Updated on 02.13.08

Nine Simple Ways to Stand Out in Your Career

Trent Hamm

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.

Show empathy.
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.

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  1. Erica says:

    In my experience of working in offices it has been the ‘bootlicking suck-ups’ that have gotten ahead.

    Not compaining though, that’s just the way it is. I plan to re-educate myself so that I can take a different route – one that doesn’t involve 9-5 sucking up :)

  2. Andy says:

    Trent, I am impressed by how much content you put out every day! Great post.

  3. Frugal Dad says:

    The notes on convention-going are invaluable. I also didn’t realize what a fantastic networking opportunity conventions could be. My last job required my attendance at several conventions a year, but my current one does not. Occasionally I will take a vacation day and attend on my own (especially if it is relatively cheap to attend). The friendships I’ve made were well worth the price of admission!

  4. Chris says:

    I know it was not your intent, but some of the tips with regard to say getting to know the support staff sound like you are only using these people to get special favors/treatment. You should get to know these people because you want to and are genuinely interested. I’m pretty sure (judging by your attitude on all of your entire blog) that this is the case for you. I’m just making the point that to me that the way it is worded, it seems as though you’re only using them.

    But, overall, great post as usual. Especially the presenting coming from a fellow introvert.

  5. Ty Brown says:

    You could basically sum up this entire post by saying “Be Proactive”. I am lucky enough to no longer work for someone else. When I did, however, there were very few people that would magnify their job. They would just wait until work came to them, dread it, and do it to the least of their abilities.
    Be proactive and you stand out.

  6. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    The point is that if you’re thinking, “I’d like to know this person, but I don’t have the time,” you should be getting to know that person because that person has value in many ways, most of which you’ve not discovered yet.

  7. Heidi says:

    Excellent post. This is some of the most valuable advice you’ve published to date.

    I have an additional tip: volunteer for challenging projects that nobody else wants. I’ve gotten a couple of nice promotions by taking control of something that has been sitting on a senior manager’s to-do list for sevearl years.

  8. LoveandSalt says:

    Excellent post, Trent. As an introvert and one who prefers to work alone, I’ve had to learn the skills you outline here very deliberately, and practice them over and over. And you’re right–these people skills make all the difference! Not only do I get noticed (and credited!) for the work I do, but my work improves immeasurably by keeping it in the open, listening, fine-tuning, and speaking up. Thanks for this!

  9. Tyler says:

    Getting to know people is key and I noticed taht more than one of the tips had that concept behind it.
    It truly is not what you know…but who and how well!

  10. K12Linux says:

    Erica, I’ve seen it go both ways. Part of it depends on the manager. I have seen the manager who promotes almost solely based on who strokes his ego. I have also been in meetings where managers completely dismissed any notion of promoting the suck-ups because they were not the “performers” in the company.

    Over the long term, however, I have never seen the “suck-up” types last. Eventually they seem to either give up or get promoted into a position that is over their head and their true colors start to show.

    If you are in a job where the suck-ups truly are running the business then it’s probably best to find a new job before the company collapses.

    Then again, I have a relative who is constantly quitting his job because “only the suck-ups get the promotions.” Knowing him I suspect the people he calls “suck-ups” are the ones doing their jobs and doing that little extra when possible instead of just doing the minimum needed to earn a paycheck. How does that saying go? “If everybody else has a problem then maybe the problem isn’t everybody else.”

  11. Tom says:

    Awesome read! Before I worked from home, I found the casual office workplace to be a lot like high school. You had a few different types of cliques like you mentioned.

  12. Susan says:

    Great post. I think I’m guilty of saying something to reaffirm an opinion from time to time, it’s nice to have that pointed out. As a freelancer, I find it especially hard to stand-out on jobs when I’m only present a few days a week or for a short time. I find being really helpful, and with sincerity, works well. When I go on press trips in my travel writing, I’m usually stuck talking to 20-100 people I don’t know. Once I got comfortable just putting myself out there, I realized how much I truly enjoy connecting with other people.


  13. Claudette says:

    Excellent advice! Doing these things will absolutely help your career and your life- I am living proof. My parents taught me many of these when I was a kid; I was very chubby and some kids made fun of me. But I was smart, and my folks really pushed me to develop my interpersonal skills so I would not become a wall-flower. It paid off. I have never NOT been in a leadership position somewhere in my life circle since the third grade when I became class “senator” in my grammar school. (I am now in my 50s and, yes, I am still overweight and a little geeky, but NO ONE makes fun of me!)

    An added benefit to combining being genuinely helpful and full of ideas is that when your superior gets a better job, he/she can bring you up into a higher position with them without being accused of nepotism. That has happened five times with tremendous rewards for me personally and for the institutions where I work. Coming into a new set of positions as a team more than doubles the positive effects.

    Trent, your post should be sent to every graduating senior in high school and college. Maybe even grade school!

  14. Shevy says:

    This article is aimed at the “professional” staff or management level employees.

    “Befriend the support staff” is only relevant when you’re *above* them in the hierarchy. Plus it sounds patronizing, like suggesting that you should give the paper boy a nice tip in December.

    What about people who don’t get to go to conventions (or trade shows or lead missions overseas)? Going to community events is not generally an equivalent because they don’t have the same focus on your industry that a convention does.

    Taking relevant courses is always helpful but employers vary on paying tuition. Some places reimbuse you. Others don’t, and that may mean taking courses would be too much of a financial stress in the short term.

    Obviously, the advice about not burning bridges is pretty universal, but a lot of the other advice was subtly geared to people who are already making a fair bit of money and/or have a certain degree of status in the workplace.

    Your articles are generally thought provoking and well written, but I think you need to work a little harder on eliminating unconscious bias if you’re going to take your writing to the next level.

  15. jtimberman says:

    Also read the book “Conducted Expected for the 21st Century” by William Lareau. He covers a lot of these and more in great detail.

  16. Allison says:

    Trent works in an office, so of course his advice is going to be most relevant to an office-working audience. I still think that this article is valid at both of my jobs–the office and the grocery store. What I’m taking away from this article is that it always pays to be proactive, pay attention to everyone around you (including support staff AND upper management), and volunteer for opportunities.

    I would add that asking intelligent and relevant questions is definitely a great way to catch management’s attention as well. I almost always have at least two questions regarding any new policy/procedure at my job, and I believe that the simple act of speaking up and asking the question in front of the group has led to my being retained (even over those with more seniority) through 8 layoffs in the past year. I’ve also been given more responsibilities in leading presenations and classes whenever new policies roll out.

  17. SJean says:

    Good advice. I am a fairly recent graduate and was quickly surprised by the amount of “politics” involved in the workplace.

  18. SJean says:

    Oh and other common advice–get a mentor. Get several (informal) mentors if possible.

  19. fathersez says:

    Your advice as usual is spot on.

    I am guilty of not having managed my career well, and having had this kind of suggestions drilled into my head would have been worth a couple of grand a month for the last umpteen years.

    I am keeping a log book of your posts that will do my children tons of good as they launch themselves into the work force.

    Thanks for sharing such gems selflessly.


  20. RC says:

    Very good tips. “Volunteer to Present” has made the most difference in my professional career in the last couple of years. If you get over your fear of public speaking(which took me a long time as well)and can get up in front of a group of people and speak for 30 min to an hour, you are ahead of 90% of the people out there. You will get noticed, and, depending on what you are speaking about, can quickly become known as an expert in your field after you do it a few times.


  21. I never thought about the power of volunteering to present, but you’re totally right. Great advice and great tips from your readers!

  22. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “Your articles are generally thought provoking and well written, but I think you need to work a little harder on eliminating unconscious bias if you’re going to take your writing to the next level.”

    I know very well this article is biased towards people working in the information economy. That’s my primary audience.

  23. I would second the idea of presenting as much as you can, it will get you used to it to the point you won’t get nervous and you’ll become that much better at it. It’s an ability that has huge repercussions when it comes to your career.

  24. nina says:

    Today, I went to a conference where Edward Wedbush (Wedbush Founder and CEO) was the guest speaker. He said this, “Every point of contact is a marketing opportunity.”

  25. jasmin says:

    I’d add to this … do what you enjoy. I had that conversation recently, and advised someone I will do any job that entertains me (ie; if it will engage me, give me the opportunity to learn, to work with smart people who challenge me, then I am interested). I guess it pays off, because I am in the end in the upper bracket of income earners, and I generally have fun and opportunity at work. I don’t have a “5 year plan” to be the CEO or anything, I just like adding value, enjoying myself, and building relationships.
    If you genuinely care, you are honest, and can engage with people in a constructive way – you will do well :-)

  26. sunshine says:

    I concur with the not burning bridges. I left a job a few years ago that I was absolutely miserable at. I hated my bosses, hated my work, hated everything. But, still, I left on a nice note, gave them ample notice, and was all around professional. Fast forward 2.5 years – I got offered my old position back at almost double my original salary and I like my job (don’t love it – have to be in at 6 and I can’t love that). While the money and my more mature and more positive attitude helps, things have changed. This opportunity would not have presented itself had I been nasty when I left.

  27. Randy says:

    Toastmasters is a great “laboratory” where you can improve your presentation and leadership skills in a positive, affirmative environment. With 10,500 clubs in 90 countries and 250,000 members, they are the world’s largest nonprofit organization. Check out http://www.toastmasters.org for more information, to find a nearby club, or start a club at your workplace/ in your community. Participation in this group has turned my life around!

  28. BigRed says:

    Trent–very nice post! I’m about 20 years into my post-college career, and can reaffirm that the advice you give (which in many ways is “be decent and fearless”, broken out into achievable tasks) works. I was once really shy, but slowly venturing out to jsut talking to people I didn’t know, and then presenting to groups (sometimes it was really painful to do–grad school department presentations were usually referred to as stoning sessions), led to really big opportunities (I have briefed Congressional staffers in DC on our company’s scientific and technical efforts, and have served on an expert panel on emerging diseases) that I never could have foreseen.

    Erica–yes, the suck-ups seem to win, but have you ever noticed that nobody can stand to be around them? And, eventually, the bosses change and the suck-ups are seen as “legacy” weenies, and find themselves out of a job. Like Trent said, the idea-people and the ones that you go to when you need help or a sounding board are NEVER the suckups. They are really to be pitied, because they don’t have any idea what they want.

    On the related note, about not being a yes-man. I’ve been fortunate in my own career to work with people who are erudite and positive, and they always find a way to affirm others, but I’d never describe them as yes-men. Flattery is like flirting–a little of it can really smooth social interactions, but too much is cloying and fake. You can use the affirmation to then add your own ideas and commentary: “As John just said, the customer really doesn’t know what they want, and I agree–so, we should put together a strawman list of suggestions to help the customer in our next meeting with them.” This is affirming what John said, and then furthering the statement to make a positive contribution and keep the meeting going. Our company just had a webinar called “Optimism”, which was the sort of feel-good hippy stuff that you’d expect (no group hugs though–virtual is good!), but the presented noted that the person who really is “leading” the meeting or group isn’t always the person with the nicest suit or the official title–it’s the person or people who are seen as being positive and getting things done. Not the naysayer who thinks he or she is brilliant for contributing all the reasons something won’t work. Those people are energy sucks.

    Bravo for the hand-written note comment too–it is such an unexpected touch in today’s world of emails and convenience, and shows that you really are thinking of the person.

    Great post Trent. Gold star comments too!

  29. Bogdan says:

    A very good article, congrats.

  30. KarenFLA says:

    As a female professional, I always was respectful and supportive of the administrative executives in our division office. Although I would give my personal assistant (who I shared with a few other employees) nice gifts for Xmas, b-day and secretary’s day and took her to lunch, I would give little gifts like a holiday mug with candy in it at the same time to the others who covered for her when she was out and who answered the office phones. I always got terrific service and although I left that place ten years ago, my secretary and I are still in touch. By the way, she ended up being the secretary to the big boss, who is over all the division directors. If I was still there, she would have been a great contact. Most of the other professionals remembered secretary’s day and Xmas, but there were a few cheap men who made it a point to be out of the office on secretary’s day and gave their admin asst a $5 gift for Xmas. Of course, they never took them out. What I found was that all the secretary’s talked about how unappreciative they were. Their work went to the bottom of the piles, they had to remember to check to see if they had a phone call because no one was going to call them over and volunteer the information and when their admin asst was out, their work did not get done. They were subtly sabotaged, were stressed out because important work did not get done and the other professionals did not care because we saw what boors they were.

  31. BigRed says:

    Shevy–it is never a bad idea to befriend the support staff, no matter where your position is relevant to theirs. And, even if they don’t directly support you, it is nice to have a friend in the front office. These folks know everything that goes on, and are wonderful sources of intelligence about what’s happening in the office environment.

    I couldn’t have gotten through grad school without the help of a lot of people, including the front office staff in the department (who didn’t work for me, by any means!). They saved my bacon on a number of occasions. The cleaning guy even helped me relocate a really important stack of papers I had thrown out in a sleep=deprived daze, so I was really glad I had taken the time to know his name and be kind to him.

  32. Chris says:

    WOW! Trent you are under thirty, I knew you were young but I didnt realize how young. funny thing is that I have been getting advise from someone much younger than me. You are very wise and by starting to make financial changes at such a young age you, your wife, and your children will all come out ahead. not to many people your age are there yet and woun’t be there for many many more years to come and many many finacial problems later. CONGRATULATIONS :)

  33. Galaxy says:

    Great advice! I have followed much of it over the years. One example, I recently went to a conference and made a point to greet anyone I saw from my state, and write down their contact info in my notebook, even if we were on opposite ends of our large state. One person and I hit it off, and we are now cooking up plans to do a project together. It could be a major professional opportunity, all because I caught sight of her name tag and location in the hallway.

  34. SJean says:

    I can be quite a shy person, but I have pretty much zero fear of public speaking (especially in a somewhat structured setting, ie, giving a presentation). Weird. In fact, I sort of enjoy it… I’ll probably be a CEO someday.

  35. ghogiel says:

    “Sucking up gets you there, but will it keep you there ?”

    I got that simple quote from another forum which I cant remember where =(

    I think that pretty much sums up everything about the whole “suck-up” business.

  36. Liz says:

    Your advice is outstanding. It reminded me of another piece of advice: Become somewhat friendly with a few people two or more levels up from you, and stop in (or email) once or twice a month to keep them up on what you’re doing. That puts you on their radar for promotions and lucrative assignments. I never did this earlier in my career and I saw others getting recognition when I wasn’t. Then I realized that the higher-ups didn’t have a clue what I was doing!
    Now that I’m near the top (I got there despite some mistakes) I greatly appreciate updates and reality checks from those in the trenches. I don’t see these contacts as suck-ups – they’re keeping me in the know and I appreciate it!

  37. Shevy says:

    I’m late in responding to the comments made regarding *my* comments and probably no one will read this, but I’d like to set the record straight and also respond to Trent….

    First, Trent said: I know very well this article is biased towards people working in the information economy. That’s my primary audience.

    I guess you know your audience (either the actual audience that reads your blog day-to-day, or the audience you’re gearing your blog toward) but I was under the impression that your audience consisted of anyone who has an interest in personal finance and who hopes to continually improve their financial knowledge and avoid making costly financial errors.

    For Allison & BigRed, my point was not that it wasn’t important to be on good terms with the support staff if you work in an office environment, it was that a significant chunk of the staff in offices consists of the support staff!

    It’s not useful advice, for example, for the receptionist who would like to eventually become an executive secretary to the CEO.

    She doesn’t need to be told to make friends with her peer group and there are no people below her on the totem pole (with the possible exception of the cleaning staff, whom she may never see in a typical office situation). She doesn’t go to conventions, she doesn’t have an opportunity to present, etc. But the office environment or the particular industry she works in is her chosen career.

    The same could be said of the new high school graduate at the fast food fry station who dreams of owning a similar franchise by the age of 35. And the examples could go on, but I think you get the idea.

    The point I was objecting to was that not everybody who reads this blog is in a white collar/management type position. In many ways I think that the folks who are in support or service positions are the ones who really need the most advice about how to get ahead and I would have liked to have seen that addressed *as well*.

    And, finally, KarenFLA was absolutely “spot on” in her comments. Anyone who has a support staff should know how critical that staff is to success in business, and those who don’t automatically treat their support staff well are short-sighted, to say the least.

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