You wake up on Monday morning and head to work. You go through your normal routine and get your job done.
But how you approach your job can have a significant impact on how much you earn.
If your co-workers and managers were put into a room, how would they talk about you? What are the strengths you bring to the table? What would they say are your weaknesses?
Over the years I've worked with many different types of people. I don't have a college degree to depend on to get jobs, and everything I've learned has been self-taught. I want to share what I've learned over the years, and what you can do to optimize your time as an employee.
You Can't Do Your Best Work Miserable
Some people try to excel at everything. But doing so limits your potential.
The fact of the matter is, you are going to be naturally better at certain activities that tap into your strengths. You will improve faster, and you will most likely enjoy what you are doing more.
Part of the process in becoming the best employee you can become is learning what you like to do and are good at. This is going to put more of your mind and motivation into taking your skillset to the next level.
There are going to be activities that you'll have to complete as part of what you do, that you may not enjoy. The key is making sure these things don't take up the majority of your time.
Stepping Down From Upper Management
In my case, I didn't mind managing people, but I found that I was consistently given the same level of workload as a full-time developer. This came from me being very good at solving complex problems and being the lead programmer on a project. I found that when I had to manage full time and be a full-time programmer, my stress level would get to unbearable levels of misery.
By deciding to not be at that level of management, I was able to focus more on what I did best, and that was getting shit done for projects. I was able to focus on fewer tasks, and my efficiency skyrocketed. I ended up taking a job that paid me less because I knew that is where I could do my best work.
The ironic thing about this decision is that at first, it did require a pay cut, but I quickly was able to make more than I was pulling in as someone in upper management. By taking a more focused job position, I increased my value and I was happier.
Communicate What You Want
Your employer may not know what you prefer doing. There is nothing they can do about what they don't know about.
If you have created and proved your value to your employer, they will want to keep you around. If you bring up what you want to do and are best at, there is a great chance they can push you in that direction.
They'll see the value in keeping you happy. Replacing a highly valuable employee is hard and expensive, and what you bring to the table will come to the forefront.
There are a few key points I would keep in mind though if you do go forward with this:
- If you are not good at what you want to do, this is probably going to be an uphill battle and could hurt your career. It might be best to improve these skills first.
- Think about a compromise that benefits the company. Maybe this means partially doing what you like doing most for a transitional period. Coming up with a few options increases the chances they can come up with something that is much better than what you are doing now.
The Importance of Soft Skills
You could be the best employee in the world, as far as the skills you bring to the table. But if you are lacking in the most important soft skills, it will hurt your potential.
What are the soft skills I am talking about?
- Clear communication
- Fun to Work With
Being a remote worker, I'm extra sensitive about these things, because it requires active effort from my part in connecting with my team from my home office. But it is relevant even if you don't work remotely.
Even if you aren't the best in your field, if you excel at communication and are organized, that can increase your value above others who are smarter or more intelligent, but lack in these areas. I've seen this time and time again, and it has been true in my career.
The reason this happens is because you end up being more reliable and efficient because of these strong soft skills. It ends up saving the company time and money.
I am amazed by how much time is lost when these things are not done.
Becoming an Expert
The more you can become an expert at what you do every day, the more your value to your employer increases.
Most of this involves recognizing patterns in your workday. If you notice that you consistently have to work with a specific 3rd party system, getting a deeper understanding of that system will make you more efficient and valuable.
Experience on the job is incredibly valuable, but sometimes spending a little extra time outside of work can give you a leg up (especially in the beginning). This might involve reading books or going through online tutorials and articles.
The internet has opened up a huge amount of data available at your fingertips. You just need to tap into this resource and extract the knowledge.
I also suggest creating some kind of knowledge base that you can access later. Not only does writing this information down make it more likely you will retain this knowledge, but it provides a way for you to reference this data later on. I've done this using basic text documents on my computer, and google docs. But you will want to spend some time ironing out the folder and file structure for this to be useful later on.
Admit Your Mistakes
We all make mistakes, and even if you are at the top of your game, chances are you will fall in some capacity in the future.
When you do make a mistake, don't try to shift the blame to someone else. By owning up to your mistakes (or your contribution to the overall failure), you show your team that you are also human.
But when you talk about your mistakes, it is important to show how you will avoid this problem in the future. Sometimes, a mistake is specific to a scenario or project you are working on. But even in these cases, there is always something you can learn from the mistake.
Most mistakes become big deals only when we don't figure out how to prevent them from happening again. Showing your team you are actively working on preventing the same mistakes from popping up increases your value tremendously. It shows that you are a problem solver and are aware of what is going on.
Don't let your ego get in the way, where it causes you to try to “hide” your mistakes. Own up to what actually happened. I can't tell you how valuable this is to your team. It promotes the idea that everyone is a part of the team, and that the most important aspect is that we are learning from our mistakes.
When to Push Hard
I don't advocate that you should be consistently working extra hours to meet your deliverables for your job. But sometimes extra time is needed to reach the finish line.
If you push back against having to work extra 100% of the time, this is not going to put you in a positive light.
The times where I am working on a large project that requires a little extra work, I am more than willing and am happy to put in extra time to make the job successful.
This does a few things:
- Communicates to the team that I'm dedicated to making our projects as successful as possible.
- But also creates boundaries with my time. That I am willing to put in some extra time, but I'm also not willing to regularly sacrifice my off-hours for a project.
It's really easy for companies to abuse this idea, so be careful. The times that I do work extra, I make sure that the team understands that this is an exception, and not to expect this extra work time to be something they can depend on. Especially when I'm on vacation, I make it clear that I am not available unless there is an urgent issue that I'm the only one who can handle.
Results are more Powerful than Words
The best way to prove your value at the company you work for is to show them how valuable you are. And the best way to do that is through results.
The more problems/issues you solve, the more your company will start to depend on your expertise. Even if you are just starting out, each problem you solve adds to your value as an employee.
When you do fail in some capacity, your history at the company will still propel you forward. If you start to have more failures than successes, that could be a major red flag that I would try to address ASAP. Are you solving problems that are a good fit with what you do? Are you not communicating issues early enough?
You should have a good feeling about how you are doing. If things are coming up during regular reviews that surprise you (and are bad), this is not a good sign.
I highly suggest that you ask people how you can improve if it is not obvious. This not only might reveal areas where you can improve, but it shows that you are playing an active role in pushing things forward — which is hugely valuable to the company you work for.
I would avoid proclaiming how valuable and awesome you are with your coworkers. This comes across as arrogant and ego-driven. It also probably shows that you most likely think too highly of yourself. I'm not saying you should be overly critical of what you contribute to the company, but even the best people can improve and learn.
Listen and ask Questions
When you think you know it all, you are less likely to ask good questions. And asking good questions is part of effective communication.
But you also need to learn how to be a good listener. Taking good and clear notes will prevent you from asking information that you were already told earlier.
Have you ever worked with someone who you've already told something, only to have that same person ask for that same information again? We've all done this in the past, so don't read into this statement too much. But the more you can prevent having to do this, the more time you will save. And it ensures that you don't waste time doing something wrong.
I'm not the best note-taker, but I find even writing summary notes after meetings to be valuable. For anything that I know I will need to reference later, I transfer these notes to either a text document or a google doc. I'll also share these notes with my co-workers who were also at the meeting, to make sure I didn't miss something obvious.
Sharing notes not only helps burn this information into my mind, but it also shares this knowledge with the team. If I post it in the ticketing/task software we use, it can be easily accessed later — even if the project becomes dormant for a while.
As I've worked through the years, I've learned that I should avoid “assuming” anything. This is because different people have different understandings in how things work, and I might be making connections that don't exist or go to the wrong outcome.
Especially considering I work in a very technical field, and many of my co-workers are not technical, I need to make sure that I understand a few things:
- Am I clear what they are asking for?
- Are the solutions they are recommending, if any, solving the core problem?
- Is the core problem in the task/ticket/project clear?
- Are there key details in what they are asking for missing? Could these missing details have a significant impact on this project?
- Is this person/client using technical terms they do not understand fully?
You are not going to do much good if you end up solving the wrong problems, either from assumptions by you, or incorrect specifications.
It is as if someone came to you wanting a car. If you don't ask what kind of budget they have, and exactly what they need the vehicle for, you could end getting something that doesn't work. Or maybe it turns out they need a “van” instead of a car, so they can carry 6-passengers.
If you don't iron out exactly what they need early in the process, it is going to waste time until this is ironed out.
Once you become an employee, there are many things you can do to ensure you make the most you can make. Getting raises and promotions at your current company not only benefits you now, but it also makes your resume look stronger in the future.
Increasing your soft skills, such as communication and organization, can have a huge impact on the value you provide to your employer. Most people don't improve these skills once they get a job, and it is a shame. Because they are leaving a ton of money on the table!