Several weeks ago, I wrote an article outlining twelve tactics for shoring up your career during work downtime. Those suggestions are perfect if you’re looking to “shore up” your career – in other words, your focus is on improving your job security and maximizing your chance to find another job should this one go away.
However, many people have a very different approach when it comes to their job. They’re not looking at the “downside” of shoring things up. They’re looking at the “upside” – increased pay, promotions, possible freelance work, flexibility, and other opportunities.
When you’re focused on “upside,” you’re taking a big step toward financially improving your entire life. You’re working toward a situation where you have more money to work with, so it becomes easier to start saving for your future, to pay off your debts, and to build toward your big life dreams, professional and otherwise.
Here are fourteen strategies that work well for doing just that. These strategies work in concert with each other to make yourself into a more valuable employee at work, one whose value is primed to be met with increased compensation and opportunities.
You may notice some overlap with tactics for shoring up your career, which is intentional. Both articles are focused on tactics for improving your career standing. However, the focus here isn’t just to make sure you keep your job, but to aim for higher pay and a brighter future.
Ask For a Plan
Every job is different. Different places of work, different supervisors, different top dogs with different visions, different fields, different work tasks. Sometimes, it can be very unclear what exactly is desired of you, particularly when there’s been recent changes in any of those elements. If you’re unclear what exactly you should be doing to get ahead, you should be developing a plan of attack.
Talk to Your Immediate Supervisor
The first thing you should do is request a meeting with your immediate supervisor. Sit down and simply ask that supervisor what exactly he or she would want to see from an employee before they would consider that employee for a raise or some sort of promotion. What are they looking for to fill important slots? What do they want to see before they would consider paying more per hour – or offering more hours?
Identify Specific Measurable Things You Can Do
Together with your boss, you should come up with a list of things that will lead you down that road. Many of these things won’t be specific and measurable, but that’s okay at first.
Once you’ve assembled that list with your supervisor, take it home and try to turn everything on that list into specific things you can clearly do at work. Try to break the items down into smaller pieces so that you have a checklist of things you can achieve in a given day or in a given week. You’ll want to come up with specific things that are pretty self-explanatory and make it clear when you’ve achieved them.
Use That as Your Professional Checklist
When you have that list, make it your checklist at work for the next week. Each week, refresh that checklist and keep working through it. Let that be your guide as to what you should be doing at work above and beyond your normal tasks.
Get a Mentor
Everyone needs some guidance as they improve themselves in their career. All of us know of people in our field who are excellent performers, people who earn accolades and raises and promotions because they deserve it and everyone knows it. That’s where you want to be – and a person like that can help you reach that position.
Identify a Mentor
Ask yourself this: who is the best performer in my workplace that’s doing a job anything remotely like mine? Ideally, you’ll want to identify people you’re not in direct competition with so that they don’t have any ulterior motives. If you can’t identify someone in your own company, look outside of your company to someone else in your field. Just find a person who does a job similar to yours, does it very well, and isn’t in direct competition with you.
Talk to Your Mentor
Lay it on the line. Tell that person that you’re genuinely amazed at how good they are at what they do. Admit that you’re nowhere near as good as they are at their job. Flattery is always a good thing, especially when it’s true because then it’s genuine. Then, simply ask them for help in becoming better. Again, everyone likes to be viewed as an expert and to be asked for help.
That’s really all it takes. Most people, approached in this way, will flood you with good advice. (The only consistent reason I’ve ever seen for this not happening is if the person is already overwhelmed with things to work on, in which case you should just find another mentor.)
Help Your Mentor, Too
This isn’t just a one way street. Offer any assistance you can to the person who went out of their way to help you. If they call you and ask for a favor, jump on it. Over time, your mentor may very well develop into your most powerful professional contact – not just a name on a resume, but a person who helps you every step of the way. Return that help whenever you possibly can, particularly if you’re ever in a position to give some help.
Document Your Efforts
Quite often, supervisors lose track of all of the things that their employees do. They’ll focus instead on one narrow element of employee performance and focus on that above all else. You can counteract that by providing documentation of the many things you do around the workplace.
Most of the time, I keep a time log of my own professional efforts. I don’t even have a boss to report to, really – just myself. I use Toggl for this – and it’s amazing. Whenever I start a task, I just type it into Toggl and hit “Start.” When I’m finished or I take a break, I hit Stop. Toggl does the rest, creating all kinds of different reports based on that information. If you get into the routine of using Toggl, you’ll have a mountain of documentation to show to your boss.
(Make sure not to cheat, though. If your boss is suspicious of that or has any tangible evidence, your documentation efforts are worthless and probably harmful to you.)
Make Note of Significant Projects
Whenever you spend time on a significant project, make sure to make note of that. Time devoted to major projects is your bread and butter in the workplace and if you can show many hours logged on a key project. You can be as specific or as general about this as you want to be. I generally find that broader but honest descriptions are the most valuable tool I can use.
Detail Regular Tasks, Too
Don’t just focus on the big significant projects. Make note of all of your regular tasks, too. One good way to do this is to make a checklist of these projects with five checkboxes by each one. Each day that you actually do these things, check off one of the boxes. That way, you can quickly show how many days this week you spent time engaged with one of your regular tasks.
Update as Often as Possible
Don’t wait around to update your documentation. Keep it updated constantly. This is why I like Toggl – I can just leave it running in the background and update it every time I start or stop a task with just a mouseclick. I barely have to think about it at all.
Conduct Yourself Well In and Out of Work
Bosses want employees that don’t make trouble. They don’t want people that cause problems at work. They don’t want people that elicit complaints from customers. They don’t want people whose behavior or appearance might drive customers away. They don’t want people with a bad reputation, either – it’s just not good for business. Keep that in mind when you make personal choices no matter where you are.
Foster Positive Relationships with Coworkers
The easiest way to do this is to ask others about themselves and look for genuine things to say about them that are positive things. Give people openings to talk at length about themselves and actually listen to what they have to say and respond appropriately. Try to remember the things that the people around you care about and, if you get a chance, touch on those later. This will build a good relationship with almost everyone in your workplace, one that will just grow naturally. If it fails to work well with someone, just steer clear of that person.
Make Personal Choices That Reflect Well on You
By this, I mean doing things like keeping yourself very clean and presentable to others. Make sure that you’re going to work in clothes that are clean and that you’re clean and presentable. Avoid backstabbing. If you’re going to make comments about others, keep them positive. Don’t engage in gossip, either, particularly when it might have a negative impact on others. Gossip and backstabbing very rarely end up being a positive for you in the long run.
Make Personal Choices That Reflect Well to Potential Customers and Collaborators
This means taking steps like choosing clothes that are appropriate for the workplace (I usually encourage people to dress just a bit nicer than average – nice enough so that you’re presenting yourself well, but not so nice as to be disruptive) or making sure to be very courteous to all customers in the workplace. Focus on making sure that the customer’s needs are taken care of, even if they’re being slow or picky or have unnecessary demands.
Stop Wasting Time
All of us eventually have downtime at work. We find ourselves with periods where there are no customers and there are no outstanding tasks to take care of. It can be very tempting in those periods to just take a break and surf the web or stare out the window or something like that. Don’t. Take advantage of that downtime.
Survey Your Workspace for Unfinished Tasks and Projects
Look around your workspace for projects and tasks that need to be taken care of. Are there items on the shelf that need to be rearranged? Is there a shared function that isn’t very efficient that could be rewritten? Is there a report that needs to be updated? Is there an area that needs to be cleaned? Just keep your eyes open all the time and remember those tasks and projects.
Use That List as a “Downtime” Checklist
Whenever I have epiphanies like that, I write them down. I don’t let them interrupt my active work, but I do take note of those kinds of tasks left undone. Then, when I do find myself with downtime, I turn to that list of things I’ve noticed and try to take care of one or two of them before something else comes up. It becomes another task I can document.
Report on Them
If you manage to do something in your spare time that’s really useful to others, don’t be afraid to report on it. Send out an email to relevant people mentioning that you wrote a better data retrieval function and that they should test it out. Ask your boss to take a look at the aisle you cleaned up and reorganized. If you took initiative, be proud of that initiative, particularly when it took a significant investment of time and didn’t take away from your other responsibilities in any way.
Build a Positive Profile in Relevant Communities
Just by holding down your job, you’re a part of multiple communities. You’re a part of the physical community – all of the people in the area around you. You’re also part of a professional community – all of the people who work in the same field as you. You may be part of other communities, too, based on your specific interests and other factors. These communities each provide a place to build a strong positive reputation, one that will reflect well on you no matter where your path leads.
Make an Effort to Attend Community Events and Interact With People
Look for events in your community, particularly ones where you will likely know coworkers or other people in the community, and attend. Greet everyone that you know there and follow the personal tactics described in an earlier section. They’ll likely introduce you to people they know, so you’ll know more and more people over time. The first time or two is always the hardest, but after that, it can be quite fun.
Get Involved in Online Communities Related to Your Career Path
No matter what your career, there are others online who are involved in that career path. Get online and find them at places like Twitter and Linkedin. Swap stories and advice. Share the best advice you have with those people. Answer questions that you know the answer to, and don’t be afraid to ask questions, either. The point is to have conversation, share ideas, and gradually get to know many other people in your field in a positive fashion, where they’ll perceive you as a nice person with a lot of good ideas to share. This can only help you, not just in terms of improving your knowledge in your workplace, but also in terms of preparing yourself for your next career step.
Get Involved in Career-Positive Groups and Organizations
You can also spend time getting involved in career-positive organizations, such as Toastmasters, or in organizations specifically related to your career path. There may also be relevant interest groups in your area related to your career, such as computer user groups. See what’s out there – one great place to start looking is Meetup.
Anticipate Tasks and Be Proactive
In most workplaces, there are certain regular patterns to the things that happen there. Projects come in, go through a cycle, and get completed. Certain types of customers come in. Certain reports happen every month or every year. There are cycles. Take advantage of them.
Develop Methods to Make Regular Tasks Easier
Any time that you notice a task that’s being repeated at work, figure out if there’s anything you can do to make that process easier. Is there a big task you can do to make each instance of that repeated task go more smoothly, like setting up an Excel spreadsheet to make things flow? Can you set up a regular recording system so that you don’t have to spend a bunch of time gathering information later on?
Develop Clear Documentation for Those Tasks
Another thing you can do is to document all of these regular tasks that you do. What’s the standard procedure for all of these tasks? Naturally, you should be the person that does them the quickest if they’re things you do all the time, but by providing documentation, you make it possible for others to do those things in a pinch. This is a positive, not a negative; people who try to make themselves irreplaceable often find themselves extremely replaceable.
Make Advance Preparations for Big Things You Know Are Coming
If you know a new project cycle is about to start, are there things you can do in advance to make the early stages flow more smoothly? Can you start the reports and documentation now? Can you get some templates set up so that you just have to fill in blanks later on? Are there key elements you can start on today rather than waiting for a while for the thing to actually launch?
Take Advantage of Relationship-Building Opportunities
Whenever you’re out and about, you have a chance to build good relationships with the people around you. Time and time again, I’ve found myself in situations where I didn’t expect to meet someone who might be relevant to my career (or even just relevant to my business or to the community I’m participating in), but there they were, right in front of me. I wasn’t prepared and it ended up being a missed opportunity. Now, I keep myself prepared for those opportunities.
Carry Business Cards at All Times
I keep a small stack of business cards on me at all times. Yes, I’m self-employed. Yes, I am not looking to be hired by anyone. Still, I hand them out to people. Why? It’s how I make it easy for them to contact me later on – and, if they have one, I get their card in exchange. Whenever someone gives me their card as the result of a genuine conversation, I save it with the intent of following up with them in the next few days.
Introduce Yourself to Lots of People
Whenever I’m at a public event and I’m not actively talking to someone, I look for people who are also there and also not actively talking to anyone. I then introduce myself and start off by asking them about themselves. It’s a lot easier to talk if you just ask a question, and it’s easier for the other person if they have a question to respond to. Sometimes, we’ll hit it off or find a reason to have a deeper connection; sometimes not. But without that introduction, I’ll never know.
Make an Effort to Remember Those People
When I do connect with someone, I try to remember their name and something about them. I’ll usually stare at their face while they’re talking and try hard to impress it on my mind in association with their name and some fact about them. When they walk away, I’ll often write that info down so that I can remember it later. I’ve actually spent time reviewing these notes before going to public events just so I’ll have a better chance at recalling people’s names and things about them when I see them. There is no better way to build a relationship than to remember someone’s name and to ask about something personally relevant to them.
Evaluate Situations from Other Perspectives
It’s easy to see the world from your own eyes. That’s the normal mode of operation for all of us. It’s much harder to see the world from someone else’s eyes. How do they see the world? More importantly, what do they want and how can I fulfill that want?
Consider the Perspective of Your Immediate Supervisor
What does your immediate supervisor want? Likely, your supervisor wants workers that don’t give him trouble and generate enough productivity so that the supervisor looks good. Depending on your supervisor’s personality, he or she may be looking at promotions (meaning they want big achievements in their department) or simply looking to hold their spot. What can you do to help your immediate supervisor get what he or she wants?
Consider the Perspective of Your Organization’s Leader
What does the owner of the business you work for want? You can probably assume the owner wants more customers and happier customers without sacrificing profit margins (much). What can you do to help that to occur? Your company’s lead may have other motivations as well, so think about what your company is trying to achieve and what it can do to achieve it better. What role can you play in that?
Consider the Perspective of Your Customers
If your business interacts with customers at all, consider their perspective, too. Why do they come to your business? How do they want to be treated? What are they looking for? What will cause them to come back again in the future? What will cause them to not come back in the future? Think about situations where you’re a customer. What makes you buy? What makes you come back again and again?
Speak Up Constructively
The person who speaks up in meetings or on conference calls is a person who has their voice heard by others. If that person is speaking of sensible things and contributing in a positive way to the discussion, everyone who is actively involved will think more highly of that person. If a person does this regularly, their workplace reputation is going to go up. Speak up – but do it constructively.
Offer Positive Feedback
Whenever someone presents something or accomplishes a major task, give them positive feedback. Don’t just tell them that they did a good job. Look for specific elements that they did well and comment on those. Spend at least a few seconds looking carefully at what they did. Ask them follow-up questions that give them a chance to talk about their achievements. Be sincere about all of this, too – you’d like it if someone did the same for you, after all.
If Criticizing, Use Rapaport’s Four Rules
If I’m in a situation where criticism is called for, I try hard to use Rapaport’s four rules of civilized debate. They are, roughly, as follows:
First, attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
Third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent.
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
This is based on a slightly modified quote from Daniel Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.
The idea behind this is to establish respect for what the other person has already achieved before you comment negatively on it. Very few items in a professional environment are completely without merit, so this structure can help you criticize things without being too negative or hurtful. It focuses on the actual goal of useful criticism, which is to make things better, not to cut things down. Use it in the workplace and you’ll be golden.
Ask Good Questions (and Prepare for Them)
Another valuable technique is to simply ask good questions during meetings. What do I mean by “good questions”? I mean questions that will lead to information that’s useful to everyone involved and, ideally, also makes the speaker seem competent. “Gotcha” questions generally aren’t good questions. In some cases, if you have a chance to see the presentation materials beforehand, you can generate the questions even before the meeting; a few times, I’ve even sent the questions I was going to ask to the presenter, just so they knew in advance and could deliver a good answer.
Build New Skills
If you want to increase your value at work and in your overall career path, there’s no better way to do it than to build useful new skills, ones that you’d be proud to include on your resume and that you can utilize at work. Skills can be self-taught or they can be learned through classwork, but whichever path you choose, they’re valuable.
Identify Useful Skills Related to Your Career Path
What skills will make you more valuable in the job that you do? What skills will open the door to jobs that will advance you in your career path? One way to figure this out is to look at job listings for the jobs you want to have, as well as the resumes of people who have the type of job you want to have. What kind of skills do they list? There’s a checklist of skills for you to build.
Invest Time Each Week Into Building Those Skills
People who build lots of skills and keep them sharp are devoted to lifelong learning – and you should be, too. A normal week should be one that includes at least some time for developing these new skills, even if it means spending some of your evenings taking a class or teaching yourself a new programming language or reading some complicated books.
Look for Work Projects That Will Incorporate Those New Skills
When you feel you have a strong grasp on a new skill, look for ways to use that skill in the workplace. Whatever it is you have learned, if it’s truly useful at your job, you should be able to shortly find a way to put it to at least some level of use. Using a new skill to take on a task that you previously couldn’t handle is a great way to demonstrate your growing abilities.
Take on Challenges
Most of the time, it’s easier to avoid challenges at work. It is daunting to be faced with a giant complicated task that stretches one’s abilities to the absolute limit. Yet it is those tasks that separate the people who are going to advance in their careers from the people who will stay in place. The people that step up to the plate for challenges are going to find themselves more and more valued.
Look for Work Projects That Will Be Difficult For You
You should be looking for projects that will force you to use a lot of skills – and might even require you to ask some others for help along the way. It needs to be something that might feel just a hair beyond what you feel you can pull off right now, but you know that with some effort, you can get up to speed and get over that hump. Those are the perfect workplace challenges to take on.
Note that I said difficult, not impossible. Don’t profess to be able to take on a project by yourself that will require 200 man-hours of work in a week. That’s going to lead to failure, and for good reason.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
People often avoid challenges because they’re afraid of failure. They’re afraid that a failure will signal that they should be dismissed at work. If there’s even a chance of failure, they’ll avoid it.
That’s the wrong approach to take. Failure happens to everyone sooner or later. You’re far better off sometimes failing at something that was challenging and learning from it than constantly shying away from those challenging things.
When You Do Fail, Know How to Handle It
You’re going to sometimes fail when you take on a challenge. When you do, do not blame outside sources. Do not blame others. Blame undoes all of the benefits of taking on a challenge. Instead, look at yourself. What could you have done to make sure that the project had a better chance of success? What will you do next time to ensure that the project comes off without a hitch?
Take Advantage of Any Opportunity to Positively Represent the Business
Whenever you can put yourself in an opportunity to represent your business, you’re adding more value to your workplace position by the second. You’ve got a ton of chances to shine, a ton of chances to build new connections with people, and a great opportunity to become a much more valuable part of the team.
Volunteer for Meetings
If there’s an opportunity to attend a meeting or a conference on behalf of your company, don’t hesitate to volunteer for that slot. These types of meetings are golden in terms of getting yourself known within your professional community while also providing a valuable service for your company. When you go to these meetings, prepare in advance with plenty of business cards to hand out, lots of good questions to ask of the presenters, and your most social side ready to shine.
Volunteer for Presentation Opportunities
If there’s an opportunity to present your efforts or, even better, the efforts of your business, don’t hesitate to volunteer there, either. This is something that’s easy to shy away from (especially if you’re introverted, like I am), but presenting well not only provides an incredibly valuable service for your business, it gets your face out there in front of a lot of people and gives you the opportunity to connect to a ton of people very quickly. It’s a great opportunity – don’t skip it.
Consider What You Can Do to Make Your Business Look Good
Whenever you are representing your business, you should always be asking yourself what you can do to simultaneously make yourself and your business look good? Dress well. Smile. Talk to lots of people – particularly, talk to people who aren’t talking to anyone else (they tend to be introverts and find it a relief when someone makes conversation easier for them). Be as positive as you can be. When you look good, your business looks good, and vice versa.
Ask for Alternate Compensation
Asking for a raise after a period of good performance can still be a sticky proposition for many. A raise means that you’re asking for a larger share of the organization’s revenue, and you’re likely sticking your supervisor between a rock and a hard place when you ask for it. Your supervisor very well might want to reward you for your good efforts, but dollars and cents might be a problem.
Ask for Additional Time Off
Rather than asking for money when you go in for a raise, ask for some additional vacation time. Instead of requesting an increase in salary beyond the norm, ask instead for some time off, ideally with pay (if this is an option for you). Everyone can use a little extra time off. I used this tactic myself at least twice during my career. Both times, it was completely successful. My boss was happy with my performance and happy to give me some time off – with pay.
Ask for Coursework Reimbursement
Another approach you can take is to ask for the company to pay for additional coursework to help you improve at your job. Perhaps they might pay for a certification for you or help you progress toward a better degree. This is often more palatable than a raise because the business is directly getting a more valuable employee out of the exchange. You’re using that money to improve yourself.
Ask for Flexible Working Conditions
If you’re finding yourself facing issues involving caring for others – children or parents – flexible time can be a godsend. Ask for some additional flexibility in your hours. Can you move to a 9-9-9-9-4 schedule, or maybe four ten hour days? Perhaps you could have a day or two a week where you come in at a different time and leave at a different time? Could you have a two or three hour lunch break in the middle of the day? If there’s an arrangement like this that works for you, many employers will try to work with you to make it happen if you’re a good employee.
This can seem like an overwhelming list of ideas! My suggestion is to just choose a few items on here and focus hard on those things at first. Perhaps you can focus mostly on positive interactions with coworkers and customers as well as developing a good work plan with your boss. Maybe you want to focus on building skills and creating a positive reputation in your professional community. Different options are going to work better for different jobs, so make sure to choose ones that make sense based on your job and career path.
In the end, these things set you up for promotions, pay increases, and perhaps even new job opportunities. If you want to build your income over the long haul, start by doing things better at work.