Advance by working smarter, not merely harder

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This post is part four in a series about factors I have found best enable success in the workplace. Click here to see the others in the series.

Hard work is the difference between dreaming and achieving.

-Anonymous

Introduction

“Work hard” seems rather simple by comparison to the other four keys to success in the workplace: never stop learning, align yourself with great mentorsembrace change, and leverage your strengths. However, there is much more to this element than meets the eye! My conversations over the years have led me to conclude that many people believe that simply working hard is sufficient to gain recognition and to get ahead in the workplace – not so, as many of us have found! Yes, it is vital to be a hard worker. But it’s also essential to make sure you get as much leverage from that hard work as possible, so that it leads to career advancement and personal growth. There are a lot of things that fit with this important concept, and I will focus on three broad areas in this post.

Work hard in the right roles, for the right people, and for the right reasons

Most people will readily identify that working hard to achieve and exceed your stated goals is an important element of getting ahead in the workplace. A related point is that you must also work with those who will value your efforts and take your achievements into consideration when it comes to identifying future opportunities for you. This post isn’t one about the power of aligning yourself with great mentors, but this concept warrants mentioning again here. If your boss or your company culture doesn’t value the hours you put in, your many successes, and recognize you accordingly, it’s time to change that situation! Never stay in a job that fails this basic requirement.

I’ve written about the value of continuous learning and embracing change as growth drivers, and these are indeed vital. However, it is also essential not to only look ahead to your next opportunity, treating your present role as merely a stepping stone. Ensuring that you work to gain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in your current job will result in a strong foundation to build upon for the next challenges to come. In my experience, at least two years experience in a given role is a good starting point. Be sure to go beyond merely “putting in your hours”, and make sure you learn and grow as much as you can while in each role – something I’ll cover in the next section.

On a related point, make certain that you aren’t chasing titles as your primary motivation versus choosing roles that truly advance your abilities, leverage your strengths, responsibility level, etc. Unfortunately, this is a trap into which many people fall. I once very nearly turned down what ended up being an amazing career opportunity solely because “I felt” it should be a Director role vs. the Senior Manager role I was offered. In the end I took the role with a compromise solution of “Associate Director” and about a year later I was promoted to Director. In hindsight I can’t imagine missing out on such a great opportunity over something as insignificant as a title! Equally bad if not worse is the time I was strongly considering taking a C-level role at a small company even though I could tell that the place was a train wreck, was not very interesting technology, and would otherwise not advance my career. That title (and compensation) was just so darned attractive! Thankfully I wisely moved on to other opportunities, ones that truly leveraged my strengths, and accelerated my path to financial independence and early retirement. I’ve seen far too many people take jobs that do not advance their career progression nor their abilities, simply because they thought a given title was important unto itself.

Constantly seek opportunities for growth

I’ve already written about the value of continuous growth and learning. One way to ensure you are working smartly and not only hard, is to take deliberate steps to make certain that this growth happens for you. Yes, great mentors will help you in these pursuits. But even then you are not relieved of the responsibility to be your own best advocate. There are many ways to do this. Put your hand up when special projects come around that are of interest to you, even if this may mean “more work”. Seek opportunities where you can work across teams or with other company sites. It’s amazing how much you can learn simply by getting out of your typical work environment. This will also demonstrate your willingness to learn new things and to grow to those around you.

I have always appreciated team members who put in the required hours (and more). All good managers value hard work. However, I appreciated it even more when employees independently sought opportunities to drive improvement. Some of my most successful team members have shared the same attribute: when they see something that can be made better, they don’t simply raise it to their manager’s attention. They also came with a proposal for how to improve it, whether or not it would benefit them personally. Managers may not always agree with such ideas, or the timing may not be right to take action, but I can think of many times where I approved these kinds of projects. These can provide great learning opportunities for you, as well as to demonstrate your capabilities to your manager and others with whom you work. Be known as a problem solver and one who understands everything can be improved! This only helps build a strong network who will aid you on your journey, which is the topic of the next section.

Gain massive leverage from your network

If there is one lesson I took from biotech, it is that it is a small world. Despite the many thousands of people working at so many companies around the world, “everyone knows everyone”. Most industries are like this, particularly once you work at a certain level of responsibility. You simply can’t have a conversation with someone else in your industry without realizing how many contacts you share. Why is this important? It is shocking to me how many times that simply knowing someone at a given company has opened a door to me. Getting noticed is half the challenge when it comes to finding great jobs, right? Leveraging your network is a sure-fire way to ensure you aren’t lost in the noise. Having a large network also can help you find great candidates for roles on your team. So I assert that you should always be building your network. How?

No one starts with a huge network when they enter the workplace. It must be grown from the ground up and nurtured along the way. There are likely many ways to do this. My primary recommendation to you is simple: be someone with whom people want to work! Be that coworker who is regarded as reliable, who always puts in the effort needed, and is a pleasure to work with – someone people will seek out when they need help. While this isn’t difficult, many people seem to struggle with this. I’m sure you’ve known coworkers who were technically competent but who had some attribute that made you avoid them – maybe they were a bully, a know-it-all, or one never willing to compromise. These people may find a way to advance but it is far less assured and may take a lot longer. Rather, you must act in ways that make people remember you for positive reasons – it’s that easy. I once worked with a rather prickly programmer. I got along with him pretty well despite his grumpiness, and had taken the time to figure out how we could best work together. As a result when I needed help he was generally very willing to support me. One day he pulled me aside and said “You know, Jason, I figured out what really bugs me about you: you’re probably the most liked person at this company! Not the most likable, mind you (ha!). But you’re easy to work with and get along with everyone – and that really annoys me.” Do you need to be friends with everyone at work? Of course not – that’s impossible. Just carry yourself in the right ways, be gracious while being your genuine self, and I assure you that people will respond well.

Another simple thing is that you need to put yourself out there and actively build your network. Make sure you introduce yourself to colleagues at your company, key vendors, and customers. Seek opportunities to attend conferences and meetings where appropriate, and get the most out of those events. Attend the cocktail hours, dinners, and workshops and try to make good contacts at each. You aren’t there solely for fun, right? Will every conversation be a great one? Of course not. But I’m surprised by how many people I have met at these events who have turned out to benefit my career at some future date. Of course you have to keep up relationships to stay top of mind. These days, tools like LinkedIn, industry forums, and others make this much simpler. If you worked with great colleagues in a previous company, make sure you reach out to them periodically to find out how they are doing. I landed one of my best jobs simply by asking someone with whom I used to work out to lunch. Not only did that role give me great startup experience, I met my future wife at that company!

There is a flip side to all of the positive things I mentioned regarding network building. You must also remember that your reputation follows you. If you are someone regarded as difficult to work with, a slacker, or otherwise with challenges, your network will freely share that information. People talk, and when it comes to considering candidates for jobs, they will unbeknownst to you, use their own networks to vet the fit of someone for a role. Make sure that conversation can only go in a positive direction!

Conclusion

Working hard at any job is stable stakes – you’ve simply got to do it. I’m sure that’s not a surprise to anyone! But there are some relative straightforward things that I recommend that will allow you to work much more smartly as well. The leverage you will gain from that can accelerate your success in the workplace. What “working smart” tips have you found to work for you?

photo credit: “Work Smarter” by JuditK is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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