Work 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 coworker Jean 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 work smart to 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!

Get the ebook!

If you liked what you read here, and think you may want to refer back to this guide later, grab the e-book version for Kindle – we’re hoping you’ll thank us with a five-star review on Amazon if you found this material helpful. The ebook also includes our job search guide.

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  • Jacob Huls

    One of the main themes I recognize from this article is that employers prefer honesty to outright flashiness and branding. I can relate to this as I have never sought to be flashy or be dishonest in my job seeking, and that way of seeking for has been quite successful for me.

    Of course, while always trying to impress my employers, I have never tried to come off as someone who I am not. I’ve found that more often than not, this has allowed me to nail interviews and get off on the right foot with my employers.

    This allowed me to get a job early in high school, but more importantly allowed me to get a graphic design job my freshman year in college, which has been both a blessing to me financially and an absolute joy to work on, as graphic design has always been a major interest of mine.

  • Nelah Demha

    I remember getting my first work-study job in the School of Communications department at my university. Although I was just a office assistant, my supervisor was a great one, she would advice us on our work ethic. She would also prepare us for what we could learn from the job and take with us to future jobs. We were able to use that job experience as a way to practice building our resume and creating a positive image.

    After leaving that work-study position, I find myself back to the department to work with the Production professors on a film project I am working on. Since they remember me and work ethic from the time I used to work there, they were happy to work on my project with me. Since this was a personal project film, they were impressed at my outreach into making it.

    From what we read above, I can see how the lessons relate to some I have faced in my life. Although mine are on a very small scale than when I graduate from university, I understand that it is important to keep a professional image and be able to keep good connections.

  • Andrea Echevarria

    Having a job these days is important but more important is being comfortable at it. These days they are not just looking for a college degree, they are also looking for a person that can be capable of being the image of any corporation. Your boss has to be proud of having you at his corporation.
    For being a great worker you have to like what you’re doing and understand what the job what’s from you. People these days have to work smart in order to have a job, its not just being great at the job but it also is being a great person that’s helps you. You get a job with persistence, great attitude and the capacity to adapt to the work.

  • Tiffany Pounds

    I almost never made the highest grades in my class. There was a guy that was in my class that would cheat on every test. He thought he was working smart and getting ahead of the rest of us that genuinely studied and worked hard for our grades. I became bitter towards this person as I stayed after class and struggled to receive a passing grade in certain subjects.
    Now that we are out of school and earning our own way, this person is struggling. He cheated himself out of a real education. Although he had the scores of a genius, he could not cope with real world problems where the answers were not on his phone. I know that I can handle a work load by myself and prepare myself for any test. Ultimately this is working smarter and not cheating yourself out of anything.

  • Mackenzie Parks

    Working smart can be a challenge when you do not understand your bosses intentions. This is where communication would come in useful. I believe that respectfully telling your boss that you need more instruction would be a good first step.

  • Javon

    I have been employed since I was 16 and agree with all of this, just getting a degree isn’t always going to satisfy you so this is awesome.

  • Lei

    Everything about this article is spot on. All headings lead directly back to the main theme that respect and integrity is what can and will land you a job and make you stand out in that job no matter what industry or level of competition that job may warrant. From personal experience, one major part of this article stood out to me.

    The idea that “you can graduate from Princeton, Harvard, or Yale and still such at your job.” This is so wise, because it shows how the world has grown in the past 10-20 years. Yes it is still important if you do choose to go to a big school and that’s mostly where you will make your connections. I have a friend, however, who went to public college, University of Oregon and has landed a job at the reputable online news wire called Buzzfeed. After working with me at Hurley International out of college, my friend Sam took her connections from college to interview at Buzzfeed with someone she found on linkedin. Using credentials she’d earned in college, she landed a first interview and because of her personality and level of integrity with her potential boss, she landed the job. You don’t always need to go to a prestigious school to make an impression. You just have to own a level of prestige in your work ethic and everything you do.

    This article really illustrates the flexibility that the work force presents. Many people think that the responsibilities of a job are cut in stone, but the reality is that most things can be changed from their original form if given the right amount of care and time worked on/with. This rings true for jobs and bosses too. As long as there is a foundation of respect and integrity, most anyone can go extremely far in whatever they choose to do.

  • Tristan Johnson

    Great Guide & comics so true & helpful! Thanks

  • Edith Chaidez

    I enjoyed reading this article! When I was deciding my major
    all I could think about was financial reward and security. However, when it
    comes down to it, you have do to something you are passionate about, then you
    will naturally be good at it! It will be easy to act. My parents have worked
    all of their lives and they always told me whether it is just a part-time job,
    a volunteer job, or your career, if you agreed to work for someone, do just
    that. Work for them. I am working my way through college and I have come across
    a lot of people that do only what is necessary to get a paycheck. I love that
    this article gives tips on how to be great. It is like you said, you need to
    have a good relationship with any boss because they could be a reference for
    your dream job.

    This article was really helpful that I will definitely share it!

  • Kyla Moss

    This is actually one of my fears that I will have going into a new job. I am so afraid that I won’t be good at it or that I will mess something up. With that being said, I always have that fear in the back of my mind, but that strives me to educate myself now even more so that I can prevent future mistakes. I think when you have a job, it is important to keep educating yourself so you won’t be behind everyone else. I think it’s important to be as up to date as possible within your career. There will be times that I will feel like I don’t know what Im doing or that this wasn’t the right choice for me but I will always make it through whatever the job throws at me. Even if I fail, I will always pick myself back up and try even harder the next time.

  • MJ WStudent

    I can share a perfect example of working “smarter”.

    Every single one of
    my co-workers had a college degree, except me.
    I had been hired on as a temporary file clerk immediately following the acquisition
    of another telecommunications network, that nearly doubled the company in size,
    revenue, and network capacity. It wasn’t
    a very pleasant take over; most workers left in the office, were a bit
    disgruntled, especially towards me; simply because I was hired on by the acquiring

    Eventually I managed to make a few of them happy to see me
    each day, by offering assistance (and following through) with light clerical
    work. I was under direct supervision of
    the Vice President of, who was the only other person present from the acquiring
    company. He only came to oversee the
    filing project at the “soon to be closed” office.

    I showed up every day with a smile and a, “Good Morning”, to
    everyone who met my eyes (and some who didn’t); despite the thickly lingering
    tension in the air. I have always believed
    that morality levels in the office boost production, and this was exactly the
    case. I soon was able to ask questions
    directly to the persons who would actually be in the know of the right answer;
    instead piling a stack of papers aside to ask the Vice President.

    He, of course, had the authority to provide answers, but his
    answers were merely educated guesses, and he would be quite frank about that
    fact. I remember being taught, “caution
    to the side of error” in terms of what legal documents needed to be kept on
    record for businesses. I know he appreciated that stack of paperwork in
    question, slowly dwindle down to none, as I began to work “smarter” for the
    company, keeping its goals and vision statement, as my own; and ultimately
    being able to save them much time and money.

    My sincerity empathy towards
    the disgruntled workers who would soon be without a job, grew as I realized
    that the project I had been working on, was nearing completion. My last assignment, for the project I was
    working on, was to ship out the files. I
    had been scanning, auditing, and packing them into boxes for nearly 9
    months. At the Beginning of the week, I
    thought to be my last, the Vice President came and asked me personally if I
    would like to continue working at their other local office, and “move” with
    them to “unpack” the files, due to my consistent display of both good attitude
    and good work ethic.

  • Casie Der

    I feel like this article will help me get ahead in the work field. Learning about these tips and building on top of what my parents taught me about the outside world as well as what I have learned in my own experiences volunteering in an office setting can improve my chances of climbing to the top easier. Asking a lot of questions is also a good quality to have in the work place. I hear of some people not knowing how to format an email to a professor and if your school has a course in writing in the work place (they exist!) I suggest taking them. They’re a great help and can get you even further!

  • aerowyne

    always be positive when a door closes a window opens.

  • Ken Sherwood

    Every job I have ever had has taught me something new I could then bring to the next job. My first job was doing hard jobs for my landlord as a teen. he paid me out of pocket but it taught me a lot. I did a lot of tree removal and clearing out abandoned houses. It taught me that you need to work hard. It also taught me that hard work doesn’t have to be stressful. You can have fun even in the toughest of jobs.

    The next job I had was a staple for any young person. I worked fast food. There I learned to work with a sense of urgency. It was a fat paced job and you needed to work fast to do it. It was hard but I learned a lot and loved it.

    After that, I worked in a store. I became a shift lead right out the gate and it was challenging. I never knew having authority would be so hard. I had to set an example for my fellow employees and that example was critical. It taught me to be responsible.

    Next I was back to fast food. This wasn’t the same experience as the first. At this job we were greatly understaffed. I was forced to work a lot of lunch rushes solo in the kitchen and it was horrible. Even here I learned something. I learned that you don’t always have a great job, but you have to make the most of it.

    I can take these lessons and apply them to my future jobs and I can push them into a school aspirations.

  • Carla Middleton Doan

    Being a good employee is constant process. This includes maintaining a positive attitude, communication skills, work ethic, and team work approach. Trying your best regardless of not getting the last promotion may just be the key to getting the next promotion. An employee must be open to change, willing to compromise, and supportive of the agency’s goals and mission. Always strive to be a lifelong learner, and not have a sense of entitlement. They are many other qualified applicants to take your place. Humility, flexibility, and a sense of loyalty are nice features in any employee.

  • Tiffany

    I have learned a great deal from reading this article especially because of the current changes that I am going through. I was recently a sales associate at one company but I was looking for a position that required more responsibility and skill. I made sure to master all of my skills as a sales associate before I told my managers that I was looking to grow with the company. Unfortunately there were no available positions at the moment therefore I decided to wait out the holiday season and start looking for a better job at the beginning of the new year. One day while I was working I got recruited by a company that I love, to start the application process for a management position. I received great recommendations from my current managers because we had developed good relationships and they knew that I was ready for the next step, even if it meant moving forward with another company. I knew the stakes were high when I applied because I had no prior work experience as a manager but luckily I made lasting impressions on the store manager and the district manager and landed the job. Coming into the job my store manager had mentioned that he was looking for someone to help whip the store back into shape and to help him reinforce the rules that some people are taking lightly. I will use these tips to help me be effective and work smart.

  • Patricia Sellers

    I love the point that you made. You can go to an ivy league school and still not succeed in your career.

  • KaylaStockman

    this article really helped me a lot simply because it gave me a better understanding of how and what to really look for in a job or anything you have to declare. for me i had a huge problem trying to declare my major and what i really wanted to do after high school after years and years if thinking that i wanted to become a pediatrician because of the money but after taking the health course up to my senior year in high school that’s when i decided i didn’t want to do such a thing anymore and i had to be smart about my next step and decision into wanting to major in fashion and having that as a career option as well. this article has taught me about smart decision making and that if you went to a well known big college or community college that has nothing to do with your work ethic and how you present yourself. this is something that i can keep in mind while im finishing up college and even after college to pursue a career in fashion.

  • Fee

    As a mother of three, and someone who has just recently stepped back into the working world only a few months ago, I take this article to heart. Before I decided to become a stay at home parent, I was a full time employee and someone no one ever questioned was a bad employee. I was fast, and efficient, which made my bosses respect me even more. If there was ever any issues, I could answer them with no problem. I have been out of commission for the last 2 years and coming back into this world feels so different. Although I have always been a hard worker, I find that many people are just happy being employed. However, I notice that there are several companies with high turnover rates which is definitely something to look out for when searching for a job. When I went in for interviews, and there were plenty, I found that the companies that many companies wanted someone they could train or at least someone that was flexible. But just as they studied me, my body language and my knowledge of the job, I studied them as well and had just as many questions if not more for them than they had for me. I think in turn it paid off because not only did i get the job I desired, I got a job that I genuinely enjoy. Now onto to the next thing, my JOB. Now that I am working, I notice how vigilant managers can be, especially since they know I am “fresh from home”. The first few weeks at my job I quickly became annoyed at how closely my work was watched. I discussed this with my manager and they were actually very understanding and allowed me to work independently and even started offering me more hours (I work part time so this is a good thing). Managers respect you more when they find that you are willing to do the work effectively and efficiently and are capable of doing it on your own.

  • T Lockwood

    So true! In today’s fast paced world employers appreciate a person that is self motivated and accepts instruction BUT can carry out the task without a lot of supervision. Education and ethics go a long way! I have always enjoyed listening to my employers requirements and commiting to meet or exceed their expectations!

  • Anna Marie Hope

    I have come to notice that even though you may have had things always come easy to you while growing up, that does not mean it will always be the case. You will have to work hard, and things will come at fault to you. But you have to work through it and come out stronger. Learn from your mistakes, and do not be scared to do something extraordinary because that may be one of the key factors that makes you more qualified for job positions than others, you have to go with your gut and work to be the best.

  • Keilly Comix

    It is very interesting to know that not evening going to the best schools in the country can get you a job. I pretty much had found that out myself growing up. I personally believe that even going to a 4 year school cannot guarantee you a career. It’s all about the effort you put into to pursuing that job and the techniques you use. There will always be competition but does not mean it will be impossible.

  • Delanio

    I like what is done here, My major is currently Political Science, and i’m wanting a pre-law feel, but the type of law i’m going into is corporate. So I will be changing my major to Business Marking very soon. I want to be taking seriously in my job and or work space and hope its fun and that everyone can enjoy it. I am very passionate about law and a few of these key points I make the way i feel about work, and working in and with bigger and large organizations.

  • JessAce

    This article had a lot of useful information. When trying to make a name for yourself as the new person in the company, there are several factors that will come into play. The degree, skill set and personality helped to gain the job, but now what? Continue growth, pay attention to details, continue to learn from mistakes made, be sincere in your faults and in your appreciation of those you work with. Have enough confidence in yourself to keep moving forward in your company but do not make a name for yourself by throwing your coworkers under the bus in order to get there. At the end of the day, be better today than you were yesterday.

  • espy213

    I have had only one job in my life. The biggest turning point for that job was before I even started. When I went in for my interview with the manager and assistant manager (did not know who they were until I got there) I was completely nervous. I took the advice my mom gave me: take a deep breath and be yourself. I am pretty open-minded and communicate ideas very easily when I shake the nervousness.

    During the interview, I realized there were certain questions I did not know the answer to because of lack of experience. I simply stated that fact and they wrote down comments. I thought that the worst they could do is say no. I continued to be honest instead of painting a picture of a model employee. At the end they said they would try me out with a seasonal position. I was not really picky since I lacked experience anyway.
    The salary was discussed next. I was expecting the bare minimum. I got $2 more than minimum wage. They said they were impressed with my honest and winning personality. They said I sounded excited and fun. Like I said, I was just being myself. First interview and I nailed it. With the giant smile I had on my face and the trembling excitement, I left the room stoked.

    When the season ended, my manager called me disappointed. He said unfortunately the season was over and he had to let me (and the other seasonal employees) go. He then said to let him check the budget and see if he cannot make room on the permanent employee list for me. Unfortunately he couldn’t fit it in the budget. they were barely making budget as it is. He said he really enjoyed having me around from my out-of-the-box ideas to my will to perform task to the fullest and my great personality.

    He said I could call him for a reference anytime and that I was one of the best employees he’s ever had. I am not going to lie, I was on cloud nine after that comment. It jus goes to show that honesty wins over a** kissing just like the article states (in a more or less words). 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.