For a long time, I worked in what you might think of as a typical office environment – imagine Dilbert without the pointy-haired boss (my bosses have all been both intelligent and wise people, thankfully). During that time there, it became clear that there were three groups of people: the ones that were useful and were liked by most everyone, the bootlicking suck-ups, and the people that faded into the woodwork. Guess which group got the raises, the promotions, and the opportunities?
I found it hard to really stand out at first. I’m naturally introverted and thus at first it was very easy for me to just clam up and not say much of anything at all. I’d go to meetings and not say much. I’d go to conventions and just keep to myself, listening to the talks, taking some notes, and then hiding in my shell like a turtle.
Fortunately, I’m observant enough to realize that some people were simply doing better than I was. What were they doing differently? How could I move from the “wallflower” group to the “likeable by all” group? I sat back, watched, learned, and put some things into practice that eventually began to turn some heads.
Here are nine things that you can do to improve your career situation. Most of these apply to any job – a few of these work only in specific situations, but it’s fairly obvious which ones. You don’t have to do all of these, but putting sincere effort into a few of them will slowly and subtly open doors for you that you never knew existed.
Volunteer to present.
Whenever an opportunity to give a presentation to anyone comes up, volunteer for it. Presenting is one of the most valuable things you can do in terms of personal growth, in terms of building a relationship with other people, and in terms of being a valuable employee. Present in an internal meeting. Present to a trade group. Present at a conference. Present at a training meeting. Wherever there’s an opportunity for you to get up in front of a room, share information, and answer questions, take it.
This was incredibly challenging for me personally. In 2002 and 2003, my supervisor repeatedly thrust me into positions where I was made to present to others – and it made me constantly sick to my stomach. I did not want to present. It took a lot of presentations for me to start feeling even a little comfortable with it, and it took several more after that for me to realize that I was getting better at it – a lot better. People were starting to talk about me, talk about the projects I was working on, and started to talk to me about things, too. I eventually got good enough that I felt fine presenting in front of hundreds of people – and I earned the loudest applause and the most questions of the day. That helped me build countless relationships with people who saw me speak. Don’t doubt the power and usefulness of presenting – it can help you in untold ways.
Make positive suggestions and comments at meetings.
Whenever you’re in a meeting and you have a suggestion or a comment to make, make it. You’re not going to sound dumb for thinking it – in fact, it’s likely a thought that someone else in the room is thinking but doesn’t have the courage to say. However, when you do speak up, keep it positive – or at least as positive as you can make it. If it’s going to be negative, preface it with a positive and perhaps follow it with a positive, too.
The big benefit for doing this is that it creates an impression that you’re a source of ideas and thoughts, and in an information economy, ideas and thoughts are where the value is at. Just remember, though, that it’s only worth speaking up if you actually have a distinct and useful idea, a distinction worth mentioning on its own.
Don’t say something just to say yes or to reaffirm someone else’s opinion.
This is the defining characteristic of the “bootlicker,” the type of yes man that most people in an office environment loathe and avoid. Don’t just sit around reaffirming everyone else’s ideas – in fact, avoid doing that as much as you can. You don’t need to suck up, you don’t need to glom onto the ideas of others, and you definitely don’t need the reputation of someone who’s there to suck up and coast along for the ride. Those people think they’re getting in good with the boss, but most bosses worth their salt know who the suck-ups are and who the actual reliable people are – and the two groups don’t overlap.
The obvious exception to this is if your opinion is requested, at which point you should give up a very simple answer. Don’t try to build it into something more than it is – a simple yes or no will usually suffice here unless you have an original idea to contribute.
If someone is facing an exceptional challenge at work, help that person out a little bit. Give them someone to talk to, an ear to listen to their problems. Suggest solutions to their situation. Offer whatever support you can to help them succeed – or to get back on their feet. When someone with value fails, it never benefits anyone – help that person find what’s valuable about themselves so that they can show it off to everyone else, and they (and the business) will value you in return.
One of my favorite office stories is that of a person who spoke English as a second language. She was incredibly intelligent, but she had great difficulty presenting her ideas to others. Two of us took her under our wing – we constantly worked with her on her conversational English, edited her documents and presentations for her, and were an audience for her when she would practice her presentations. Eventually, it became clear to many that she was an idea powerhouse (and she was). When she finally got the big opportunities, though, guess who she reached back and helped out in the end? It wasn’t the people who let her blow in the wind, that’s for sure.
Get to know everyone on the support staff.
Everyone that works in your office, from the maintenance men to the janitors to the administrative assistants to the technical support, do countless things in subtle ways to keep things running smoothly. They often have their ears to the floor and have a very firm grasp on the inner workings of the organization as well. Befriend them. Tell them thanks for what they do to help you out every day. Occasionally bring in some treats for them – just a few weeks ago, I bought some pizza and shared it with a group of administrative assistants, and before that I brought a box of doughnuts for the janitorial staff. Talk to them and listen to what they have to say – it will pay off in ways you can’t even imagine. You’ll find out information and be ahead of the curve. They’ll be the first to help you out when you need assistance. They’ll sometimes drop positive comments about you at just the right time. They’ll sometimes even put your papers where they need to be or shuffle a few other things around to help you out.
I’ve seen too many people take the maintenance and service people in their workplace for granted. They are valuable people to know and have on your side because they are so involved in greasing the pistons that keep the company going. In many ways, these people have a better grasp of how things work than the people in charge. Don’t ignore them – tell them how valuable they are.
Try hard to meet new people at conventions.
Never eat alone at a convention is the first piece of advice that my first post-college boss gave me when I was about to leave on my first trip representing the project. He told me to meet as many people as I possibly could, eat every meal with at least one companion, and spend my time socializing and interacting with other convention goers, not hitting every bit of the meeting’s schedule. I wish I had followed that advice – I didn’t really figure out the value until much later.
At the last convention I attended, I had two to five dinner guests at every meal and I wound up with four very good contacts over the long term. I’ve already chatted with these people again since the convention. How did it really pay off? Two of them have told me about job opportunities within their organization (although I’m not interested, it was nice to know and have that open door) and one of them offered me a speaking engagement at another convention. That’s why you should really put effort into building connections at conferences.
Don’t know how to start? It’s easy. Whenever you notice someone having an obvious interest or passion, casually ask them about it – “I can’t help but notice…”, then give them the opportunity to tell you about it in detail. Ask questions. If they’re compelling, ask them to share a meal with you at the conference. Most of the time, they’ll be glad to have someone to dine with.
Send a handwritten note.
Whenever someone, particularly someone outside of your immediate working group, does something very helpful for you or has some momentous news, send them a handwritten note. I keep a big pile of blank notes on my desk – thank you notes and congratulations notes. On the inside, I just jot down a quick note thanking them (and reminding them of what the thanks is for) or a congratulations on the event. If I don’t know them really well, I jot down enough info to remind them of who I am, then I sign it and drop it in the mail.
This merely keeps your connection with someone alive over a long period of time, even if you don’t have the chance to interact with them. They’ll remember you, and they’ll value that you took time to remember them. Eventually, they may be able to reach out and help you as well.
Go to a community event to meet people.
I love community events – church dinners, city council meetings, school board meetings, caucuses, and so on. There are always a lot of interesting people there to meet and I always learn something new. I treat them as a mix of a workplace meeting and a convention – I try to strike up lots of conversation before and after the meeting (and during breaks), and during the meetings, if I have a valuable distinct thought to share, I stand up and share it.
Again, this merely serves to build connections with people in the community, and doors will open for you. I’m under thirty, yet I’m already serving in leadership roles in the community – in one case, I’m the first person under thirty elected to the board in many, many years. I am building a lot of connections to established people in the community, and I’ve had the opportunity to help out several of them. If I ever need help myself, I’m sure that many of them will be willing to offer a helping hand.
Don’t burn bridges.
Whenever you move on from a situation, don’t burn bridges, even if you’re deeply disgruntled. Realize that you are actually leaving the bad situation, and that burning bridges will do nothing more than damage your future beyond this situation. Instead, be as pleasant as possible when leaving. Offer whatever help they need from you, and be flexible in the exact date of your departure. It’s a great final opportunity to make a good impression, and leaving on a high note will help them to remember that high note as much as or more than anything else.
Not only will this help with any future references you may need, but there also may come a time in your future when you need to return here, or when someone from this situation may hold a key to your further plans. If you left in a ball of fire, you’ve likely damaged your chances – and for what? A moment of feeling relief that you got it all off your chest? It’s never worth it.