How to Become a Rockstar at Work: A Deconstruction of the Best Career Advice I Ever Got (Part 1 of 2)

It’s funny (or maybe sad) to think about, but after 13 years of school and another 4 years of college, I had no blueprint for how to build a successful career as I started out in the real world. Sure, I could rattle off extravagant mathematical equations or maybe entertain you with labor economic theory, but I had no clue how to structure my time or work in order to be a top performer in my first or second or even third job out of college.

And, after having a slightly deranged boss early in my career, I mostly built my work roadmap around what not to do (you know, things like don’t make comments that will send people complaining to HR within 45 seconds of meeting you — that kind of stuff).

That was until a few years ago when I got the best career advice ever. It was during my stint at AirWatch when our CEO and founder, John Marshall, kicked off a sales meeting and as part of his speech, rattled off his keys to building a successful startup that ultimately sold for $1.54 billion.

That moment is still clear as day in my mind.

As it happened, I couldn’t believe my ears! Then I furiously scribbled down every bit of it. People pay thousands of dollars and travel all over for this kind insight, and there I was, Einstein bagel in hand, taking it all in by simply being in the right place at the right time. It’s a list I cherish and refer back to often to ensure I’m still on the right track.

But enough about me. This post contains real-life advice backed with research, examples, and next steps that you can apply to your own job right now. It’s time to take control of your career and level up.

Let’s do a quick recap

If you’re ready to elevate your work game, here are your keys to success straight from the man who built a billion-and-a-half-dollar company:

  • Take good notes
  • Research thoroughly
  • Have the will to practice to win, not just the will to win
  • Build rapport with people by communicating in person rather via email or text
  • Plan your day and week —
    • Don’t let your inbox plan your time
    • Realize it’s okay to put off less important tasks to accomplish BIG things instead
  • Lead by example —
    • Invest in yourself
    • Prioritize your time
    • Do the basics right
    • Learn new skills
    • Stop bitching
    • Be a mentor
    • Get a mentor
    • Stay humble and hungry

Of course, it’s easy to read through a list of ideas, nod your head, close out of the page, and simply move on with your life. But what if you took the time to internalize the details of the list and then took action and actually did the work?

I guarantee that if you put in the effort, you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else who would rather digest boatloads of information than implement any of it. Heck, if you take even one of these points to heart and do the work, you’ll outshine the rest of your competition. In fact, to avoid overwhelm or analysis paralysis, I’d recommend starting with one point. Once you’ve solidified that, come back and tackle another and then another.

They say it’s lonely at the top, but I promise the view will totally be worth it!

Time to dive in and deconstruct

Take good notes

This is rule number one and undoubtedly is the easiest on the list. It’s also very often overlooked.

The first step to taking good notes, of course, is to come prepared. So many people don’t do this — it’s incredible! I can’t think of a reason you should ever come to a meeting, training session, or company update without something to write with.

Always carry a notebook and pen with you. Then write things down. See how simple this can be?

Why it matters:

  • Taking notes shows the people around you that you’re engaged in the conversation. It adds a level of trust and respect to the discussion. If you’re taking notes, you can’t simultaneously be checking your email, playing with your phone, or doing any number of distracting things that indicate you either don’t care or aren’t paying attention.
  • Having notes to refer back to will serve as a refresher down the road as there’s no way you’ll remember the details of the meeting two days, weeks, or months from now.
  • You can write down your action items instead of relying on someone else to tell you what to do or trying to remember what you’re supposed to do (see above).
  • If you’re learning something new, write down the step-by-step process once and then you’ll never have to ask the person who trained you ever again. Trust me, they will love you for not interrupting them with the same questions over and over after they’ve already shown you the way.

And while taking notes in some fashion is better than doing nothing, if you’re thinking about using your laptop, consider reviewing the findings from recent studies that highlight the effectiveness of writing over typing. Cue music: The more you know…

Research thoroughly

Even though you’re done with school, you still and will always have to do your homework. You thought you were done with it? Think again!

In 2016, I had the opportunity to see the world-renowned entrepreneur, Daymond John (yes, the one from Shark Tank), speak about getting FUBU up and running. One of the key moments in FUBU’s success story was getting massive free advertising thanks to the wonderful folks at Gap not doing their homework.

If you were alive in the ’90s, you probably remember the commercial I’m talking about.

You see, Gap failed to realize that the man they were featuring, LL Cool J, also had a relationship with Daymond John and FUBU, and they let him perform his piece unscripted. So on the surface, it’s LL Cool J freestyling about Gap and their clothes, but if you look and listen more closely, you’ll notice he’s wearing a FUBU “FB” cap and slips in “For Us By Us, on the low” at the tail end.

Boom — just like that, FUBU won thirty seconds of free national advertising courtesy of Gap. The best part? Gap didn’t even know it!

Well-played, FUBU. Well-played.

How can you apply this lesson to your day-to-day?

  • When buying a new piece of software, it could be something as simple as doing in-depth research — asking for recommendations, reading reviews, signing up for a free trial, getting references — before locking in a long-term contract and shelling out any money.
  • If you’re going into a customer meeting, it means having done extensive research on the company and understanding who their customers are, who their leaders are, and what’s important to them.
  • Or, perhaps you’ve stumbled on a problem within your own organization. Rather than pointing out the problem to your boss and moving on with your day, take a different approach. Can you clarify the issue, come up with potential ways to solve it, and then make a recommendation on which option you think is best? Everybody points out problems. Few people try to solve them. Do the extra work — it will leave a great impression and your boss will appreciate it.

Have the will to practice to win, not just the will to win

Who goes into any endeavor hoping to lose?

Man, I really hope we get mercy-ruled 25-0 tonight — that would be awesome!

— OR —

I can’t wait to get booed off the stage when I give my speech tomorrow!

That’s right: Nobody.

Of course everyone wants to win, but wanting to win is only the start. In fact, that’s the easy part because getting your ass kicked sucks. The hard part is putting in the work up front to be able to reap the benefits later, the joy and glory of winning it all. The hard part is wanting to practice and then showing up day after day to actually do it.

Think about professional athletes and the work it takes for them to outshine their top-tier competitors. A pro athlete wouldn’t even dream about lounging on the couch all week long and then show up to a game or match expecting to win. They certainly don’t “hack” their way to the top. Nope. They’re dedicated and focused on doing even the tiniest things right, all of the time.

Allow me to share some examples:

  • Steph Curry shoots 2,000 shots a week with at least 250 per day and 100 before game time
  • Following her 2-hour tennis court sessions, Serena Williams spends another 1-2 hours on strength and cardio training, mixing in yoga and Pilates 2-3 times per week
  • In addition to regular practice, Tom Brady follows a strict diet, focuses on regular brain training sessions, and even has a fitness regimen while on vacation

The best in the world aren’t simply born with it. They work hard day-in and day-out, understanding that diligence and discipline will lead them to the ultimate outcome they seek.

Why don’t we all work like this?

You can’t think or read or hack your way to the top. Instead, you have to focus and put in the time. You have to practice. And through hundreds and eventually thousands of repetitions, mistakes, and continuous feedback, you’ll get better and better until one day, you’ve “magically” arrived and you can finally pull off that big win.

Go ahead and take the first step today.

Open up your calendar right now and block out an hour or two each week so you can hone your own skills. Struggling with solidifying your knowledge of Excel? Practice VLOOKUPS, SUMIFS, and pivot tables until you can do them in your sleep. Need to hone your Salesforce admin abilities? Hit up Trailhead and methodically work through your weak spots until you can build validation rules and formulas blindfolded.

Sure, it won’t feel like much at first, but an hour a week compounds over time and is more than you (and most others) were likely doing before. Time to get started!

Build rapport with people by communicating in person rather than via email or text

These days, it’s so easy to communicate through any number of channels. We have email, text, Slack, and tons of other tools where we can simply ping someone, sit back, and wait for a response.

As social creatures, however, humans want and require interaction with other humans. Not only does getting face time help with building rapport, it also helps people understand your message better. According to research done by UCLA psychology professor emeritus, Albert Mehrabian, “7 percent of a message was derived from the words, 38 percent from the intonation, and 55 percent from the facial expression or body language.” That’s right, communicating with only words means that 93 percent of your message isn’t being properly conveyed.

Let’s stop hiding behind our computer monitors and work on truly connecting with the people around us. Personally, I struggle with this point, but it’s something I’m quite cognizant of and continue to work on. If you’re like me in the least, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • If you have the option of dialing in to a call or psychically showing up, join the group in the conference room
  • While grabbing your morning brew in the breakroom, ask the person next to you about their weekend or the big project they’re working on
  • Make the next meeting you schedule be an in-person one
  • Invite a co-worker to grab lunch one day
  • Have a standing or walk-and-talk meeting

See? Nothing too crazy — just a few small steps you can take now to start building relationships with the folks you work with every day.

Stay tuned…

That wraps up part 1. I’ll post part 2 in the next few days, but in the meantime, pick out one of these points and take action today. Drop me a line in the comments and let me know which one you’re tackling first!


[Update]: See part 2 of the series here.


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