The complete career guide to working smart – how to succeed at a great company

I sucked at my first job. It was 1992 and I had just been hired during a recession at Metropolitan Bank. Barely out of training, my boss Michael called me into his office and explained that my (evil) coworker had blamed me for missing her deadline.

What I learned working for Michael and in the last 15 years hiring and managing my own team will help you avoid career-ending mistakes and help you succeed at a great company where the standards are high. Below, I share how you can be better than 95% of your teammates and get consistently promoted.

I just got promoted cartoonBack at the bank, when Michael reviewed my work he couldn’t tell if I had screwed up or not because my documentation was weak and unorganized. Even if I was a little humiliated to be put on probation just a couple months after starting my first permanent job, Michael turned out to be an awesome boss. What he wanted was simple and correct. He just wanted me to work smart.

It’s easy to suck at your job if you don’t know what your boss wants. Today, if you follow a lot of career experts, you’d think your boss wants you to ‘brand’ yourself. ‘Personal branding’ might be hot now, but we don’t want it. It’s a lot of crap. We crave honesty and sincerity. You’re not a corporation or a cow.

Creating a brand image or personality for yourself is empty marketing – a CYA policy that gets in the way of doing real work. Work smart and everything you do builds trust and value – you won’t need a CYA policy because you’ll always be in demand.

knowing what your boss wantsIronically, your boss doesn’t want to take time to teach you what working smart means. In fact, most bosses would have difficulty listing 20 specific teachable ways to ‘work smart’. Most will say it’s an inherent talent you’ve either have or don’t. I don’t buy it. Below you’ll find 20 ways to earn your boss’s respect and admiration for your work. So, decide for yourself if ‘working smart’ can be learned or not.

It’s not about becoming your boss’s pet. Ultimately, working smart is a step on the path to finding satisfaction in your work. Until you can match-up what you do with who you are as a person, you’re unlikely to find happiness at work. The problem with sucking at your job is that it gives you very little power to make changes.

would you like a new boss?You need some leverage to get flexibility in your career — that might mean money in the bank (also called f*ck-you money) or a good relationship with your boss and previous bosses (for references). You can get all those things by working smart. You can also quit your job and start a business (if you do, your boss is now the customer and all the lessons below still apply). This is about being effective, nothing else – about becoming a diamond in the eyes of your boss.

If you’re in a job search and want to work at a great company, the rules are the same. The only difference is that everything you write and say will be scrutinized more closely for clues as to how you will perform on the job. If you suck in the job search, we know you will suck on the job. Want to get it right? Use “The complete job search guide – how to land a job at a great company“.

The stakes are high. Twenty years ago when I was starting my career, the difference between being average and working smart was the difference between a good career and a great career. That was before the Internet. Today, working smart can make the difference between having a career and having nothing. Your competition is radically tougher today — game on!

a raise and a promotion?Your thoughts become actions so choose the advice you take to heart wisely. There’s a career expert on every corner today. Most have not built companies as I have. Most have something to sell you; I don’t. These lessons exist because I love to teach and write. OK… I also hope you’ll share these pages with your friends and use our job search engine.

You can graduate from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale and still suck at your job. They don’t teach you how to work smart at school. If you do have a fancy degree, expectations on you will be sky-high. If you don’t deliver the goods, your boss is going to think you’re overpriced and may just let you go. On the other hand, put these lessons into practice and you’ll carve your name on the world without an Ivy League degree or even without any degree at all.



1. Don’t suck at e-mail
2. Don’t suck at instant messaging
3. Want to be taken seriously? Do this.
4. Know the shortest path to succeeding in your job?
5. 2 habits that show you are trustworthy and mature
6. Is your attitude subtly toxic?
7. Don’t interrupt me
8. Don’t make me interrupt you
9. Be precise, be specific and be blunt
10. Fail to do this and you may get fired

Above and beyond: Tame your ego


1. Got ‘the ace factor’?
2. Never do this
3. How to handle your mistakes like a pro
4. 10 ways to improve your emotional intelligence
5. Are you blocking conversation (when you think you’re listening)?


1. Perform like a surgeon
2. What your boss doesn’t want to tell you (and you need to know)
3. Stop whining – take ownership
4. Show up ready for battle
5. Know yourself and follow your bliss


  1. Rules are meant for breaking, but master them first and then break them.
  2. My team knows I don’t always lead by example. I’m better at some of these than others. Especially where I’m weak, I like to see corresponding strengths in my team.
  3. Like any good boss, I hope to hire above me – to hire a team that’s smarter and better than I am!
  4. Have questions not answered here? Please ask.
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  • Sarah E. Johnston

    Just having a degree does not mean that you will be amazing at your job. While going to school can help better prepare you for your future career, it does not teach you everything. The main thing I learned from this article is that you need to learn not only how to do your job, but also how to improve yourself in the eyes of your employer. The best way to set yourself apart from your coworkers is to be great at communicating and interacting with others, The more helpful and reliable your are, the more you will stand out. The best thing to do is to learn what is expected of you as an employee and then to exceed those expectations.

  • Jessica

    The saying “Life isn’t fair” resonated throughout my brain as I read this article.There is no guarantee for success which is frightening. All of my life I have been told that having a college degree betters your chances at a job and success, but still that could not even be true. Many of the richest people in the world didn’t even graduate from college. This article, I think is a way to prepare people for the unknown future and to not have such high expectations because they will be disappointed. Be the best version of yourself and the hardest worker you can be. These tips will be most helpful.

  • Alexis1128

    I enjoyed this read very much. The main theme that I gathered from this article is
    that you must have clear communications skills as well as be your own person;
    that having a college degree does not mean you are higher or better than anyone
    else that works alongside with you. You must be precise and honest, as well as creative
    and witty. You must go above and beyond to stand out, but only do this in a positive manner.
    Do not try to be better than anyone else, per say; but just make yourself recognizable
    and known.

  • Alexsia best

    Very interesting take. These things made me look at getting a job and impressing my boss differently. I’m a journalism major. They literally tell us it’s the worst major you can major in because it’s to competitive when you’re looking for a job, so out of all these people, I could use all the help I can get. THANK YOU

  • Victoria Koch

    Having a college degree is like a receipt saying that you know those skills. What companies want is the work ethic behind the skills. Only having the skills is like only knowing the theory of CPR but not being able to put it to use. When you can put it to use successfully then the company will have the trust to hire you.

  • Brittany Wentz

    The key to being a top-notch worker is to build the foundation. This is the most important thing one can do when in hopes for a successful career. I understand that those with better college degrees tend to land the nicest jobs first, but getting a degree from a great college may not be the only thing that sways the boss.

    Within the article above, it states,”You can graduate from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale and still suck at your job. They don’t teach you how to work smart at school.” It is a very true, well-supported claim to make. A person’s worth ethic is not created through school and study entirely. Most work ethic of a person is found from how they lived before the job opportunity (i.e. if the loved one of a child growing up is patient and focused then odds are so will be that child).

    College may provide students with the idea that, since they have a college degree, they don’t have to show the extra effort and go the extra mile their job may require. It requires a balance of characteristics, strategy, and open-mindedness to succeed. This is exactly what this article put into perspective to me, as well as others.

  • Bill Dunkle

    The most important thing I’ve learned from this is that even the best student can be bad at a job. What makes a good employee is a very complicated thing. One must keep his eyes and ears open to what his boss may or may not say. Somehow one must know exactly what to do and when to do it. To some this comes naturally, and to others it can take time, but I believe everyone can master this skill of debunking a bosses requirements if they only have some time.
    My first job I learned quite a bit about this. I had a good boss, but I didn’t quite understand him at times. He would ask me to do chores, which I did excellently. However, I would always try to do more than what was asked of me. You ask, “how could that be bad”. Well.. It can definitely be bad if you mess up while trying to go above and beyond.
    This job was in the automotive mechanic sort. I would often do things that I wasn’t exactly supposed to do in order to impress the boss. Many times I would work on vehicles when I wasn’t certified or trained to do so. I’ve made hundreds of dollars of mistakes this way. However, I learned my lesson and all my jobs since then have worked out much better.

  • Kweku Mills-Robertson

    As an African American physics major, I always feel as if everyone’s eye is on me to perform. In school they teach you how to do a bunch of problems, they never really help with problem solving where the real world is all about. Since I am part of a minority population, I thought jobs will be handed to me. I applied for a paid internship where I believed I was the best candidate because of my unusual background. I got rejected even though I was excelling at school with a 4.00 GPA. This rejection might be due to my mediocre social skills because my major has not taught me how to interact successfully with people, but to just solve physics problems. Thus it is important to note that having a fancy degree will not help with securing jobs, but being able to successfully communicate the reasons why you might be the best candidate, and then performing well on those abilities.

  • Ashley Hannan

    I can also relate to this article. I always thought that I knew everything there was to know about people but I also had a very negative attitude about most of the things in my life. I have always been a good reader of people but after majoring in psychology and obtaining my associates I learned so much more. I am a good reader of people but I learned how to observe more, have a more positive attitude and it gets you so much farther in life. I have always enjoyed learning new things and my all-time favorite thing to learn about is the human mind, how it works, what makes a person “tick”. As far as work ethic goes, I feel that the way that you conduct yourself in an interview makes is how the person interviewing will base their opinion. Go in with a positive and confident attitude but not too confident, you don’t want to come off as arrogant, and let them know that you are there to listen and that you are serious about what they have to say and as it says in the beginning, all they ask is that you are honest and sincere.

  • Megan

    I think this article is a great piece of advice to anyone trying to join or is already in the work force. The idea that you make the job by who you are and what you bring to it as opposed to just doing what you’re told to do well is so intricate to anyone’s success at their job.

    At my first job I was working as the receptionist at a local museum in my town. I was still in high school so I knew that this wasn’t going to be a permanent job so to say that I didn’t put much into it was an understatement. I showed up, did what I was supposed to do and then left. It wasn’t until after a while that I finally started to really put myself into what I was doing there that the guests and even my employer really started to notice the work I was doing. Before I had simply done what I was supposed to do, but after I started to put who I was into those tasks I finally felt like I was actually making a difference and contributing to the business as a whole.

    The truth that the article states that a good degree from a good college isn’t a guaranteer for a good job is terrifyingly true. But if you can match that degree with a good attitude and desire for what you’re doing then I don’t see how you couldn’t find a way to succeed in the end with whatever job you end up doing. This was a great read for me since in only a few short years I’ll be applying to professional jobs, a lot of insight to always keep in mind!

  • Brittani

    Working smart is the key to happiness at work!

  • Eesh

    I just recently got my first real job working at a cupcake bakery. I have many run in with my boss about working smart. Throughout all the different aspects of my job my boss teaches me to work smart. If she sees that i’m struggling with a task she will teach me step by step how to complete it the easiest and fastest way possible. After being thought the correct way, I learn through repetition and show my boss i can complete the task independently. Now that my technique is more effective my boss and I are both happier. Making these connections is interesting and applicable to my future career in film.

  • Angie Allen

    Working at my job there are alot of ways I can relate to Michael and doing things to do for my boss that she will wants or expects from me. In the four years there, being assertive and dependable was the most important because she is always on the go and she needs her employees to be self starters.

  • Lacey

    What I received from the text was that just because you have obtained a college degree does not mean you will be successful in your future career. You have to develop the proper communication skills and knowledge to succeed in the work environment. I will continue to be positive about any upcoming situation, not every career is meant for you. Although, you may not succeed at one there still is room for more. As I continue to further my education I will keep a positive message in mind.

  • Alex

    I’m in a job now where I deal with handling finances and other equally important aspects of the department. If I were to make a mistake, it would create a huge problem. My boss is always busy of course so, everything I do is a learning curve, and there are always new tasks assigned to me that my coworkers are not skilled enough to handle. Instead of constantly harassing my boss with questions, I figure out the problems myself and it has led to a quick development of necessary skills to perform my daily tasks. If I didn’t handle and solve my problems myself, I would not be the dedicated and qualified employee I am today.

  • Kelsey Kay

    This article is awesome for considering how you are perceived in the workplace rather than your usual perception. I am thankful there are people out there who care enough to share their wisdom with those struggling to get to the top.

    Competition keeps us on our feet and, as mentioned in the article, it’s more fierce than ever. I have learned to appreciate a work environment that keeps me focused. Unfortunately that focus can diminish over time and this article reminded me to keep my attitude positive at all times as thoughts become actions. I did fall victim to a poor attitude due to less than satisfactory work conditions. Every day I’d show up to work absolutely dreading it and my work suffered. This only went on for a few weeks before I realized what was happening and decided to whip my attitude into shape.

    Rather than dreading conversation with my coworkers I sought it out and had genuine discussions. I began to view my work life as a challenge rather than a problem that won’t go away. I knew I had to keep going to work so I made the best out of it. This life lesson has helped me overcome many hurdles. I will continue to employ this and all of the other things I’ve learned in reading this article to my climb in my education as well as career.

  • Chelsea Jenkins

    while reading this, I have leaned that it pays off to keep your drive and determination regardless of what your work experience may bring. As human beings, we have to realize we are not robots. There will be times when we try our absolute hardest and give 110 percent and we will still fail, time and time again. What matters is when we have the strengthand the courage to get back up and try again.

    Acheiving success is going to come with strife, but it’s nothing a little hard work and dedication can’t handle. I am more than sure that when I begin my dream job, there ibe things I am going to have to work extra hard at to understand and to simply get the hang of. However, once I reach understanding, then I will be enabled to soon be GREAT at it. Either way, every experience can be a learning experience. As long as I keep the right attitude, and keep my eye on the prize, working to fulfil my dreams, I will earn my ideal of success.

  • Lauren A

    From this situation I got that communication is key, you know like they always say! But it’s true you have to be able to communicate if you really and truly want to be a success. Not only talking as a form of communication but e-mails, body language, and eye contact. You have to know how to use all of the above in an appropriate manner. Also this can help you get a higher position, be respected more, and even learn what your boss would like for you to accomplish.

  • Rebekah Cowan

    What I gathered from the article is most colleges do not prepare you for what you will encounter in the real world of jobs. I do believe though that there are schools out there that do prepare you quite well for when you do get hired. The college that I attend puts you right into the action as a freshmen in the first semester. I am an education major and have been in the schools since day one of my freshmen year. This has allowed me to make a decision on if this was something I would like to do for the rest of my life as well as given me the confidence to go out into the work force and be a great teacher. I do not feel as tough I will be blind sided by expectations or overwhelmed because my school has adequately prepared me.

  • Carrielynn Hawkins

    I have learned from this that your boss doesn’t want someone who is asking them a million times how to do something they want you to be able to solve some problems on your own. I have also learned that if you make a mistake say you made it. Its better than trying to blame someone else. Its easier to admit your mistakes and learn from them than to pass them on to someone else. Don’t be afraid to bring up the subject of doing something that is not in the plan that may save time and money the worst they can say is no or they could even say yes.

  • kreye004

    This article is very insightful and helpful. What the writer is saying appears to be that being successful in the work place takes more work than just the work of the job. People skills, communication skills, the ability to self teach and/or learn quickly, and being sincere are included in the work. Being kind and amiable is also important, but kissing butt is not. Take criticism well; learn from mistakes and do not repeat the same error. Learn to find your own mistakes without being told them, and fix them pronto. Fully listen when someone, especially your boss, is talking, even if you think you know what they have to say. Wait your turn to speak without interrupting, and don’t take up to much of the conversation.

    Most all of the advice in this article makes sense. Although much of it seems like common knowledge, many people are lacking and should evaluate themselves and their work ethic. At least this has been my experience. Even previous managers appear to lack discipline and proper etiquette. I have worked with a people that do the bare minimum or average, and only a few that have gone above average to stand out. I like to think that I, personally, fall under the latter, for I do have good references from my previous employers.

    Nobody enjoys whiners, do-nothing-ers, and brown-nosers. Succeeding in the work place requires hard work, but is not impossible. With or without a college education, your boss will expect you to work hard. Do not disappoint him/her.

  • kaitlynn

    I think that being effective at the job is both the most important characteristic in a worker and the most rewarding factor, as well. I currently work in retail, and I have been since high school – that’s almost six years! I have seen many different managers, and all of which have given no direction in what they want, some lack degrees, and all have poorly managed. However, I have learned that by having good work ethic, being efficient and on-time, and learning how to multi-task are what make me an asset to a company. Not because of great management molding me into the perfect employee. I also think that creating your “own brand” is pointless, and yet required at the same time. Ideally, your work ethic should define what position you get, if you get promoted, and your pay rate. However, in the real world, what defines all this is who you know, who you suck up to, and what you market yourself as. You have to WOW the people who interview you, you have to go to college (because that’s what everyone else it doing and you need to put something on your resume to even get the interview), and you have to make yourself stand out – or you’ll fade away. Therefore, it is my strong belief that you have to be both efficient and claim your own signature to make it in the world today. chosen for top 75 websites for your career

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About the author


In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.