How to become a star at work

In 1998, Professor Robert E. Kelley published his book How to be a star at work; Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed. In his book Kelley details the in-depth research he conducted at AT&T’s Bell Labs on what leads to star performance.

Kelley’s research team asked managers, knowledge professionals and other researchers what distinguishes star performers and middle performers. Typical answers they received were: star performers have more self-confidence, they have higher IQ’s, more ambition, better problem solving skills, they are more creative, have the right boss, work harder, and so on. After two years of testing, study results showed some stunning results; none of these factors actually set the stars from the average performers.

Kelley then developed what he calls his “back of the T-shirt theory”. He says that the things we bring to work such as personality traits, socials skills and cognitive abilities, are all on the front of out T-shirt. We can think of that as our potential energy. This energy has to be transformed into kinetic energy, which is at the back of our shirt. Star performance, in other words, is not about what we bring to the party, but what we do with what we bring.

The star secrets, according to Kelley, are nine work strategies, which are listed below in order of importance and closely linked together. To be a star at work, we have to be good at all of them.

1. Taking initiative
Initiative is all about going the extra mile for the benefit of coworkers, the department or the entire company. It’s about taking responsibility and moving beyond your job description, without being told to do so. Star workers offer new, value-adding ideas and see them through to successful implementation. They tie their initiatives to the company’s core mission.
Initiative means stepping forward and tackling problems. For example, if you’re asked to do a presentation and don’t feel comfortable with your public speaking skills, will you try to improve them, or will you freeze and refuse to do the presentation?

2. Networking
Work today is very complex, problem-plagued and requires a broad base of knowledge. Most of that knowledge is not stored in our minds. So, in order to get their work done and minimise their knowledge-deficit, star performers proactively cultivate relationships with people who have the knowledge that they don’t have, but need. Networking is a two-way street; to get people to share their knowledge with you, you have to make sure that you have something worth trading. We all start with a negative trade balance, and we have to be prepared to share our knowledge with a lot of people before we ask for any help in return. Like Zig Ziglar says in his book See You at The Top: We get get everything we want in life if we help enough people get what they want. Access to the help and knowledge of others is a privilige that must be earned.

3. Self-Management
Self-management is not just about managing time and work commitments, but also about managing our relationships with other people as well as our career. Star performers have good self-knowledge. They know the kind of work they do best and enjoy most and take control over their own career path. They proactively create opportunities for themselves and ensure high job performance. They make good work choices and develop a portfolio of valuable talents and work experiences. Stars take responsibility for their own productivity and work to increase their value for the company and in the marketplace.

4. Broad perspective
Broad perspective is about getting the big picture. Star performers have the ability to see problems or projects from different angles by stepping outside of their own viewpoint. Kelley calls those different perspectives the five Cs: the coworker perspective, competitor perspective, customer perspective, company-management perspective and, last but not least, the creative perspective. By adopting different perspectives, star workers are able to develop better solutions to problems. Broad perspective is all about building up case histories, recognising patterns and internalising the information so that it clicks together.

5. Followership
Followership focuses on the work relationship that guides our interactions with those who have authority over us. Most of us are in a followership 90% of the time. Two factors set star followers from average ones: independent, critical thinking and active participation. These factors yield 5 separate styles of followership. The most negative type of followers are sheep followers, who are completely passive and dependent on the leader for direction and instruction. Yes-followers are more active, but still very dependent on their leaders. They follow blindly and do no more than they’re told to do. Alienated followers are critical thinkers and very independent, but also passive in carrying out their jobs, often because of a personal dislike for authority and little job satisfaction. Pragmatist followers constantly monitor the wind direction. They are able to survive even major changes in the workplace. The most valuable group contains star followers, who think creatively and exercise independent, critical judgement of goals, tasks and methods. They have focus and commitment and show a lot of energy in accomplishing tasks.

6. Leadership
Stars exercise what Kelly calls “leadership with a small l”. Star leaders often don’t have the authority to fire people or give out bonuses and promotions, but they lead by being knowledgeable, by creating momentum, and by paying attention to the human relationships that connect people to one another. They employ their expertise and influence to convince people to accomplish tasks. Small-l leaders are action-oriented. They bring energy to their jobs and thus attract followers.

7. Teamwork
Stars think about teams the way Charles Lindbergh thought about what to take when he went on his historic flight across the Atlantic. His plane could carry only so much fuel, so he had to make decisions on what items to take and what to leave behind, depending on whether he really needed them or not. Stars look at teams the same way: Do I really need this team - or does this team really need me?

Star performers are very good team players. They make sure that everyone on the team knows the team’s goals and that the work gets distributed in a fair way. They see to it that the team follows the project through to completion.

8. Organisational diplomacy
Organisational diplomacy means accurately reading organisational realities, which are oft hidden. It’s about detecting key power relationships, sensing whom to trust and whom to avoid, and managing competing workplace interests. Star performers also know when to avoid conflicts and when to meet them head on. They detect crucial social networks and take into account the different perspectives at the workplace.

9. Show-and-Tell
Star performers have the ability to communicate their ideas persuasively, whether they’re giving a presentation, sending a memo, or testing out a new idea. They fine-tune presentations to appeal to their audience and use the right message at the right time. They are masters at selling their initiatives and explaining their perspectives in a way that moves people.

Becoming a star performer
Even stars sometimes end up in the wrong job, in the wrong company or with the wrong boss. It’s important to bear in mind that we always have a choice: we can change bosses or jobs within the company, try to change the boss’s mind or the organisational culture, or go work for a different company or boss. The important thing according to Kelley is not to stay in a situation where our star won’t shine.

Another thing to remember is that star status doesn’t travel with us. Whenever we change jobs, departments, or companies, we have to start from scratch.

Stars are made, not born. Becoming a star at work is like improving your tennis game. First, you identify your bad habits and necessary improvements, and then you practice every single day. Like Billie Jean King said: “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” If you want to become a star at work, you’ll have to keep playing until you get it right.

Author: Ingrid Kuhlman. Published in AdmiNZ in New Zealand, August 2004.