I learned a lot from my first few jobs — all of which were hourly — but how to succeed wasn’t one of them. I couldn’t really grow in a role that rewarded me for only my time on the clock.
Cut to my first sales job. That's when I finally realized the value of a strong work ethic. For me, the path to success was being my own boss. For others, it’s reaching the top of the corporate ladder or becoming the most prominent specialist in a specific field.
No matter your ultimate ambition, it’s never too early to start preparing yourself for it. According to leadership developer Trent Booth, every leader needs three things to succeed: smarts, hard work, and a sponsor.
The most notable influences on my success fit into at least one of these three buckets, and if you stay within their scope, these five tips can help you succeed, too:
1. Be likable.
Being likable means more than not burning bridges; it means being aware of what it's like to work with you. Imagine the stereotypical hard-nosed football coach who just drives and screams and yells and beats and yells and screams. Most people just don’t respond to that. The good coach — or entrepreneur — recognizes this and adjusts her style to match each individual.
Get to know yourself by taking 360 evaluations and personality tests, such as the Core Values Index. Ask your team members for feedback. That shows that you’re interested in improving — a quality that other leaders recognize and appreciate.
2. Communicate your needs.
“You teach others how to treat you.” That's one of my favorite quotes. You can always tell who lacks this awareness and the grace that comes with it because they blame, complain, and justify themselves constantly. They’re unlikeable because they play the victim, and they’re going nowhere fast.
Not everyone will care about your handbook for how to work with you, so be gracious in all directions. Instead of placing blame, you should be the one who's flexible enough to change your strategy. Even if a team member never warms up to you, company leaders will note how well you handle your colleague relationships.
3. Cultivate curiosity.
According to “The Peter Principle,” an employee will keep getting promoted until he reaches his level of incompetence. Curiosity is how you stay competent. When you’re tasked with work beyond your immediate skills, ask questions about it, research, and study until you’ve got some game on the subject. “Fake it till you make it” doesn't work with keen leadership.
If you work from 9 to 5 and have to turn everything off at 5:01, then satisfy your curiosity in your downtime by subscribing to blogs and reading books. Find and absorb whatever (trustworthy) material you can find on any projects you're working on, from building a website to writing copy to creating a video production (all things I've learned and love). Those who do much with little always get more.
4. Prioritize and focus.
As you gain skills and become more productive, people will notice. They'll start relying on you, and you might lose that hard-earned productivity to busywork. But you won't be climbing any ladders if all you do is respond to emails.
Let's look back at the football analogy: A good player has a nose for the ball. In the workplace, your “ball” is the projects that add the most value to your company. Pick these out using the ICE method. Ask yourself: What’s the project’s impact on my organization? How confident am I about completing it? How much energy do I need to invest in it? Weed out any projects that rank too low on impact and confidence and too high on energy.
5. Put on your oxygen mask first.
You’re useless if you don’t take care of yourself, and keeping your career trajectory pointed upward will take energy. Vince Lombardi said it best: “The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”
You build your reputation off what you’re doing, not what you’ve done, so take care of yourself physically and mentally to maintain your peak performance. Eat healthy food, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. If you're eyeing a big promotion, you have to prove you can handle leadership responsibilities without burning yourself out.
Leadership and growth look different in different industries, but these five principles remain constant for anyone seeking to improve their careers. Even if you're still interning or being paid by the hour, it's never too early to start preparing for success.