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.

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!

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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  • Carly Hufford

    I am a first year college student taking this all in and realizing more and more how true it is. Experience is everything, and just having a college degree doesn’t guarantee you’ll “work smart.” I’m in a music industry class, and oftentimes we have guest speakers who are actually working in the field. They are constantly talking about the importance of organization and building your reputation as someone who’s hardworking and genuine.

    I learned that a lot of them had trouble at their first jobs in the industry because they had little experience and didn’t know what their bosses expected from them. From reading this article and thinking about several guest speaker’s experiences, working smart is a balance between what you have and what you learn. You can be a type of person who thrives in a certain environment, who excels because they have people skills and are passionate about what they do. Working smart for people in the music industry means showing up on time, knowing how to book musicians, marketing, learning to be a stage hand, etc. If your passionate about something, that shines through as well. You’re more motivated to work harder and go the extra ten miles because you want to learn. When passion and learning collide, that’s when “working smart” happens.

  • jallen15

    This advise is very important to me because working is school is like preparing for a job and is the building blocks that create a good worker. I want to succeed at my future job and want to work well. Having a trusting relationships with my co-workers and boss is very important. I have always been very trusting and I’m not very worried about that part of it, its the relationship part. I want to get along with everyone and that is hard for me because my personality is very bright and happy go lucky all the time. Most people in college, I have found not to be as liking in that. I will take the advise from this article and hope for the best.

  • Ashley Murrieta

    You can graduate from Harvard, Princeton, Or Yale really caught my attention. My boss is always bragging about her college degree, but yet does not have a good work ethic. She has no respect for the employees and definitely looks down at a lot of people. And to say our Supervisor who has no college education has to review her reports due to lack of professionalism and misspelled words.

  • Katie Spencer

    Taking away from this, I saw that there is no true way to not suck at your job and just because you have training in something doesn’t mean you’re good at it. This applies to my job profession. I’m currently majoring in performing arts. However, just because people are getting training in this field, doesn’t mean that everyone is good. It takes a true actor to stand out and make the right impression to get a job and keep a name going in this business. 90% of my job is making a good impression and being smart at every audition.

  • Mary Dower

    I completely relate to this article because of my constant struggle to match up “what you do, with who you are as a person”. I was working dead end jobs that meant nothing to me, with a degree that only got me into entry level positions. I had no interest in the work I was doing, therefore my ambition was little to none, and I had no interest in advancing.

    I am now pursuing a career that encompasses me as a person. As a soon to be registered nurse, working smart has become second nature to me. I do not expect my boss to explain every single nursing theory, skill or procedure that is utilized at work. It is up to me to either research on my own or ask pertinent questions, to learn on my own and not rely on others for me to be successful. Sucking at my job is no longer an option, because my passion lies with nursing and being in an environment where I can constantly learn.

    My goals are to advance in the nursing field, where eventually I will become a family nurse practitioner. This will lead me to become my own boss, where I can diagnose patients, prescribe medication and collaborate with other healthcare professionals.

  • Lee Wonten

    Oh wow! This is an eye opening article. Thank God I read through it. Sometimes, It’s not about where you are from or what college you attended, But the qualities and values you have to add to the success of the team you are working on. Nothing good comes easily.

  • Emily Johnson

    Reading this made me feel better about getting a job in the “real world.” Being at the entry level position at an job always makes me feel so vulnerable for mistakes and makes me wish I was at the point where I was confident I could leave being confident I did the job correct.
    My first job was at a fast food place called Culver’s. When I first started I was scared and didn’t know how to do anything. However, through asking questions and working hard I was able to understand the rhythm of the store and after a year of working there I was promoted and became a trustworthy employee. I feel that when I finish school and get a job I am going to feel the same way I did at that fast food job. However, over time I will gain experience and confidence for what I am doing when I show up to work each day.
    Through reading this I learned that as a rookie there are expectations your boss is going to have of you, in addition they also see potential in you and that is one of the reasons why they hired a rookie and not a vet. So you have to prove that it was the right thing to do by hiring the person with not at much experience.

  • Makayla Paige

    In order to be successful, a person must acquire social skills as well as communication skills. A college degree is a huge accomplishment; however, skills need to be obtained as well or your degree could be useless. Jobs are essential and degrees are applauded, but ultimately, a person must have the right skills for a particular job.

  • Neha Bisht

    Thank you Eric Shannon for sharing your thoughts about how to work smart. I agree that someone graduating from a high status university can still suck at their job and not know what they are doing once they start working. One might have the fancy degree and the best GPA, but I guess those things don’t matter if the person has no clue what they should be doing once they are employed. I know what it’s like to get good grades but then continue to make mistakes at my job.

    I used to be a grader for a learning center called Best Brains and I remember having to go through training on how to grade homework packets and test by using an answer key. Even though I worked there for almost 4 years, my boss would constantly tell me that I was not doing a good job in grading the homework packets and tests. This led me to feel slightly embarrassed since I felt like an idiot at my work for the past 4 years. My boss would tell me that sometimes the answer keys could be incorrect therefore I should recheck the student’s work and make any changes to the answer keys. Turns out that my boss was right and that most of the answer keys were wrong, which resulted me accidentally failing some of the smart students. Instead of having my boss tell me what to do, I should have just rechecked the student’s work on my own instead of blindly trusting the answer key and waiting for someone to correct me.

  • mariana mbemba

    This is wonderful, I will definitely reference this article every day a a reminder to myself of what to do and not do when I start working this spring.

  • Kristin Polanco

    I love this article because at California Baptist University they pride themselves with equipping the students with preparation for the real world and real jobs. It is easy to read a book, but the part that prepares you for your career is being able to apply what you learned with future obsticles.

  • masghari

    What I gathered from this article is one needs to be quick on their feet. Meaning understanding what is expected from you and executing projects assigned by upper management. Also, just because one graduates from a prestigious university does not mean they will be successful at their job. Graduates who can work smart by being optimally productive stand the greatest chance of being successful at their new job.

  • Mackenna Kohler

    I agree completely with the fact that bosses do not want to teach you. I worked at an apple orchard during the summers and falls, and it was honestly pretty hard to learn everything when you don’t live on a farm or work with those things every day.

    My first day I worked at the cash register. I honestly could not tell some of the fruits and vegetables apart, which sounds pretty sad, but it was true. Some of the different tomatoes or nectarines or pumpkins. It was hard for me to think of what I was trying to type into the register. Same goes with the apples, all of the apples were the same price, but people would ask me questions about them and I would have no idea. (I still couldn’t tell you much about certain apples besides a few).

    My boss did not have time to sit there and teach me the differences because she was very busy going back and forth between the outside of the orchard and the inside. I never really saw her during the day since she was so busy. I realized that applying for this job, I should’ve known what I would be having to do.

    I had my coworkers help me out, and I ended up making a little cheat sheet by the register that had everything I needed to know on it. After the first few months it became way busier because of the holidays, and I got way better and knowing what everything was.

    I learned that it just takes a little time and practice before really being able to become good at something. I almost thought about quitting because I was so frustrated, but I am so glad I didn’t. I learned that it shouldn’t be the boss who teaches you, they are busy for a reason and hired you for a reason.

  • Abbie Hodgson

    The main aspect of this story is that you need to continue pursuing a life after college. IT’s about who you know, not what you know. I personally have has success with the jobs I have held, I held a management position and always felt respected. No one asked where I went to college, or what type of degree I have. This article shows people that you always want to make sure you are notice, and that it doesn’t make you vain. I will keep this article on my number one list after I graduate from Savannah College of Art and Design.

  • SangNa

    Reading this reminds me of my teacher in my Economics class in high school. Before starting on one of the last lessons of the year he said, “Common sense, you would think it be the easiest to learn; but actually, a lot of people lack such thing” and that is all I thought about reading this. It might not have meant common sense, BUT the talk of knowing how to work and be great or good at it speaks the same way. Almost like being in a team and one person refuses to listen or try new things other than their own and have to run the show with people whom don’t agree. Like adaptation, it’s so important to be able to flex and move without being hurt or in the wrong, you have to be able to work and compromise with people around you.

  • Daniela Andujo

    What I gathered from this is that getting an education and having a degree may not necessarily mean that you’ll be great at your job or have a successful career ahead. Why? Simply because, now a days in school, they do not teach you how to work smart. They don’t teach you work ethic, values, and the trust you must earn.

  • Shannon Adlabi

    In my opinion, the above article explains the importance of being a listener, and a self taught worker. These days, people do not want to have to baby you and train you to do the job. Employers expect you to come in to the position and already have an idea of what you should be doing and how to get the job done. An employee can be very like-able, but in the end it comes down to the work you do. At my current job, I work for a small business owner. As much as I love my boss, she simply has never been the type to stop and show me what I need to do to complete the job. Like most workers today, she expects me to study her doings and to teach and familiarize myself with the company and our clients. She recently hired another girl to help out part-time and has already discussed firing the new employee because she does not listen and has yet to learn the trade. Although the girl went to an Ivy league school, and I only have my associates from a community college, I am still the better candidate for the job. While her resume may look better than mine, My knowledge, personality, and quick learning/listening skills combined have taken me further than her education ever will.

  • Joseph L

    In order to produce the best result, time, commitment, repetition, endurance and
    an array of additional skills are needed. These are characteristics that develop
    and become honed over years of application. Quality work ethic is not born, it
    is made. The best course of action to take when working for the first time, or
    for a new company, is to perform to the best of your ability consistently because
    your level of competence will increase with your level of consistency.

  • OYELEYE ENITAN Ojemola

    All of these can be summarized into three big fold:

    1. Know your weakness and work work on it
    2. Understand your boss and work environment to become more productive
    3. Work with precision, have good communication skill, be able to handle stress and learn to multi task.
    Adding team work and great socialization skills to all of these will take you through even the most difficult time and task. Never be afraid to ask questions, because nobody is an island of knowledge.
    it is a huge learning point for me and this had improved my idea and enriched my understanding of effectiveness.

  • WalmanHq

    What i get out of this lesson is that one must work ‘with’ their boss, not ‘for’ them. This way, you gain more respect and credibility on the job both from your boss and your co-workers. At high school, i try to help my teacher out, let her/him know when something was wrong or not understandable so that we both benefited, instead of just letting it go or just agreeing with her/him all the time.

    Also, when it comes down to doing work on the job it is wise to make sure that work is something you love doing so that it doesn’t feel like work. Loving what you do boosts company moral as they see its employees having a great time and also boosts efficiency, with everyone readily helping out and doing the best they can, showing no hesitation to get started on a project.

  • annak

    It seems like society is teaching the millennials to spotlight their own achievements before understanding what is being asked of them, while on the job search. Personal “branding” has become the new buzz word sweeping across college campuses. My sorority has pushed this idea onto us and scrutinized those of us who see this matter differently. Eric Shannon highlights the issues that come with personal branding and I agree with his argument. While I think it is important to have a deep understanding of our strengths, I do not think creating a personal brand around them is necessary. Like Shannon, I believe that our employers would rather see an honest and sincere character who has a strong understanding of the job description, rather then someone who has spent an abundance of time building up their social media. Ultimately, your personality is going to be at the center of an interview, over your personal brand.

  • Kennedy Nicole

    This article couldn’t have been stated any better. When someone wants to be truly successful, it takes commitment, time, motivation, and a willingness to put in the work needed to get there. When I graduated high school in 2014, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and this scared me. I had gone through the motions of signing up for college classes with a four year college and declaring a major, but something just didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel ready to commit to anything in the “adult world,” seeing as a month ago I was required to ask permission to use the bathroom. The transition shocked me, and I was actually very homesick when I left; something I did not expect.

    During that first semester in college, my roommate told me about a ten-Saturday certification program for Dental Assisting. After a lot of thinking, researching and talking with my family, I finally decided to transfer to a technical college close to home after my first semester, and also attend this ten-Saturday program to help figure myself out.

    I began the program during winter break of 2014, and I had never been more relieved. The instructors were so understanding and helpful, along with the other students. I caught on really quickly, studied the dental field more and aced all my tests. I was, and still am, confident that I chose the right thing because now I have been employed as a full-time Dental Assistant for over a year (promoted to Lead DA after six months), therefore, gaining more and more experience every day. I have also been accepted into the Dental Hygiene program at Northcentral Technical College come this fall. I can’t wait to further my career and become a Dental Hygienist!

  • Sgold

    In this article, I can relate to how being successful at work is all about making your boss happy. You need to show them only your good side, but you also need to be able to let loose and show them that you have your own ways of doing things that are efficient and get things done.

    The 20 things your boss wants from you are very helpful, even though they seem like the most simple things, you forget to do these kinds of things if you don’t think about it. These are all good tips to keep in mind for part-time jobs and full-time jobs. I will be keeping these tips in mind as i pursue my degree.

  • Gonza110795

    After graduating high school I didn’t choose to go straight to college. I ended up working at a local Walgreens store with the hopes of saving as much money as i possibly could for either a car or for tuition just in case I went to college. When I first started it was quite the learning experience. I tried to present myself as best I could and was willing to learn all that I could to be a great employee. It took a while for me to really get the hang of things and at first I was so worried about impressing my managers that I lost sight of what made me great in the first place.

    I remember the days where i’d try my absolute best, but things just wouldn’t work out and I felt as though the other workers were just so much better. After about a month or so my manger scheduled me to be on the floor. I was no longer working the front register and I took advantage. Putting stock away, helping customers, covering breaks, and even working photo came naturally to me. I accomplished my tasks with speed and efficiency. I was working at what I believed was a normal pace. However, my mangers thought I was working at an incredible pace that they had not been used to. I eventually became one of the better workers at that particular Walgreens and till this day those same managers will continue to let me know that if I ever needed a job, they’d welcome me with open arms.

    I guess what I learned from working at Walgreens was that I shouldn’t be afraid of adapting. I didn’t care about being the boss’ pet. All I knew how to do was, accomplish my tasks as best I could. My managers didn’t want to spend too much time teaching me and that was fine. I was often times thrown into new situations and handled them pretty well. Working there helped me understand what it takes to be a great employee and this article reminds me greatly of the time I spent as an employee at Walgreens.

  • Jason Reyes

    Honestly, i found this article to be uninteresting and lacking in any ability to teach the reader anything new. This article simply tries to teach the reader how to succeed in certain situations, where as I would rather learn how to succeed based on what I can do and how everyone has the potential to achieve any goal they want at their job through merit. As someone who has gotten jobs, scholarships, and acceptance into college sole based on merit I want to know what I have achieved cannot be obtained through mere shortcuts. The way I see it is that there is no better boss for ones own success the amount of competent work that persons put into any job, assignment, or other objective they may have at the moment.
    Please excuse me if I insulted anyone in anyway with my thoughts

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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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