Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How to Be a Top Performer (and Some Ways to Assure You Won’t Be)

Tonight is baseball’s All-Star Game in Phoenix, where guys who won a popularity contest based almost exclusively on name recognition baseball’s best players will gather to battle for league supremacy in a publicity stunt designed solely to juice ratings and determine home field advantage in the World Series.

The All-Star Game got me thinking: how can you be a true superstar in whatever endeavor you are working on?  I’ve had a few jobs in my day, and I’ve noticed some common threads with regard to what makes a “superstar” and what makes you just another replaceable cog.

DO Be Remarkable

The first rule for superstars is to stand out.  There are many ways to accomplish this.  I know friends that just don’t show up for a day or two at a time, but get a ton done when they do show up, and are available on weekends.  You could be “the ideas guy,” who always comes up with that key idea that helps move a project forward.  You could create a new process that increases efficiency by 10%.  Anything that makes you stand out from the crowd in a positive manner will increase your visibility to management, and ensure that you continue to receive challenging assignments.

DON’T Be a Remarkable Asshole

This doesn’t mean be a know-it-all dick in meetings that keeps people around afterward just “to go over a few things.”  It also doesn’t mean wearing some crazy piece of clothing to work as your “hallmark.”  These things don’t make you quirky, they make you an asshole.  And unless you can find another like-minded asshole to take you under his wing, you won’t be long for the company.

DO Anticipate What the Next Assignment Will Be or Potential Follow-Up Issues, and Know the Endgame

As a lawyer, this one was especially key.  The “average associate” just does what they’re told without much afterthought to anticipate potential issues or problems down the road.  The superior associate will try to figure out not only what else is coming down the pipe, but also what the endgame isKnow what your boss/client actually wants to do, and try to think of ways to make it happen instead of throwing up roadblocks in the hope that the project will just go away.

DON’T Waste Time on Dead Ends

At the same time, unless otherwise directed, don’t chase some ancillary point to a project when what you have is already more than good enough.  This can be a tough point for lawyers a lot of times, as there is pressure to “bill all of your time,” but that doesn’t mean going too nuts on some minor detail that ultimately doesn’t matter to your boss or the client.

DO Be a Sounding Board for Colleagues on Work-Related Matters and Come Up With Problems to Solutions

If you’re working on a project with others, and they have some complaints about your boss, the client, whomever, listen to what they’re saying.  First of all, there’s a good chance you’re going to want them to respond in kind at some point. But more importantly, this allows you to keep the pulse of the people with whom you’re working, and let superiors know if there’s a common problem being voiced by others.  It’s also a way to establish leadership skills; if you become the person that everyone feels that they can talk to, it strengthens your bond with others and helps solidify your role within the group.  Additionally, don’t let these turn into pure “bitching” sessions; sure sometimes everyone needs to vent, but if you find yourself going ten minutes without a solution being proposed, make it a point to brainstorm at least two or three potential solutions to the problem at hand.

DON’T Waste Hours at a Time on Bitching Sessions

This is (like many others of these) a tight line to walk.  We all love procrastinating and shooting the shit with others, but if it’s just shooting the breeze, it should either be done at lunch or in five-minute spurts.  Especially if you aren’t really helping others by proposing solutions to their problems, this is time that is just wasted, and kind of annoying in anything approximating an open office environment.

DO Innovate and Think Differently

The definition of “replaceable” is “a thing that is like any other thing, easily swapped out.”  If you don’t want to be replaceable, you have to think differently than anyone else.  Think about off-the-wall solutions to problems, and don’t be afraid to offer up suggestions on how to make projects run better.  Spend some time brainstorming before tackling a project to get your creative juices flowing, and don’t be afraid of new approaches.

DON’T Be an Idiot

At the same time, don’t consistently fall back on “wacky” ideas just to try to differentiate yourself from everyone else.  A bad idea is still a bad idea.  To tell the good ones from the bad, you might want to bounce them off of someone you trust to see if there are any glaring holes in your thought processes.  If they identify some, think whether or not you have a method in place for dealing with the potential problems, and either scrap it, rework it, or take it to your superiors.

Also DON'T Conform and Obey Without Question

Conforming and blindly obeying has been responsible for a lot of misery in the world.  Always question "can it be done better?"  "Is there something we're missing?"  If "That's the way it's always been done" is ever used in your office, get in the habit of asking "why?" so that you at least get a better understanding of why the business works that way.  If you're just another "yes" man, you are expendable.  Ass-kissers are in high supply out there, especially right now. 

So that’s it.  Did I miss any?  Let me know in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and former attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at djssuperblog@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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