Harvard career advisor: 'Make others look good,' and 3 more ways to stand out at work

Staying attuned to what your supervisors need can help you get ahead.

Gorick Ng.
Photo by Nile Scott

Many Americans are rethinking their jobs since the pandemic. A full 25% say they are more likely to seek work in a new field, and 27% are more likely to find a new position, according to a January 2021 National Association of Personal Financial Advisors survey of 2,006 adults.

Whether you're looking to stay where you are or boost your value for a future move, it's smart to begin implementing strategies to help you stand out at work.

"There will be a day when the higher-ups will all be in a room discussing who to give that career-building opportunity or promotion to, and there will be someone in that room who will bang the table and say, 'We absolutely need to give it to X. I trust them with my life,'" says Harvard career advisor Gorick Ng, author of "The Unspoken Rules." "You want to be person X. How? By building a reputation as someone who consistently delivers — and overdelivers."

You may feel tempted to point out your own accomplishments, but you can really shine by giving credit to someone else, Ng adds: "There's this unspoken rule of 'make others look good, make others feel good.'" Here's his best advice for how to do that, and how to get ahead in general.

Boost others and 'build allyship'

Let's say you'd like to present on a topic or new procedure during a staff meeting, but your manager is generally the person who does this. "Could you actually get further faster by briefing your manager so that they look good in the meeting?" he says. "If they look good and feel good at the meeting, they'll turn around and reward you for making them look and feel good."

You can benefit from praising your co-workers publicly while handling any corrections privately, says Ng. So if you're in a virtual meeting and a co-worker is struggling to answer a question, you can type it to them in a private chat window. "No one has to know the answer came from you, but this person that you want to build allyship with knows and hopefully will remember that," he says. 

Find the balance between learner and leader

When you're new to a team or a project, you may best excel by listening, taking notes, and learning how things work. Over time, you graduate into more of a leadership position where you can speak up more. 

Make sure to stay humble and not presume you're a leader too early. "It's important to ask yourself if you are at a point where you are in leader mode. Otherwise you could come across as overbearing, as too much of a whippersnapper, before you've even proven yourself."

While the general idea is that you're learning more when you start, and over time you lead more, you don't want to ever stop learning. "It never quite becomes 100 to 0 where you're only leading and never learning," says Ng. "I feel like that's where you get problematic leadership." 

There's this unspoken rule of 'make others look good, make others feel good.'
Gorick Ng
Harvard career advisor and author of 'The Unspoken Rules'

Whether you're in learner or leader mode will also depend on who you're in the room with, and whether you're expected to be the person who knows a certain amount about the topic or procedure. Ng gives the example of an executive he interviewed at a venture capital firm whose employee prepared a research report for a meeting but barely said anything during the discussion about it. "There was an unspoken expectation from the higher-ups that, 'Hey, you're closer to the details. Why aren't you speaking up right now?'"

So it's not just about your rank, but also how familiar you are with the subject matter and how appropriate it is to share in that context. "Often your subject-matter knowledge can transcend or supersede your ranking, especially within a small group, small setting, and you're the owner of this work," says Ng. "There's going to be an expectation that you'll not just be seen but you'll also be heard."

Notice if your feedback patterns are positive or negative

Pay attention to whether you're hearing good things or not-so-good things from your supervisors. For example, whether you are being given the same reminders repeatedly or if your supervisors are offering you extra responsibilities. The latter shows "positive feedback patterns that are indications that people are trusting you more and are unlocking more opportunities for you," says Ng.

While feedback in school is represented as a clear grade, it isn't usually as obvious at work outside of annual reviews or pay raises, so you have to be attuned to what you're hearing or not hearing. "Even if it doesn't seem like your manager has much feedback for you, that's not necessarily a sign that they don't have opinions," he says.

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Video by Stephen Parkhurst

'Carve out your own swim lane' to show performance and potential

Demonstrating great performance is about meeting and exceeding expectations — and then doing more, says Ng. "It's about doing a task and then saying, 'I can do this as well, would that be helpful?'" This way, you're building trust and unlocking more opportunities and the potential for greater responsibilities. 

One way to make your special skills stand out is to "carve out your own swim lane," which Ng describes as "looking around and observing problems that have yet to be solved." 

Often, this means observing the priorities of the people above you. "The more that you are in tune with what matters to those who matter, the more you'll be able to identify problems that matter and projects that matter," he says. "And the more you'll be able to align yourself with work that matters, and in turn, the more you will matter."

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