To become a high performer at work is actually a lot more simple than most people think. Contrary to popular opinion, to become a high-performer in most workplaces, you don’t need to be a genius who’s changing the face of the Company on a daily basis but rather do a few simple, everyday things well on a consistent basis.
Becoming a high performer in work allows you to earn promotions faster. For those of us working in a formal employment setting, being promoted allows us to command a higher salary faster, increase our disposable income, invest more of our money and ultimately become financially independent sooner.
A good proportion of the people in the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) community are interested in the second half – the retiring early part. Whether that’s true for you or not, becoming a high performer in work still has it’s part to play. The maths behind financial independence tells us to increase our surplus (income minus expenses), invest this surplus methodically and allow wealth to accumulate over the long-term. Part of this is increasing our income. While we can all save pennies here and there, none of these small optimizations will have the same impact as a big income jump due to a promotion. So let me share my 14 tips for becoming a high performer in your workplace.
#1 – Get the basics right – appearance, manners, timeliness
I have tried to make this post as applicable to as many different people as possible, regardless of the industry or setting you work in. However, you may notice the tips are slightly biased towards office-based jobs simply because this is the setting I work in full-time.
Regardless, getting the basics of employment such as your appearance, basic manners and timeliness are pretty crucial for success. You know what everyone getting promoted frequently has in common? They show up on time and dress and speak appropriately.
Clearly how you should dress differs wildly by the employer, from the super formal shirts and ties of law firms to the more casual startup but what is common throughout employers is that people, rightly or wrongly, make judgements on you based on your appearance and this includes what you wear.
Another easy win when it comes to making an all-round good impression is basic manners and politeness. Most employers don’t have a perfect promotion system that’s based 100% on merit but rather promote people on a number of intangible factors including how well liked the person is.
Whilst this may not seem fair or right, knowing this goes a long way in making sure you don’t fall at the first hurdle. Being polite and generally well-mannered can do you no harm but if you forget about these things, it could hold you back for years if you get on the wrong side of a key decision-maker in your organisation.
The final quick win is time-keeping. People seem to struggle with this and to be honest, I struggle to empathise. If you’re bad with timekeeping or struggle to remember to get to appointments, use technology such as your phones reminders and calendar apps to notify you where you should be and when. Nothing frustrates busy colleagues more than waiting around due to an employee’s poor time-keeping. Do whatever it takes to get this one right.
The above few things are very much the ‘first hurdle’. Dressing appropriately, being polite and maintaining good time-keeping aren’t going to earn you promotions by themself but without doing these things, you’ll undoubtedly put yourself at a big disadvantage.
#2 – Be happy to take on more accountability if you want to earn promotions
This tip is hard to do but is the most effective in terms of the rewards if done correctly. A lot of people are worried about taking on accountability because they figure out that if someone goes wrong, they’re to blame. It’s often the path of least resistance to do your job well and shy away from extra accountability but if our goal is to become a truly high performing employee and to earn promotions faster we need to flip this on it’s head.
The first thing to say is that when you start to take accountability for difficult tasks or workflows in your place of work, it won’t take long for the senior people within your organisation to take notice. When it comes down to it, what managers and business owners want is the work, whatever it may be, completed on time and with high quality results.
What is particularly effective is volunteering to be accountable for a task or process that typically someone more senior than yourself would be doing. If you manage this work, it’s visual proof that you are capable of the sorts of tasks somebody above your current pay-grade should be doing. When it comes to offering promotions, this should shift you to the front of the decision-makers’ minds and increase your chances.
Overtime, if you become accountable for enough of these important workflows, it becomes very difficult not to promote you, simply because you become such an important cog in the way your department or office works.
There is no silver bullet here and offering to be accountable for tasks and processes above your pay-grade is difficult, time-consuming work but for me, this sacrifice is worth it both in terms of my own personal learning but also through earning promotions which help me earn more towards my financial independence goal.
Start small and volunteer to lead a project or task you ordinarily wouldn’t, I’d be willing to bet your stock will start to rise pretty quickly.
#3 – Be confident with your verbal communication
The next tip is to be confident with your verbal communication. Granted, this is easier said than done and for some people, confidence isn’t the type of thing that can be turned on and off.
Nobody is expecting you to be delivering Churchillian speeches here but being able to talk with colleagues or your boss in a clear, concise way is going to be pretty crucial in becoming a high performer. The most obvious example is explaining your work to somebody. Even if you produce a real master-piece of work, if you can’t explain what you’ve done and why it’s helpful to your colleagues or boss, it’s never going to earn you the credit it deserves.
As with many things, when it comes to communicating verbally, improvement comes from doing and practising. If you’re in a job which requires a lot of presenting or explaining your ideas to people, you will naturally improve over time and find yourself becoming confident quickly.
#4 – Become a high performer at work by getting email communication right
Almost as important is email communication, particularly in office-based jobs and with the increased remote working going on at the moment. Email’s an easy thing to get right but a balance has to be achieved between quickly replying to emails and not being side-tracked from your most important work.
I personally use an adapted triage system for dealing with my emails which I took from this Ted Talk video which works as follows:
a) Turn on email notifications to pop-up on-screen whenever you get a new email. If you are part of joint mailboxes which get thousands of emails, turn it off for these and keep it on for your primary email only.
b) Under your inbox folder, set up three subfolders for ‘critical’, ‘important’ and ‘other’.
c) Set up other subfolders which organises your emails how they usually would be i.e. by work stream.
d) Every time you get an email notification appear on-screen, quickly triage it into one of these three folders ‘critical’, ‘important’ or ‘other’.
e) In your work calendar, put two daily appointments for yourself each one lasting 20 minutes called ’email sessions’. I have mine at 11.40 am and 15.40 pm.
Once these things are in place, I deal with emails as follows.
These emails fall into two main buckets – A) they are time-sensitive, i.e. ‘can you urgently send me x before the meeting today’ or ‘this is due by 12 pm today’ and B) they are emails from important people within the organisation who you want to build a good relationship with. It’s important you limit this to a select group of fewer than 10 people, if too many people are in this category, you may find yourself replying to emails immediately all of the time.
For both types these critical emails, I read them in full and unless impossible, action them straight-away.
For these emails, as soon as I receive them and identify them as ‘important’ but not ‘critical’ – I will triage them into the ‘important’ folder I set up. During my twice-daily email sessions, I will go through these emails and respond as necessary.
By allotting this set time for these emails, I avoid constant interruptions to my main tasks for the day and can focus in bursts on replying. Before I adopted this system, I found myself replying to an email instead of completing my main work tasks as it represented an easy win but this came at the expense of focused time on my main responsibilities.
Other emails may include the clearly trivial, department-wide communications or any other non-urgent requests. Whenever I receive these types of emails, I will again triage them to the appropriate ‘other’ folder. If I have any spare time at the end of my twice-daily email sessions, I will start working my way through this category, deleting or responding as appropriate. If I finish my 20-minute session and don’t have any time to spare, I’ll simply leave this category till the next email session opportunity, safe in the knowledge that nothing urgent or critical is waiting for me.
Once I have actioned an email, regardless of its triage category, I will file it away in the other subfolders which I have split out by work-stream.
Adopting a system like this one has a number of benefits including, but not limited to, responding to key tasks and key people instantaneously, not being bogged down in emails all day, filtering out the unimportant and keeping things well organised for easy retrieval. Once you’ve used this system for a few weeks, the triaging becomes intuitive.
#5 – Be prepared to put the long hours in if required
Similar to tip #2, this isn’t a silver bullet that will help you to become a high-performer quickly. Whilst working long hours shouldn’t be the norm and you need to respect yourself to the point where you are setting fair boundaries for what is and isn’t too much work, you should be prepared to put in some long hours when required if you want to be seen as a high-performer.
What’s more, whilst you’re doing these periods of long hours, don’t complain about it to anybody who will listen. This is, in my experience, self-defeating. Constant complaining about working long hours completely undoes any goodwill you develop from working those hours.
Again, don’t let ridiculous hours become the norm for you but when the business, a colleague or your manager needs them, step up and do it enthusiastically. It may not be how you want to spend your time, but it’s a great visual cue to senior staff that you’re hard-working, committed and a team player.
As someone who worked in Big 4 audit, I am all too familiar with regular long-hours. Whilst it’s often necessary, don’t take it too far to the point where it’s prioritised above your health and happiness. If your long hours are preventing you from exercising or getting enough sleep (which I wrote about in-depth here), you need to do what you can to change your situation, even if that means looking for other jobs.
#6 – Learn to not be nervous around senior staff
This tip is heavily linked to tip #2 on verbal communication but to cut a long story short, it’s difficult to be respected and trusted in important positions of a business if you are too timid around the senior staff.
Let’s think about what senior management wants – presumably they want people who are competent at their jobs, reliable and help move the business forward. If it were your business and an employee was too shy to even talk to you in the lift, would you trust them with an important position?
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean you have to be a bubbling, life of the party extrovert. All you need to be able to do here is hold a conversation with senior staff and be willing to speak up when the situation calls for it. More on that in tip #11.
#7 – Be calm regardless of the situation
It seems being irate is all the rage these days but the truth is when it comes to most workplaces, this just isn’t a helpful emotion. Very few employees report performing at their best under an angry boss over the long-term and losing your head doesn’t tend to inspire confidence in those around you.
Being calm, even in challenging work situations, breeds trust. That’s not to say you should be an emotionless robot but it is important to remain stoic and dignified. Again I ask the question – if you owned a business, who would you sooner promote to a senior position (competence being equal) – the employee who remained calm in difficult situations or the one that lost their head at the first sign of trouble and stress?
Beyond this, I’ve always found staying calm helps you to think clearer and is better for developing work relationships (does anybody like the guy that’s always shouting?) We may all feel stressed or annoyed at certain points in our jobs, the hard part is directing this inwards to get through your work efficiently rather than outwards.
#8 – Doing a great job in the right amount of time is better than a perfect job which takes you weeks
Not much to add to this tip thanks to the weirdly long subheading. The main point here is one of my favourite expressions ‘perfect is the enemy of great’. A difficult truth to accept is that there is no such thing as perfect but sometimes people work on a project, task, pitch or act for so long in the search for perfection that they miss the boat altogether.
Better to put on a great show with the audience in their seats than a perfect show after they’ve left. This is not to be confused with ‘do the bare minimum’ but rather learn when your work is good enough.
Think of your work as having diminishing returns over time. In the first hour, you may finish the paper. In the second hour, you may check, rewrite and optimise the paper. In the third hour, you may rewrite a single section so it’s perfect. In the fourth hour, you may change certain words for better sounding synonyms so the paper reads better. In this example, you could have stopped after two hours and the end result would be 95% as good as what you could have written after four hours.
What do you think your manager / client or whoever would prefer – two 95% great reports in four hours or one 100% perfect report in four hours?
#9 – Develop a relationship built on trust with your direct line manager
In most hierarchical organisations, your direct line manager will be the person you report to but also the person who advocates for you when it comes to being promoted and in other important conversations such as salary increases and bonuses.
Given this and the proximity in which you’ll be working with this person, it’s crucial you build a solid working relationship. To do this, you’ll have to stick to your end of the bargain which is being reliable and hard-working. With any luck, you’ll get given a line-manager who is reasonable and has skills you can learn from.
Part of this process is not being bashful when you feel like you’ve done something well. If you excel at something which they’re not directly involved in, make it clear you did a good job. You want to give them ammunition to speak up on your behalf when it comes to senior management evaluating the performance of all of the employees.
#10 – Be productive with a task-manager app
I recently wrote a blog post called ‘Things 3: 7 features that make this productivity app worth paying for‘ which reviews my personal choice for task managing app.
This app costs money but you can get plenty of good ones for free which should help you be productive and remember your various commitments.
#11 – Speak your mind rather than being a yes-man (but be polite about it)
If a business owner or manager were asked “describe your perfect employee?” how many do you think would say “always agrees with me”, “doesn’t offer their own opinion” or “timid”? My guess is very few. Whilst there is a tightrope to walk between saying what you think and being polite, it’s almost always worth sharing your good ideas or pointing out when a strategy is doomed to fail.
Nobody likes being told their idea won’t work or there’s a better way to do something but most prefer this than implementing a costly idea that ultimately fails. To be considered for promotion, you have to show you have something to offer beyond acting on instructions.
#12 – Don’t be afraid to say no or to disagree
Each of us needs to take responsibility for our own work and that includes saying no if what you are being asked to do is unfeasible or disagreeing if a proposed plan just doesn’t make sense based on the information you have.
As with all things, there is a certain way of going about this. Instead of saying ‘that won’t work because x’ which is guaranteed to get someones back up, phrase it as ‘I was planning on doing that too but then thought about x and now I’m wondering if this course of action might be better’.
This way, you share your idea, contribute positively and don’t risk upsetting the sensibilities of the colleague.
Saying no can be a difficult thing to do, particularly to someone much more senior in the organisation than you. It’s important not to say no simply because you don’t fancy it (which is never going to go particularly well) but be willing to say no when you have a good reason. If, for example, someone asked you to do something by the end of today but you knew you wouldn’t have time as have x, y and z to do already, both parties are better off if you are upfront and say no and explain your reasoning. You keep control of your schedule and the task can be assigned to someone else who will give it it’s due attention.
The same thing applies when disagreeing with someone else’s viewpoint. The crucial thing is, no matter how much you know you’re right, be willing to accept if they don’t agree. If the difference of opinion can’t be settled by you winning them round to your viewpoint, it’s almost never worth being confrontational over it.
#13 – Take the time to become a master at the IT systems used
For most of us, our job will involve at least one IT system or programme that’s used – whether that be a booking system, Excel, an accounting software or whatever.
If you were to take the time to become a department expert on this system or programme, you’d clearly differentiate yourself from the other employees and give yourself loads of opportunities to build working relationships when you help people out with IT difficulties. Becoming an expert or just 10% better than most of the department on that system probably isn’t even as bigger job as you might think.
Not only does it help you to stand out in a team, being an expert in a system will probably make you more efficient in your own work. Don’t take this too far and lock yourself in as the tech support guy (unless you work in the IT department) but outside of this, there really is no downside to learning your employers key IT systems well.
#14 – Go about your work as if you had already been promoted
The final tip of this post is more of a psychological one and links in nicely to tip #2. If your goal is to be promoted to the next rung of your organisation’s ladder, go about your work and responsibilities as if you already hold that job.
It’s important not to step on any toes here and obviously avoid actually *doing* all of the work of that role but if you show you have the broad skill set of the role above yours, it becomes far easier to promote you.
I’ve tried to make these tips as applicable across sectors and specialities as possible but it is slightly biased to office work as that’s my working background. Clearly many of these tips aren’t going to be applicable to someone who works in a garage for example but hopefully many of them can be extrapolated and applied to your own situations.
Becoming a high performer at work isn’t an impossible code to crack and is actually as simple as taking a few thoughtful steps such as communicating clearly and taking accountability on a consistent basis. In the journey to financial independence, earning promotions is an important step as it usually means an increased income.
As we know, an increase in income is one of the two ways of increasing our surplus (income minus expenditure). The greater this surplus we can achieve, the more money we have available to invest and the sooner we should be able to achieve financial independence.
As always, please remember I am an Accountant, but not your Accountant. In this post (and all of my others) I share information and oftentimes give anecdotes about what has worked well for me. However, I do not know your personal financial situation and so do not offer individual financial advice. If you are unsure on a particular financial subject, please hire a qualified financial advisor to guide you.
This article has been written by Luke Girling, ACA – a qualified Accountant and personal finance enthusiast in the UK. Please visit my ‘About‘ page for more information. To verify my ACA credentials – please search for my name at the ICAEW member finder. To get in touch with questions or ideas for future posts, please comment below or contact me here.