with hopes of working on something new and interesting while impressing my boss. Too many times I’ve found myself with a burden I wish I’d never laid eyes on. I really need to take this post to heart and make the best with the hand I’ve dealt myself. It’s not too late to stop complaining and do a better job.
My work moral has been pretty low lately and I need to do something to change it. Thanks for the challenge to change my perspective!
This is my favorite post by far (and I’ve read most of your posts since you started).
My question is how you can a) be good at your job, and b) not have other people steal the credit for your work. Whenever I work hard on a project or organizing an event, people involved get interested and want to claim the right to the results, essentially free-riding on what i did. This irritates me, mostly when people senior to myself are not doing anything at all. However, I hate not getting the work done well.
So I guess somehow, I need to do the work, and do it well, and do it because I want to do it well, and share the results freely? Because of personal leadership? Then why am I having a hard time with this?
Hm… would be curious to hear what you have to say!
Great article all the way around. The part about accepting blame really resonated with me. It’s amazing how many bosses have really been taken aback when I took responsibility for something that didn’t go as well as it should have. They were so used to people attempting to point the finger at someone else that they didn’t really know how to react. End result: they respected me more and trusted me more.
I’ll pass this on.
This is a great post with useful tips. I would suggest reading the 48 laws of power by tom greene ( i think thats the author ). its the same sort of stuff
Patrick – the author is actually Robert Greene. He has another book in a similar vein – 33 Strategies of War. Both are a great read and quite inspirational.
Definitely solid advice. I will admit that I was guilty of not practicing several of these tenets at my previous job toward the end of my time with the company. I let particular people in upper management get the best of me, and just didn’t like the person that I was becoming. Part of me regrets losing that war, but the other part is proud of the decision that I made to leave to pursue other dreams of mine. For, I might never have come across this blog – everything happens for a reason, right?
I remember my boyfriend sent me a link to read this post one day in August 2008. I was really depressed at work, returning from a maternity leave and having to start all over again. It really helped me focus on the most important things, and today I feel I have rebuilt a certain credibility with my colleagues (even if I still have a lot of work left to do).
I think it’s quite usefull to come back and read this after a while. Keeps you on track. Thanks
Good article — I think your descriptions of the types of people in most jobs are completly accurate. Generally I think the cream rises to the top, even if it isn’t obvious at the outset.
It helps to really like what you do — most people in this position realize the contradiction of blaming their career problems on others!
Great stuff Chris.
Unbelievable how simple YET effective this is. I think this post should be required reading for everyone that takes on a new job.
I thought I already knew how to stand out at my job but then I realized that was then and this is now. I knew how to go in and make a great first impression, but I’ve been at my current position for over a year now. If I had read this before starting at my current position, I think I could have avoided some mistakes. Reading it now has given me some ideas on how to continue to be successful and indispensable.
As both an HR recruiter and a non-conformist (I recruit on the side for $), I can say that one other thing really makes people stand out. The ability to communicate-clearly, quickly, accurately using good grammar and speaking skills. VERY HARD TO FIND.
Your advice is right on the money. I think loving your job has a lot to do with your mindset in a job. I LOVE my job and it was great validation to read that because I’m in a happy space at work, I’m following through with all the advice you’ve given…without even knowing it. Excellent insight!
This is just what I needed – good advice, hope I can live to use it all. I’ve been put in a very bad position at work to “tattle” on someone so the employer can terminate this person. I fell for it and now I hate work and others hate me. I want to get back to the positive actions and attitudes that you have written about. I’m so glad I found your site. I do not respect my manager and I will overcome the problems, why am I going to a workplace I hate everyday? Time get back to the basics or better yet, maybe the golden rule!
Very good article. I’m going to forward it to friends and colleagues that count.
@Hannah: My advice would be: if senior people want to take the pride out of your job, why not letting them do. After all, they’re senior and you work, well, for senior people anyway (usually). If you want to stand out, that’s for yourself, your colleagues and your senior people as well.
For me, that’s a way to be able to ask for more interesting jobs later. Should you become a person-to-have-in-one’s-team, obviously, that will be good for the managers, but I don’t see how that could not be good for you as well. They kind of owe you something.
Plus you get the pleasure of having helped others: that’s more important for me than bosses taking ownership of what you’ve done. The people you’ve helped will know the difference anyway.
In response to the comment “How do you keep someone from stealing credit for your work” — keeping the people you care about regularly informed on your progress is one way to do it. I’ve had to learn this the hard way — it feels like self-promotion — but it’s better than letting others steal your thunder.
Amazing article… some topics I’ve heard…but it’s so good to hear again and go back to the track…
I’m sending this right now to my students and my network list.
I have a question about item 1 “Never turn down a project saying…” what’s the difference between this one and “saying no sometimes”? Because if you starting saying yes all day long…people will figure out you can be a wastebasket for bad thing they don’t want to do.
Keep going…and congrats for everything…
What a positivly suprising post. Its nice to see a positive spin on the work place instad of a negetive one, and one where people are only there because they are “paid” to be there. Although personally I find the hardest part of my job dealing with the people in the job and not the actual job in its self.
The hardest person for me to deal with is unsuprisingly my boss, but not because he doesn’t like what I do but because he ignores me and I have to demand him to give me work!
I don’t want to threaten him and I understand that he is busy but do you have any insight into what I should do or what he is trying to tell me?
Glad I got lost link-clicking today. These are very important things to remember to shine in more areas than just a job.
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
…so, You are a leader… 🙂
I’m so glad to have stumbled upon your website from J.D.’s GRS website. This website is absolutely inspiring and I take comfort that I’m not the only person who’s wants to be a non-conformist! I am extremely encouraged to continue doing what I am doing and gonna strive to be better, rather than wondering – ‘what about me’ or ‘why aren’t the others doing so, am I the weird one’…
I am keen on beginning my first backpacking/volunteer trip. I’ll be referring to this website a lot for inspiration and courage.
Thank you for your sharing.
Thanks so much for this inspiring essay. I have got to a stage at my place of work where I am being sucked into the petty drama that unfolds sometimes with colleagues who see me as a threat. Rather than taking it lying down I am now going to continue my efforts to be awesome by following your guidelines. Thank again 🙂
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