Workplace

The Secret to Being a Star at Work Right Now

Forget brilliance or a backbreaking workload. Today, common sense and manners are often enough to stand out.


A young professional I recently asked to interview said yes but added that she had taken time to read my latest columns before accepting.  

She does her homework, I thought. Or maybe I’m easily impressed.

Maybe we all are.

At a time when ambition is down, cussing is up, and managing a Walmart seems too demanding for people to jump at the $200,000 salaries being dangled, a little initiative and a positive attitude can earn you superstar status and sometimes extra pay.

On the “quiet quitting” curve, rising to the top of the class doesn’t necessarily take ingenious ideas or interminable hours. Just ask people who are winning promotions and outstanding employee awards. I did. 

Taylor Bretl has worked on being a trusted source of information for her boss and colleagues.

PHOTO: JENXPHOTOGRAPHY.COM

They told me common-sense moves that might once have been considered standard—meeting people in person, doing small favors for colleagues, hitting deadlines even if it means occasional late nights—are now seen as exceptional in the current work climate.

“Some people probably just need a reminder that those things matter,” says Taylor Bretl, a 29-year-old recruiter in Dallas and the person who impressed me by reading my work.

Looking stuff up is a kind of superpower for Ms. Bretl, a former dietitian who switched careers and has advanced to become a manager in four years at Slalom, a technology consulting firm, earning a leadership award last year. When her boss or another colleague has a question, she often finds the answer fast by checking old emails, internal documents, or Google. 

Serving as others’ search engine isn’t in her job description, but it helps her shine.

“I want to be known as the person who knows where everything is or who took crazy-good notes, even if I didn’t,” she says.

Doing extra by showing up

Companies have a renewed appreciation for employees who are willing to do a bit extra, says Scott Hamilton, global managing director of the human resources and compensation consulting practice at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. He says many of his company’s clients are offering spot bonuses and promotions to those who step up, even a little, recognizing that many others are putting their personal lives first and giving less to their jobs.

Performing tasks that co-workers neglect or grumble about is a time-tested way to get noticed, yet the bar for gold-star work still isn’t as high as it used to be, some standouts acknowledge.

Consultant Alec Agana, a senior associate at KPMG in Los Angeles, says he knows that long hours in the office were a baseline expectation for many of his predecessors. Now he says he scores points by showing up in person a few times a week, even though he is often required to go in just once.

“I view it as a chance to learn a little bit more because I’ll be next to my manager or partner,” he says. “Obviously everyone has to fight the traffic, wake up a little bit earlier, and pick an outfit, but we’re professionals.”

Like other young workers I spoke with, Mr. Agana, 25, says millennials and Gen Zers are sometimes unfairly accused of not grinding hard enough. As somebody who emigrated from the Philippines at age 5, however, Mr. Agana says he finds opportunities where many peers who grew up more comfortably see drudgery. He adds that his mother raised him on her own, and he feels driven to validate her sacrifices. 

Last year, he was among two dozen winners of KPMG’s award of distinction, the firm’s highest employee honor. “Professional conduct” is one of the qualities that set him apart, the firm’s managing partner in Los Angeles wrote on LinkedIn, along with outstanding job performance.

Going for that promotion

Rudolf Petrosyan, an attorney at Wood, Smith, Henning & Berman in Glendale, Calif., says a key to being elected to senior counsel at his firm last month was sticking around long enough—four years—to earn the promotion.

Rudolf Petrosyan plans to stay put and rise through the ranks.

PHOTO: MARGARET GABUCHIAN

Many of the people with whom he graduated from law school in 2018 are at their third or fourth firm, chasing incremental raises in a strong job market for lawyers.

His goal: stay and rise to partner one day. The idea is strikingly old-school in an industry where the culture of long tenure is fading. Mr. Petrosyan, 32, says he’ll accomplish it by observing and emulating the people who have the job he wants.

“If I want to be a partner, I have to start by thinking like a partner,” says Mr. Petrosyan, who practices civil litigation. “A lot of junior attorneys just focus on the law, but the partners are strategic thinkers. So, I started coming up with ways to strategize on a case, and after a while people started listening.”

If that sounds obvious, wait until you hear how Oscar Saavedra, 38, landed his promotion last month. He asked for one.

Oscar Saavedra asked for a promotion—and he received it.

PHOTO: RTW PHOTOGRAPHY

“No one’s going to know that you want a promotion unless you say it,” he says.

Mr. Saavedra works from his home in Wyoming, Mich., as a system architect for a manufacturing software company.

He was previously a project manager and says that he wanted to play a more active role in technology development and make fuller use of his industrial engineering degree. He took on extra assignments to show what he could do and then raised his hand when his company needed to hire a system architect. Hitting the road—and performance goals

Of course, soft skills are best complemented by impressive performance. Claire Thomasmeyer, who leads college recruiting in the Southeast for the civil engineering firm Kimley-Horn, says three-quarters of last summer’s interns will return as full-time employees after graduation this spring, which she thinks is a company record for her region. She recently collected a plaque for outstanding dedication.

How did Ms. Thomasmeyer, 27, retain so many interns? She visited them in Kimley-Horn offices throughout the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. She wasn’t required or even asked to hit the road, but the company enthusiastically supported her effort, she says. 

Volunteering to travel—or otherwise going above and beyond—isn’t the norm these days. 

“That’s not something I see a lot of friends in different careers doing,” she says.

Write to Callum Borchers at callum.borchers@wsj.com

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Appeared in the, print edition as 'These Stars at Their Jobs Say It’s Not So Hard to Stand Out.'