🚀 How to Get Ahead in Any Job (Issue #468)
Some career strategies work for any job in any industry
My next live fireside chat with Q&A will be on Monday, June 26th. Join us to talk about careers, job searches, job interviews, offer negotiation, professional growth, and more!
I want to thank the folks who gave me feedback about how to keep improving this newsletter. I’ve already incorporated some of it and made changes.
One excellent piece of feedback from Michelle was to be more inclusive with my career advice and not always talk about tech jobs, for example. Many folks work hourly 9-5 jobs (i.e., not on salary) and blue-collar jobs. They also want to leverage their skills to land better-paying jobs, get promoted, etc.
I spent many years of my life working in jobs like that before I ended up in tech. The good news is some strategies will help you get ahead in any job in any industry (e.g., IT, retail, restaurant, construction, manufacturing, health care, etc.).
During my previous non-tech career, I found ways to get promoted and land better jobs. I also sat on the other side of the table as a supervisor and leader, so I know who performed well and got ahead vs. those who did not (and occasionally got fired).
Here is an overview of my twisting career path and various jobs. It doesn’t include every job, believe it or not.
As a child, I had a paper route, operated a lemonade stand, mowed lawns, sold magazines door to door, and did farm work.
During high school, I worked at a grocery store (e.g., stocking shelves and bagging groceries), mowed lawns and other yard work, and did some farm work on the side.
I joined the military to help pay for my college education, went through Army Basic Training in Fort Knox, and ended up in the National Guard for many years, first as a tank gunner and then as an ambulance medic.
I also worked at fast-food restaurants, was an engraver at a trophy shop, worked in receiving and stocking at Kmart, held a temporary job at a road construction company, and became a night security guard.
While I was finishing up college, I ended up working almost full-time as a police dispatcher.
When I worked in a job long enough, I often received promotions. Looking back, some lessons I took away helped me with the rest of my career. I hope some of this advice will be useful for you, too.
Be good at what you do
I know this advice sounds obvious. But I’ve encountered many folks who expect raises and promotions when they’re still not very good at their jobs. Some people think that time on the job is all that matters, which is not true. Other people think they should get raises simply because they need the money. Sorry, business doesn’t work that way, either.
“Hey, I’ve been working here for a year. Isn’t it time for a promotion?”
“My rent went up, so I need a raise.”
If you demand more money when you’re not that good at your job yet, don’t be surprised if your employer replaces you with someone else.
You must be competent and provide solid value if you want a raise. You want your employer to worry about losing you.
You must perform better than your current position if you want a promotion. I’ve mentioned this before. No employer wants to promote someone and hope they’ll be able to handle the new responsibilities. It doesn’t end well if it doesn’t work out. That’s how folks get demoted or fired.
I once worked for a company that provided awards, medals, trophies, plaques, etc. I started as a trophy assembler. Exciting, huh? But I was fast, competent, and showed up for work on time. Plus, I didn’t break trophies and damage expensive materials like some folks did (e.g., when they drank too many “complimentary beers” from the fridge). One day, my boss asked if I was willing to learn how to run a computerized engraving machine. I said, “Yes,” and demonstrated that I was a fast learner. That resulted in a promotion and raise.
Keep learning and growing
If you’re ok with a job just being a job, then you may not worry too much about your professional development. Maybe your job just pays the bills, and you focus your energy and passion on something outside of work (e.g., writing books, making art, playing in a band).
However, if you are ambitious and want to move up, you must always seek opportunities to acquire new skills, knowledge, and experience. Some employers will have programs to support this growth and invest in you. For example, one of my employers was a university, and I could take courses at a discounted rate. Take advantage of perks like this!
If your employer doesn’t provide learning and training programs, invest in yourself. Set a career goal, make a plan (see below), and find ways to educate yourself.
I had a guest on my podcast a few years ago who did just that. Sam Sycamore was a landscape carpenter worried about his future financial security and physical health. So, he taught himself web development every night after work. He eventually landed some gigs and changed his career forever. He’s now a developer relations engineer, making much more money than before, and he’s much happier.
Reliability is one of those things you think should go without saying. Of course, you should be a reliable and dependable employee. We instilled this in our children as they entered the working world.
It was funny to see them being appreciated by their managers and kept on board even as the companies let other employees go. It was true during my previous jobs, as well. I often got promoted simply because I was one of the few who always showed up for their shifts. I also lasted longer in many of my jobs than those who kept quitting every few months.
For example, I was “promoted” to squad leader during Army basic training, mostly because I wasn’t a screw-up.
I listened and paid attention.
I executed orders.
They could trust me to get work done without a lot of oversight.
Later, during my service in the National Guard, they promoted me to platoon sergeant for similar reasons.
I showed up for duty, and I showed up on time.
I didn’t show up drunk or high (or fail drug tests).
I worked hard and got things done without trying to get out of tasks, sneak off to take a nap, or disappear before a job was done.
This strategy seems obvious, but you’d be surprised by the number of employees who fail at the following. If you want to get ahead at work, your boss should be able to count on you to:
Show up for the shifts you’re scheduled to work.
Show up to work on time.
Do the work you’re supposed to do.
Complete your work on time with quality.
Tell people if you’ll miss work (e.g., sick) or show up late.
Don’t be a pain
We’ve all worked with people who were a thorn in the manager’s side. I’ve worked in a variety of industries for all kinds of employers. I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff.
We had a random drug test once, and some guys were freaking out and trying to leave. Apparently, they were at a party the night before and had snorted a lot of cocaine. Yeah, that didn’t end well.
Another person I worked with would bring a tumbler of coffee to work daily, which was heavily laced with scotch (we all could smell it).
A couple of people I worked with would take an afternoon break to drink beers in the parking lot. They returned to work feeling pretty good and often accidentally broke lots of stuff (e.g., materials, tools). They eventually got fired.
One coworker loved to argue with the boss about every little thing in front of everyone else. Pro tip: Bosses hate that.
If you’re more trouble than you’re worth (i.e., not providing enough value for the stress you create), you’re certainly not going to receive promotions or raises. Sooner or later, you’ll most likely end up losing your job.
Note: I’m not saying you should kiss your manager’s butt or endure mistreatment. It’s ok to ask questions, push back on unreasonable requests, and expect fair treatment. But do so professionally. And it’s usually a good idea to have challenging conversations with your boss in private, not in a team meeting or in front of other employees.
Have a plan
Where do you want to end up in your career?
What are your life goals?
What’s next for you?
Sometimes, career growth isn’t very likely with your current employer. There may not be much internal mobility. Or, it may take a very long time to move up in the company.
A friend of mine knew he would be stuck in a dead-end job if he stayed with his current employer. So, he looked for opportunities to get promoted by taking a job with a new company that had a position open for a supervisor.
Another friend was in a similar situation but had bigger plans to open his own business one day. He saved money, networked with the right people, and created a business plan. He launched it many years ago and turned it into a very successful business, never returning to his old profession and low hourly pay.
You must establish goals and create a plan if you care about getting ahead, making more money, and moving up the career ladder. When you know what you want, it’s easier to make the right moves to set you up for success later.
Connect and network
When I was a security guard, I got to know the local police officers and dispatchers pretty well. We developed a friendly relationship since I always showed up for work, did a good job, and became a supervisor (being reliable and sticking around helped me get promoted).
One dispatcher and a couple of the younger officers talked me into applying to become a dispatcher. It was a full-time role with much better pay and benefits.
I’m an introvert, so I’ve often put my head down and focused on my work. But, building relationships will open the door to new opportunities.
Networking outside your workplace is also a great way to learn about events, meetups, potential new employers, and job opportunities you might not otherwise discover.
Your local gym. One of my gyms was an excellent place for networking. Members were always connecting people with potential clients, customers, and employers. Friends like to help friends.
Local meetups. I’ve attended local meetups with ambitious professionals and business owners. It’s great for referrals and introductions.
Local business events and parties. One year, one of my friends invited me to his office holiday party. Usually, I wouldn’t want to attend something like that. But, I discovered it was a good way to expand my professional network. I’ve talked about the power of “weak ties” before.
Local town celebrations, volunteer work, and outdoor recreation events. Your network is your most valuable asset for advancing your career. You are limiting yourself if you only connect with people you see daily at work or in your personal life. Get out there and meet new people!
Trade associations and labor unions. I’m not as familiar with these, but some friends speak highly of them for getting the support you need to advance your career.
If you have a plan for where you want to go, try to network with people already in the profession, industry, or business you’re interested in pursuing. Build bridges now to open doors later. Yes, I’m mixing my metaphors. 🤣
“Not my job.”
— People who don’t get promoted
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard someone say that. They’d be asked to take care of something, and they’d say, “Nah, that’s not my job.”
I was always the person to step up and say, “I’ll take care of it.” And I actually did.
I can remember many times during my past jobs and military experience when someone would ask for a volunteer to take on some task. If no one immediately raised a hand to do it, I would. More often than not, being bold and accepting more responsibility lead to good things for my career.
People who get ahead are the ones who will occasionally step up and do more, often without being asked, because they know it needs to get done.
Going beyond what was asked.
Noticing a problem and proactively fixing it.
Taking care of a task when someone else drops the ball.
Taking responsibility and making things right.
Being brave and taking chances.
Making suggestions for improvements.
Now, I’m not saying you do this all the time and forever. It’s not acceptable for an employer to get the work of three employees out of you for the price of one (and that does happen).
When you do go above and beyond, make sure it's noticed. Document what you’ve done and use it as supporting evidence for raises and promotions later. If your employer takes advantage of your hard work and never rewards you, it’s time to look for a new job.
Move up or move on. You deserve to be compensated when you’re one of the great ones at work.
Know your value
Much of this advice may have come across as a one-way street with the balance of power in the hands of employers. It can feel that way if you don’t know your worth and stay active in the job market.
If you do great work for your employer, you deserve to be compensated appropriately. When you go above and beyond (e.g., work harder and smarter than others), you should expect raises and promotions when the time is right.
The working relationship goes both ways. If an employer doesn’t recognize your value, treat you well, and honor your professional requests for raises and promotions, it’s time to move on. That’s why you should always be actively looking for your next great job, interviewing, and ready to go when necessary.
For example, one of my previous employers did not live up to a promise regarding my work schedule. They refused to make it right, so I quit on the spot. At another employer, I found out that a new, inexperienced employee was hired at a higher hourly rate than I was receiving.
I asked my supervisor about it, and he said, “Oh, you’re a college boy. I pay you less because you probably won’t stick around.”
I laughed and responded, “Well, you’re right about that. I quit.” I left that day and didn’t go back.
I tell everyone I coach, “Always be looking for your next opportunity.” You never know when your situation might change (e.g., an unfortunate re-org, layoffs, or company troubles).
When you’re prepared, you can move on to something better quickly.
P.S. Don’t forget to save your seat and add my live fireside chat event to your calendar!
Hi, I’m Larry Cornett, a Personal Coach who can work with you to optimize your career, life, or business. My mission is to help you take complete control of your work and life so you can become a more “Invincible You.” I live in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with my wife and our Great Dane.