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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  • Max Power III

    I have held multiple careers since leaving college and this article honestly speaks to all of the challenges not only I myself have faced, but I see others who come out of college begin to face. You are always taught to stand out, ask questions and be proactive. While this is true, when you first get your new career, you are better to be less hear than seen.

    You have to make sure that you are always aware of everything going on, but only comment when asked. A lot of your older coworkers, even those only 1 year older than you, will be offended sometimes when you chime in on something they feel as if you have no knowledge about. Also you have to remember the first thing which is, forget what you learned in school and even your old job, what you are going to do here, you are starting at day 1 of your learning.

    All in all as you move up the ladder your voice will be louder and your ideas will be considered so please don’t let go of those ones you had from your first day in the office as they may be industry changing. Just take your time and know when you get your turn to manager, learn from the successes and failures of those before you and apply them to all of the idea you have or may have had. You will learn that it helped you a lot more than you realize along the way.

  • Cesar Galvez

    I can so relate to this article. I recently got hired at a big retail company, and that part about your boss not wanting to take time to train you is so true. She appreciated and was very happy that I had learned all my responsibilities by just learning from my peers. I also have asked her before about what she things of my progress and asked her what she thinks matters in my jobs if its sells or credits. From her answer I have learned how to be a good employee and one that managers are happy with.

  • Sarah Sanchez

    I loved this lesson on how to work smart and succeed within the workforce. I can relate to this article because I obtained a high level position by following similar steps listed here. My first job was folding newspapers for the local weekly news and then I gradually worked my way up to different positions.

    This generation is well known for dreaming big and hoping to be successful, but they are also known as being entitled and wanting to do minimal amount of work to achieve success. However, I tried to take a different approach by reaching for high goals but working very hard to obtain them.

    While at my job at the newspaper, I was the only person who would volunteer to cover events, stay late to meet deadlines, and want to learn new positions that I wasn’t in charge of. My boss was very busy so I also had to teach myself how to do certain projects or work new programs. I was originally hired to fold newspapers, but then I ended up writing articles, doing graphic design, selling ads, managing social media, managing big public relations accounts, and do the office accounting. I wanted to learn every aspect of the company so I could be useful and valuable to the company.

    Eventually, I learned so much that they promoted me to Office Manager. Then when I started doing payroll in addition to my other roles, they promoted me to Vice President of Operations. I was running a small business at twenty-three years old. It wasn’t because I became the boss’ pet or felt as if I deserved each promotion. Instead, I tried to stay humble and just strived to learn more about the company. I didn’t want to suck at my job, as the article talks about. I wanted to do well, I wanted to respect my boss, and respect the company’s time by making the most of my day. Doing so allowed me to run a company at such a young age, and ultimately move on to work at a private university.

    I’m so thankful to have had these experiences and I truly believe we can all be successful. With hard work, we can achieve any goal we set our mind to.

  • Cordell Stuart

    Only being 19, I have been successful in the jobs I’ve had, always putting forth pride in doing a great job. My jobs have also been all cleaning jobs which is not what I had planned but it was the only quick money at the time. I also played many sports in high school, therefore I could only be a seasonal worker and couldn’t get a better job.

  • Jazzie08

    I feel as though in every job you start out with, you’re going to suck at it in a way. Like describe in the article, “it’s easy to suck at your job.” Working at my first job, it was very easy to suck at it. What made it easy is not working smart at all. My first job was working in the food industry at In N Out burger. In N Out gets busy very quickly and you have to move quickly and think smart about what you’re doing. It all starts with the person taking orders.

    • Jazzie08

      Customers order in various ways, so the associate has to be smart and think carefully about how they run through orders. When the order goes back to the cooks, the cooks have to make each burger properly. Then the burgers have to get the correct amount of fresh fries so the customer can be sent with a great quality meal. It’s all about working smart the first time around so there won’t be any mess ups to redo any of the same steps or have complaints come around. It is easy to mess up by not paying attention.

      • Jazzie08

        When I was first starting at the job, I would make little mistakes frequently by not paying attention and not being careful. I thought I just sucked at working there. However, I started changing my attitude around. I started paying attention and working better as a team with my coworkers. I started working smarter and harder. It’s not about being your boss’s pet because you still can suck at your job which will be frustrating for your boss. You’ll succeed more by playing it smart.

  • dcameron07

    What I have learned from pursuing a degree in astronomy and physics is that communication is no more

    important when trying to communicate difficult concepts among colleagues in my field than it is in

    communicating with peers in the restaurant industry. I can attest to this because this past summer was my first

    time working in a restaurant, and communication, a good attitude, and going above and beyond is what made

    me a successful employee. Recognizing that those traits helped me excel as an employee in the restaurant

    industry I attempted to translate those traits into my research position with the University of Arizona, where I

    study observational extragalactic astronomy, and in doing so I notice that my supervisor points out my

    contributions more frequently and has offered me a raise recently. Reflecting over my experiences in life and

    the useful information provided by JustJobs Academy, I believe communication skills are a necessary and

    sufficient condition for achieving success in any work place.

  • Tquest

    this was very helpful! My boss is very clear that she should not have to teach us what we already should know At the same time she would like everything up to here standards, which is expected. I find myself during the time spent with my new boss often asking her for instructions or how she would go about doing a certain thing, just to make sure that I am doing a job that super ceeps her standards. I agree that the compitition is tough, so I always try to put my best foot forward at all times.

  • Jordan White

    What I relate to in this, is actually the main theme I pulled from this and that is “advocate for yourself” the term work smarter is used throughout the entire lesson and what you can compare that to is advocating for yourself.

    I have had to do this many times throughout my High School and career and working. I see something that does not work right, or I see that i am doing something the wrong way…. and Instead of going to my boss who really does not want to take the time to teach me, I teach myself. I can do this by referring to the employee handbook, asking other coworkers etc…

  • Isabella

    This article is great! I really understand that having a college degree does not automatically make you a great employee. Being good at your job also includes how you work with your peers, present yourself, and how hardworking you are. There are many other qualities that go along with these.

    I really took into mind “the difference between being average and working smart was the difference between a good career and a great career”. This really does make sense because if your smart with your work you will definitely improve and be an asset, but if you are just average then you can easily be replaced by someone better.

    Love the article!

  • mrc0109

    There are many aspects of this article that remind me of when I first began working as a nurse aid. In order to become certified, I took an 8 week course which was comprised of standardized exams and then eventually, moved on to the floor for clinical rotations. I remember being completely competent in a “book smart” manner but really lacked in my abilities to transfer these skills I learned in the class room to the floor and on an actual patient. Basically, it was a pretty rough start to say the least.

    What really catapulted me into being more successful at my job was not trying to appease my instructors, peers, and workers on the unit, but rather, to listen to the patient I was caring for in order to understand their needs and goals. By doing this, I could build a positive and trusting rapport with my those I cared for which in turn would create high satisfaction among my patients. Since patient satisfaction is an integral aspect in successful patient care, supervisors and instructors alike tend to interview and round on patients daily to gauge satisfaction. This is when name would come up in a positive manner in conversation.

    The “take home” idea that really stuck with me, at least in my own personal experience, is that successful job performance always comes to making sure that those you are providing the service to are satisfied with your work. I never once thought about what my superiors would think of me while I did my job but rather, the patient. As long as I continued to work compassionately, within the scope of my practice, and in a patient-focused way that my work would eventually be noticed.

  • Akanksha Sharma

    What stood out most in this article for me, was the advice to be yourself. I’ve always stood by this principle, and although it may have gotten me into trouble in the short term, in the long term, I believe that there are real benefits to being honest and open about yourself. I completely agree that working smartly can help you find satisfaction in your work, and matching who you are, with what you do, contributes greatly to that.

    My family migrated from India to the UAE, and when I moved back to India for university, I tried to conform with the norm as an Engineering undergraduate student and found myself to be extremely out of place. With time, I realized that the best version of me I could be, was myself, and chose to embrace my unique qualities, and take them as my strengths. During my final year, as I was getting interviewed for a job, my spontaneity and confidence were tested when I was randomly asked whether I would be able to sing, and I managed to sing a couple of tunes and get my notes right, and the rush of confidence from acing the spontaneous musical performance guided me through the next rounds of interviews to get the job at a reputed multi-national consultancy firm, despite my below average academic performances in Engineering.

    I picked up skill sets that matched my interests at my job, but was very unsatisfied, and soon realized that my skills, abilities and interests lied elsewhere – in a career working for the earth. I took the risk to stick to my principles, went against my family’s wishes (who have since been extremely supportive), and left a comfortable career as a Software Engineer in a consulting firm, to pursue a career in environmental sciences. And every day since then, I have felt satisfied with my work and been driven to do more.

    I gained exposure in this field by working as a field volunteer on a human wildlife conflict survey in rural communities living on the periphery of protected areas. Following this, I secured a job working as a project assistant at a prestigious research institution despite my deficient background, by highlighting my unique strengths, passion for the environment and just being honest about my shortcomings but also about my enthusiasm to learn more. With this valuable work experience, I was accepted to an excellent MS program in the US, and through originality, hard work, dedication, and good luck, I also managed to secure a job for myself as a research assistant, providing me with valuable research experience, industry exposure, as well as funding for my education and living expenses in a different country.

    I moved to the US alone, to an obscure city that I had never heard of before, pursuing a degree that I had no academic background in, researching an environment that I had no familiarity with, but despite all these unknowns, I retained my originality and stuck by it consistently, and it has helped me flourish. Despite the stress of work, graduate school, and facing personal problems related to my health, I truly find meaning and value in the work I do, and it keeps me going from one day to another, especially on days when everything else feels wrong. I feel that being honest about who you are and matching it with what you do, is working smart, because work that is driven by real passion can be enriching and truly therapeutic. It isn’t just good for your productivity, it’s good for you!

  • AJ Johnson

    Working smart has been my career motto.

    I have no college degree and have been working the past 13 years in both the public and private sectors. These jobs were obtained based on my ability to articulate what I could offer, I obviously had to bring more to the table and prove myself right out of the gate.

    Every single one of the hiring managers took a risk with me. Sure, after my first job I had experience but that was it. What I did was kept my boss aware of what I was doing. I didn’t hang around his office everyday, but he saw my productivity in other ways. He was getting less and less vendor complaints, deliveries were streamlined and inventory requests were immediately completed.

    I took complete ownership of my positions, reached out to vendor contacts immediately and introduced myself. I was able to be the main point of contact for vendors and thus took undue stress away from my boss.

    Working smart has assisted me in my working career in lieu of having a college degree. However, as I continue my education, I am grateful to all the skills I have honed in my working career.

  • Nathanael Dardon

    It is not just important to do well and get a degree but to be yourself and do the best that you know how. I love how this article shows us how we can be exactly better in a lot of different areas so that we can excel in any given career. To find the areas to be organized and always prepared in everything we do would and will put us above peers and co workers.

  • Kyle Snyder

    Reading this article has helped me realize that no school can teach you the true values held in a professional setting, that comes from experience and listening to the experiences of others. I’ve found myself in my life at numerous jobs, all of which are entry-level jobs, but require me to be a competitive candidate for promotions. These lessons highlighted here are skills I’ve seen reflected in my learning from those jobs. The lesson I still find myself struggling with is finding ways to improve my work attitude. By nature, I am not a negative person but I do notice when my attitude changes at work the entire environment I am surrounded in also changes.

  • Christian Zeus Bialek

    After reading this article, It showed me how just going to school isn’t going to prepare you for the job. One also needs to be able to gain experience while being on the job and to use that experience to grow and excel. You can’t expect things to be spoon fed to you, you need to work hard to become better at what you do. I can relate to this article, being a Kohl’s employee for three and a half years. I started out as a seasonal employee and by working hard and showing I was serious about being effective, they kept me. I have now since then got employee of the month three times and have been cross trained in multiple departments. I know when I graduate and move onto my new career, I will need to do the same.

  • Neil Kochhar

    What I have taken away from this article, is that school will not be everything once I graduate and move in to the work force. There is education involved in every job, however what this article speaks to me is that I should be working for myself, not my boss. I should be proactively taking time to be good at my job, because as the article states, my boss will not want to take me. This sounds like a very informative article on how to have “street smarts” after school, when we will be joining the workforce.

  • Celine

    The list of the “20 things your boss wants from you” I find intriguing and accurate. I personally connect with the entry level list, as I have just recently been employed by one of the country’s biggest fast food chain restaurants. I am still a senior in high school and I needed a source of income as I am almost ready to graduate and transfer to the University of Arizona.

    I had applied to the business and I was hired and working about a week later. Being my first job I was unsure of what to expect. But within my first day I was able to get a feel for the environment I would be working in for the next few months. It was fast paced and organized, more than I had anticipated, but none that I was not ready for. I will admit I was overwhelmed at first, but I knew that I just had to take it a day at a time and take every opportunity to learn every machine and learn the way to work effectively and efficiently.

    It has only been a couple of weeks and I feel as though I have earned the respect of my boss. I have been punctual, respectful, and I have displayed a sense of confidence in the workplace. I had basically performed the actions as described in the list, and they have worked wonders. My boss now sees me as a dependable individual and he has expressed his gratitude towards me. I will learn from this list as I become a more experienced worker, and I will keep the words of this article in the back of my mind as this will be helpful to me not only now, but in the near future.

  • 10999Lamas

    The part that really rings true to me is where it says “Until you can match-up what you do with who you are as a person, you’re unlikely to find happiness at work”. This is exactly how I have felt. I, like many people, sought after jobs for the paycheck. I was in my undergraduate degree and I couldn’t not pay my bills. For a time, I then sacrificed who I was for what I did. I finally just recently found a job that aligns what I do with who I am perfectly. Even on the rough days, I know I’m in the right spot. It is that level of care that gives me hope. For anyone who thinks they are stuck forever sacrificing who they are for a job that might not be what they want to do, it will get better. You just have to find the opportunity to branch out and grow as an individual. Once you find a place who values you for who you are, what you do will be easy.

  • yasmineh9

    After reading this article I can truly say i relate to most of the themes discussed. I am currently an assistant to a property manager who happens to be a family friend. Thus, you can expect my relationship with my boss would be great. Indeed it is! but not because she knows me personally, but because i learned to work with her and not only for her. I learned how to process like her and have the same attitude towards the job as she does. This ensured a nice job to look forward to every day and my boss truly enjoys employing me. I consider this as my own way of discovering how to work smart according to my job.

  • Ben SG

    Work ethic is what it all boils down to. Your education, your ability to socialize, your skills, all are nothing compared to your worth ethic when it comes to being succesful at your job. It doesnt matter how smart or talented you are at something, if you show up to work and don’t have the drive to do it, then yes you will still “suck” at your job.

  • Earlymorning101

    Throughout my time as an employee at Baskin Robbins, I have witnessed many of my co-worker — including myself — go through coming of age moments like these. Most of the teenagers that I have helped trained learned that what they thought was ¨working smart¨ actually was not working smart at all. Everyone has to start somewhere in their work career and its either to the bottom where you stay, or you either climb that ladder to the top. Of course you can´t be your boss´ favorite employee, but you might get close enough. As a teenager — your middle aged boss can only expect so much from you – despite how hard your work ethics is.

    This summer, I´m moving down to GA, where I will be able to advance my work efforts as I engage nomerous amounts of classes for college. Despite the job of scooping ice cream, I learned three valuable lessons that will carry on throughout the rest of my life.

    Number one: Patience is the key, no matter how long the line is out the door — you can´t please every human being right away.
    Number two: Despite the efforts of trying to make tips, the most valuable tip you´ll get on the night of a summer rush is how fast I should be cleaning.
    Number three: Scooping up ice cream is just the first step to designing the Baskin Robbins ads on TV.

  • Tara Bazargani

    My reflection from this Article is that there is always a need to find the key in order to success in a work, school , or family setting.
    Particularly in the modern culture, I think most of us walk in a new field with our degree and think we have already made it. However from personal experience the key to success at any situation has been beyond that diploma.
    communication has been my ultimate emphasis on what it is takes to move up the ladder. Imagine interacting with so many diverse individuals that have a different ways of understanding and analyzing.
    I remember to live by the quote “It is not what you say, but how you say it”.

  • mlatch

    The section “It’s Not About Becoming your bosses Pet”, resonated with me the most when they explained needing to find a balance between “what you do and who you are”. As an 18-year-old girl, I’ve only had two jobs in my lifetime, though with both I succeeded very well. This success was due to my balanced level of professionalism and using my personality to create a bond between myself and my boss.

    Though Having a good worth ethic, as well as a good attitude, has not only helped me to bond with my boss’s, but with my co-workers and customers. More than once I have been told how refreshing my attitude is by customers, and that they will definitely return. This in turn has helped me gain more hours at work, and even a raise. Working smart, in all aspects of the phrase, is how one creates connections and opportunities.

  • Kiera Watson

    I found this article inspiring and as well educational. I went for an interview a month ago at a veterinarian hospital, and never knew why they did not call me back. I called them and they said I did have any experience in the field, and did not have many questions about the job. Therefore, I was unprepared and did not seem to want the job at all. They were totally correct. I was totally unprepared and did not take the time to research about the company
    This article was about being ready for a life changing moment in the working field and when you graduate from college a job isn’t going to be handed to you. You must have the correct materials to move you forward on your journey.

  • Emolinaescalante

    Having a degree will never assure you a good performance at work. School will provide you a lot of useful knowledge and skills for your job, but they won’t be enough for you to succeed. Not until you are thrown into the real world and you start operating in an industry or administration, you will be able to learn and gain the right skills to thrive. One of the motivations I have about graduating and working is that it doesn’t matter if you suck at work because then you can only get better day by day. 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.