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.

20 THINGS YOUR BOSS WANTS FROM YOU

Entry-level

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

Experienced

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)?

Advanced

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

Important:

  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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  • Olga Sam

    The concept of “working smart” is essential for professional success. I understood
    this concept while working at my first job. Initially, it was not clear to me that the
    best way to enjoy work was to defer my boss’s judgement and authority. In the
    beginning, it was challenging because I questioned some of his decisions.
    However, I started looking for my boss’s priorities, values and strengths. This
    made me realize that my boss deserved his position because he was experienced
    and well qualified. I developed respect for him, which made my job much easier;
    I became more motivated to work and gained my boss’s respect. Ultimately I became
    one of his most valued employees.

    Learning how to work smart was a life experience that helped me professionally and
    academically. By doing our job right, following the protocol and supervisor’s
    instructions we increase our efficiency.

  • Maquashia Themes

    I honestly agree to what you are saying

  • Christina Bingaman

    I have been successful when searching for jobs, the obstacle occurs when I first start the job because I do not know as much as the other employees. Needless to say I have always been afraid to ask questions. It was not until I volunteered at Lees Summit Medical Center my senior year of high school that gave me the courage to ask questions.

    I was volunteering at Lee’s Summit Medical Center for about an hour, and one of the Charge Nurses pulled me aside and said, “Follow me.” I smiled eagerly, but her blank expression confirmed her seriousness. My smile faltered slightly, and I followed her to the closet room.

    She was heavily sweating, swiftly moving from room to room, and barked, “Put gowns, towels, and blankets in every room any towels than need refolding; refold them. Understand?” “Umm okay.” I mumbled, unable to get enough courage to admit that I had never been to any parts of the hospital except the main level.

    Pretending to know where I was going, I grabbed a map, took that cart with my supplies, and headed to the rooms. During my commute I passed the Charge Nurse in several times. With a look of irritation and disgust, she snapped, “If you didn’t know where you were going why didn’t you say something.” In that moment it dawned on me that my fear of showing ignorance rendered me incompetent.

    Barely making it through the first day at the hospital I was relieved to return to my ACT class; something I was familiar with. We were practicing the math portion, and touched on inverse tangent functions. I did not understand the problem, so I put an asterisk by the problem. Then the teach said, “I’m sure you guys remember this so I’ll move on.” All of the students nodded in agreement. Suddenly, I realized that I was not asking where the rooms were located. The fear of not learning overcame my fear of looking foolish. I raised my had and asked.

    Asking questions in my ACT class was not life changing, but it gave me a new willingness to ask questions. This is important college, working at a job, and everyday life. I returned to the hospital the following day and asked the nurse if she would help me find my way around the hospital.

  • Cali Grant

    The entire employee, manager, boss relationship seems a bit
    typical. Employees are trying to triumph
    over one another to gain attention or “kudos” from their boss, which I find
    this irrelevant. Managers are either
    accepting or annoyed by the behavior and therefore respond accordingly.
    Authentic work ethics, goal driven with the intent to survive and the vision of
    promotion within reach, should be the motivator.

    I love the work smart article, it gives simple insight on
    how to make an impression without creating depression. Intimidation seems to swindle itself into the
    mind sets of my employees when the “Person of Power” is present and to me that
    is a simple way to weed out the weak.
    Intimidation should inspire, and force you to sit up straight, speak
    clearly, and of course work smart.

  • Brittany Gamber

    I’ve only had one job — a summer job — but I have had the experience of being in a position of leadership for 3 years now, in my high school orchestra. To some, this may not seem like a great ordeal, but it does take a lot of talent to lead a group of high school kids. I must always be very careful to never seem egotistical, while maintaining an air of confidence.
    High school students are very sensitive to how topics are approached. For instance, if I want to change how we play something, I must not tell them, I must suggest it, and let them come to the idea of their own accord. I lead by example, and I make a point to consider any observations the other players in my orchestra make about how we are playing.
    I didn’t used to be very approachable because I didn’t offer my ideas, I forced them. I realized that people shied away from me, and I made an attempt to learn why. I have made the greatest attempts to learn from these mistakes, which I think I have. And, as the article above says, it is important to accept your faults, while acknowleding your strengths, and it is important to acknowledge when your colleagues are more talented than you, because you can learn from them– but only if you step down off the pedestal that is your ego.

  • Stephanie

    So nice to hear how it’s not always fun and games at your first job but you always learn and grow to be the best at what you do.

  • Vasche Benjamin

    This article was very informative. It gave me
    some insight on the business world and how behind closed doors works. This article
    also gave me a few pointers on how to carry myself when looking for a job. Observing
    what goes on around me will help me to learn what to do and what not to do. This
    article highlights some ways to work smarter by showing the importance of being
    attentive to the needs and thoughts of others. Thank you for these valuable
    lessons

  • BucherMatt

    I have always been a firm believer that the only person that can dictate where you can go in life is yourself. Why let other people tell you what you can or cannot achieve? As long as you have the passion, will and desire to do whatever it takes to reach your dream job, it will always be a possibility. Someone who has a strong education but lacks the attitude and motivation is no better off than someone with a lesser education but the drive to push themselves to become better each and every day. This article reaffirmed this idea. Specifically, the part that spoke to me the most was the statement that you can graduate from Harvard and still “suck” at your job. Overall, this was a great read, and I would strongly recommend that anyone who is questioning their ability to land the career or job of their dreams should read this.

  • Elijah44

    I really found this article interesting. It basically taught me to work smart in the sense to where it benefits me (meaning working for my self). Not working because the salary is high or being forced to. This article was a great read!

  • VicLynn

    I currently hold a position as a pharmacy technician. I have learned that the more positive attitude you have and the harder you work, the more you will enjoy your job. Working with the public is not an easy task, but smiles are contagious. No matter how high of a degree you have, you want to stand out based on your personal qualities. Job opportunities are not as numerous as they used to be; therefore, you need to try your best to strengthen the qualities necessary for all types of jobs and/or situations.

  • faith 2015

    From this I gather that having a degree is great but it also means that you need to live up to it if you are going to flaunt it. Often times people assume they are better and thank they can take their time with certain projects because they are too good to do them.
    Really when you boss gives you a deadline you should be work smart and achieve to get it done before the deadline. This can prove that you are serious about your job and that you respect management authority.
    However with having a degree there can be a since of competition for attention in the workplace, feeling they should have a better position than what they are currently doing. However work smart means you still need to earn and own your position.

  • Destiny Dawson

    This article was very useful. I admired how the author spoke on how many boss’s expect you to build your own brand. I never understood the concept of “build your own brand”, I rather just be who I am throughout the work process. I also admire how the author gave views from his own personal life, he wasn’t afraid to admit that he sucked at his job/ I feel like that’s important to know because we usually think that when we first start a new job we should already know what expected of us which is not true at all. It’s almost like a trial and error type of thing. You will never what to do without messing up at first.

    I especially loved when the author spoke about having a higher education from and Ivy League school doesn’t guarantee that you’ll do great on the job. Hearing information like that gives me a lot of hope because I always felt like if a person had a better education than what I had then they would already get the job and be great at it when I already probably have something that they don’t which is great communication skills.

  • Brittany Hager

    This site has some excellent suggestions for being really great at your job. Things that I never really even thought about. Basically, working smart, being trustworthy & efficient are musts to be successful in your career. I have only worked part-time jobs so far in my life as I have always been a student but going into my 3rd year of college, I have really started thinking about my career path. I have no doubt that occupational therapy is for me and I have worked extremely hard to get into the program at one of the few Universities that offer this degree. I will definitely come back and re-read this site as I begin each new job throughout my lifetime.

  • KalenJones

    The above information is a great perspective to use in approaching the work place. Ultimately, there are life lessons that you cannot necessarily be taught in school, but rather you learn them through experience or advice.

    Personally, the most valuable lessons I can identify with are gaining the value and trust of your boss as well as being aware of my surroundings and situations. I worked as a student assistant for two years and developed a great relationship with my boss because we had an understanding on what was expected, she could count on me to complete tasks, and I delivered the best possible work.

    Being aware of my surroundings and situations showed that I was observant, open to learning, and suggested my reliability. I complied to work procedures, communicated with fellow co-workers for new skills, and discovered how others approached various situations in the workplace. Though I could have been taught some of my life lessons through instructional teaching, my experiences allowed me to handle various situations first-hand making them memorable.

  • dunny

    If you work hard and smart at your job, it shouldn’t matter where you went to school.

  • emily rettig

    What I learned from reading this article and from outside knowledge is that being good in a professional atmosphere is both an art and a science. What I mean by is being a science is that you learn in the classroom how something is done. With that being said you can be the best student and still not be able to take what you learned and apply it to real life. That is where the art comes in to play. You have to be able to take what you learn in the classroom and be able to apply it in the work force. Not everyone is born with this ability. So kissing up in to your boss is not going to do anything for you. Its a matter to learning a skill and then applying it properly. You have to know how to communicate and work with people. All of these things will surely help me in the future.

  • Maro007

    The degree I am pursuing is Animation. Risky in today’s standard job market but I am passionate in what I do and in what I continue to learn. Just because someone graduates from a high ranking school or a specialized school doesn’t automatically get handed a golden ticket. Every person needs to seek out and work hard on their personal goals.

  • Erica Kear

    I enjoyed this article. It is very important in your jobs to be a good employee. I liked how it said that even if you have a degree, you sill are not an expert. Ultimately your boss makes all the final decisions. As an employee you must be honest and do your best at what you are doing. Put yourself in a boss position. Check yourself by deciding if you would want to have an employee like you are.

    • Erica Kear

      I have found in my experience of being an employee that being honest and working had pays off. Sometimes this literally means you get a bonus or a raise. I worked for a t-shirt shop my senior year and that summer. During that time the ownership changed. The new owners wanted me to help them repaint the store. I spent the majority of that summer working hard and painting for them and in return I received a bonus. Working hard always pays off in some way or another.

  • alexis.z

    To be successful in your career it is a mix between who you know and what you know. The experience you get from a job is the most important. If you are outstanding at your job, a boss will not care how much schooling you have gone through. That being said, if you do not have other bosses or network of people that can back you up on your skills you will not get anywhere either. This is an important theme for me as I am starting to determine the path I want to pursue for my career as a freshman in college.

    When I was sixteen I got my first job only because the boss knew my teacher and my neighbor. The boss did not care who he hired as long as the person could give the store a good name. After reading this article on job searching though it really but the real world of jobs into perspective. Bosses really do want to put you in a learning and growing environment and want you to work for their company because of your individual skills that you access. The more consistent you are at a job, the more benefits you will see and be happier overall. How well one does in their career is entirely up to them.

  • CiarraM

    Although I was young, I got my first real job when I was 16. This was the first time that I experienced what it felt like to work under managers and a boss. I saw how fast paced the business was and tried to make sure I was doing everything right. Even though I was just starting out, I tried to make sure that I stood out by being proactive and trying to keep a smile on my face at all times. Just like the article, my boss didn’t teach me how to “work smart”. In fact, she was hardly there and just supervised from cameras and from calling every so often.

    This article helped me to understand that you can get a degree in something that you will use for your career, but in order to be successful in that job, you must know how to work smart. You can be the most knowledgeable employee and know the most about the company, but If you cant work smart by having a healthy relationship with your boss, it won’t be worth it. Searching for the right job is also something that is effected by working smart. You need to find a job that you are good at and something that you love so you won’t be miserable. If you find a career that you enjoy doing, it will almost feel like you aren’t even working.

  • jess smith

    this article made me realize that its about the effort you put into your work that is important. also just because you have a degree does not mean you have arrived the hard work us just beginning.

  • ahmaniw

    When reading this , the message I received was quite simple . As we know there is much competition in the work place ! However just because your colleague has a Harvard background that does not guarantee them to success. It goes beyond having a degree its preparing yourself to be ready to be all that you can be for yourself , boss and more importantly your company. Making great connections and getting the job done efficiently and effectively.

  • Danielle P

    The point that grabbed and stuck with me throughout the article is the notion that the stakes are high. Technological advancements have allowed for us to grow exponentially as a society, however; resources are more easily accessible through the growth of the Internet.

    The Internet and its unlimited resources are so powerful and because it can be used and information can be accessed by any and everyone, that puts everyone in the same boat. In order to be a step ahead of one’s competition, one will have to go the extra mile to be classified as a great worker. Anyone can be good at what they do but to be great you have to put in and exert more effort than your competition.

    Whether taking an extra class to learn more about you field of study to continuing you education after you have your degree, one should never be content with being good, but always strive to achieve greatness.

  • Riley Toews

    I love this article because it really relates to the everyday worker. It has language that is easily understandable to the college student. I agree that you may suck at your job because you don’t know what your boss wants! I am in that situation all the time. You don’t want to ask too many questions because they honestly don’t have the time or patience to help you do your job perfectly to their expectation. I am glad I read this article because it shows me that I am not alone! Thank you.

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About the author

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

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