Since this is something which comes up often in conversation, I wanted to document my answer to the question, “How do I get ahead?”. I always answer with the same three qualities, which I also review with any new hires on their first day to set clear expectations and provide guidance on what I value and look for.
These are generic enough that most readers should find these helpful working for most jobs under most managers. Showing these three qualities should get some positive reputation, regardless of the industry.
Deliver high quality results
Everyone need to consistently deliver high-quality results on-time, regardless of their level. This start with ensuring that reasonable and attainable expectations are set, and ends with timely delivery on these expectations. There are times where this is not possible, but over the long run this is about creating a reputation for being someone who can be relied on to deliver high-quality results. Once that reputation is established, it pays dividends in the form of more important assignments with higher visibility.
I tend to emphasize the high-quality portion way above the on-time part as well. If a deliverable is likely to slip due to quality concerns, bubble it up early and clearly to avoid surprises. In the long run, slightly late high-quality results are almost always preferable to the costlier low-quality on-time results.
Setting appropriate scope & goal is also important — I try to avoid over-ambitious ambiguous projects that never deliver, as they can be pretty damaging to one’s reputation.
Maintain a positive attitude
Some days are going to be great, and some days are going to suck. This is a fact of life — unfortunately the sucky days cannot be avoided. It’s a given that great days will yield a positive attitude and morale, but how bad days are handled is what separates world-class engineers from everyone else. Folks who have the ability to be resilient in those moments and can quickly refocus & move on tend to be perceived positively by peers and leadership.
This isn’t to say roll over and take any and all negativity that may come our way. When we go through tough times, it’s reasonable to air grievances, bubble up concerns, etc — it’s important to eventually pick ourselves up and figure out how to move forward. In some cases, if possible, making note of “lessons learned” or other ways to improve as a team is one way world-class engineers will tend to see the silver lining in any such situation and turn it into a positive.
Basically this is about creating a community of colleagues who will support each other through tough times while avoiding a situation where a few people are constantly bringing down the morale for everyone.
Stretch to help teammates
World-class engineers will get their work done, then help their teammates — whether it be by teaching someone something new, helping brainstorm a solution to a tough problem, load balancing some work off their plate, just to name a few things. They find ways to make their colleagues’ lives around them easier and they share what they’ve learned, and they encourage others to do so as well. They help build a atmosphere where asking questions is not a weakness but an opportunity to learn something new.
Good teammates understand that an ideal working situation is not a competition or zero-sum game for getting ahead. Setting a pattern of being a go-to for help when others need it is another great way to create a positive reputation at the workplace.
None of these three points are rocket science — in fact most readers will find these quite obvious —unfortunately it is all too easy to get lost in the current of the daily grind, office politics, networking, etc and lose sight of what really matters for getting ahead. As a manager, clearly communicating these can help cut through all the noise. As a member of a team I also find it helpful to revisit these from time to time to help me stay grounded and remember the basics.