THE BLOG
08/31/2010 04:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Stand Out in Any Job

Regardless of what kind of work you do, it's usually not difficult to set yourself apart by going beyond the status quo of being average.

All too many working environments are filled with all kinds of people who are just ambling through their jobs. Many don't want to be there at all, and never miss a chance to let everyone know how much they'd rather be somewhere else.

Others are embarrassingly opportunistic, focused entirely on themselves and "what's in it for them." Their every move is built on pleasing the people they think will determine their future. Still others in most workplaces base their time and energy on the goal of just getting by. They do what they need to do, for the most part, but they rarely take risks and rarely excel.

Sadly, these characterizations are true even in a lot of "helping" professions -- in academia, in non-profit organizations, in the clergy, and so on. Setting a goal of doing the least amount expected of you may have started in the corporate cubicle world, but the norms of mediocrity have since spread throughout most professions.

Fortunately, there is a clear alternative to ambling through your workday. The alternative is to be excellent, to make a huge difference in your working environment, help others do better, and increase your own workplace stock along the way.

Focus on these eight principles to become a superhero in pretty much any job:

Never turn down a project by saying, "That's not in my job description."

We're often taught that high achievers carefully select the tasks and projects that they work on. This is true in the long run, but when you're getting established somewhere, you shouldn't be so selective. Instead, do the things that need to be done but that no one wants to do.

You can always point out later that you've done everything you're supposed to do and a lot more, but don't whine about your projects while they're underway. If someone asks you to do something, it's usually because they think you'll do it well. Impress them and do it even better.

Focus externally and continually ask for feedback.

Ask your boss, your colleagues, and your subordinates the same question every couple of weeks: "What can I do better?" If they don't give you a straight answer, they're usually just being polite. Ask again.

Also ask all of these people, "How can I help you?" Spend time every day focusing on the people around you. Think about their needs and preemptively help them. Make it clear you're not helping them so they can help you later; just make their lives easier and help them look good to others.

Build a strong team even if you're not the boss, and be a leader no matter what your title is.

You don't need to be in charge to be a team-builder. Just start doing it. Take notes at meetings and email them out to the participants. Begin asking follow-up questions: "Who will take responsibility for this? When will it be done?"

Leadership rarely involves telling people what to do. Instead, it's usually about helping people and teams create synergy and accomplish great things by working together. You can do that without any title at all. When the time comes where you do need to tell someone what to do, they'll listen to you if you have taken the time to build the team well.

You know you've been successful when people start looking to you for the answers even when more experienced or more senior people are around. If you're not at a meeting and people notice your absence, that's a good start. If they wait to begin the meeting until you can be located, that's even better.

Propose and Support Amazing Ideas...

Think about how you can make your organization or your workgroup great. Think really big, but also think small--sometimes the most effective changes require relatively small shifts in behavior or perception. Ask others for ideas. Most people have them, but they often don't know how to present them, or they feel shut down from a previous negative experience. Get the best ideas out of the best people, and start pitching for them.

...but don't pitch your biggest ideas in a group meeting.

Your ideas will "travel" further if they have the support of others, and it's much easier to get buy-in through individual meetings. This is why the "meeting before the meeting" is usually more important than the meeting. Test out your best ideas. Give them time to settle with others. Go to each key decision maker to share your idea before the real meeting starts.

Then at the meeting, introduce the idea by saying, "I mentioned this to a couple of people earlier..." Everyone you talked with earlier will feel validated that they were involved before the big meeting, so talk to as many people as possible.

After you've established some credibility, start a small but meaningful rebellion.

Make sure you pick something that is easy to win but still makes a positive difference for most of your colleagues. Good ideas are dress codes, mandatory but useless meetings, and any long-standing practices that don't make sense. Start violating these norms, slowly but boldly. Because you've taken the time to establish credibility, your rebellion will be closely watched. And because you've picked something that's easy to win but meaningful to others, you'll have good support for it. After you achieve the change you were seeking, share the credit and plan your next rebellion.

Don't get tangled up in long email threads.

Never be a slave to your Outlook folder. Check it twice a day, turn off the "ding" sound that alerts you to new mail, and set up an Action folder to process important items instead of continually looking through your Inbox. As an inexperienced leader who derived too much self-worth from my Outlook addiction, someone said to me once, "Chris, don't try to be the fastest person to reply to these long email threads. Just take your time, listen to other people, and then contribute something meaningful."

Work smarter and harder.

Yes, you should find ways to work smarter and avoid repetitive, monotonous tasks. But you should also work really hard. Show up early and leave late. After you've established some authority, you can get back to pacing yourself. It's a lot better to have a reputation as a hard worker from the beginning. When you relax a little later, no one will notice.

If you feel threatened by someone, don't show it.

Most people who lead by intimidation are quite insecure. Don't reinforce their insecurity by pandering to it. Even when it's working for them and you feel intimidated, never let them know. Instead, do your job, keep excelling, keep looking out for others, and eventually the tide will turn. You may even end up as their boss one day -- it happens all the time.

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These general tips below will also help:

Share Credit, Accept Blame. Many people try to pass the blame to others. It's very different to say, it's my fault. I'm sorry. Try sending an email with the subject "Hey everyone, I'm sorry" sometime and see what happens.

Compliment others every day. Do it by email, phone, notes, any way you can. Find out how people like to be complimented and do it the same way. Don't make it trite. Most people know when you're being genuine.

Go above and beyond. Deliver more than what's expected. Don't do it to be rewarded; do it because it really adds value.

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Be excellent, and a remarkable thing will happen: by helping others look good and improving your overall environment, you'll look good as well. You'll do it without backstabbing and without doing stuff that has no real value. Instead, you'll inspire others.

And then you'll be a leader, just like John Quincy Adams said:

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."

This is real leadership for any generation and any workplace. If you don't yet know how you'll change the world, this is a great way to start.