Every summer as a teenager, I worked for a family business in my small hometown in upstate New York. I would work the morning shift at the ice cream stand, and then walked next door to Danny’s restaurant, owned by the same family, to bus tables at night. I was motivated—I wanted to earn enough money to pay for my living expenses and books during college. That experience did more for me then help me earn money for college. I also learned an important lesson that has helped me in every job I have ever had since then, and has contributed to multiple promotions.
One of the owners, Vinny, often repeated a saying to the staff that has stuck with me all these years later; “If you can lean, you can clean”. I’ll admit that as a teenager, this off-handed comment sounded a bit micromanaging at first, but I realized that working hard and putting in extra effort had its rewards—I was quickly given more responsibility at the ice cream stand, and allowed to open and close the shifts on my own.
In my early twenties, I left upstate New York to move to my now home state of Maryland. Although I left the restaurant and ice cream stand behind, I took the principle of “if you can lean, you can clean” with me. I realized that becoming indispensable to my bosses had its rewards in the corporate world as well. Being proactive by offering to take on additional work and take tasks off my manager’s plate built trust, respect, and accolades. In a nutshell, I put in the effort to make my boss’s job easier.
In the journey to develop in your career, there are many important competencies and skills that can help you get ahead. Pursuing an advanced degree, learning a new system, and doing your job well can all contribute to higher level responsibilities or a promotion.
But an often-overlooked quality for getting ahead is going above and beyond for the people around you.
Below are some examples of how you can apply the concept of “if you can lean, you can clean.”
- In a weekly meeting with your manager, offer to take a task off her plate. I recall a time when I was the VP of HR at a credit union and my CEO mentioned a vendor she needed to call and schedule an on-site meeting with. I offered to call the vendor for her. If you make it a habit to do this often, your manager will see you as a proactive, effective leader who gets things done.
- Before approaching your manager with a problem, brainstorm solutions first. Share how you would approach or handle the issue, and ask for buy-in. A common complaint I hear from leaders is that their employees upward delegate issues to them. No one wants more problems, they want solutions. Be the solution.
- In team meetings, when your manager asks for someone to take on a task, volunteer. Be proactive in helping your manager any way you can to make her job easier.
- Come prepared to your one-on-one meetings by thinking through how you want to best use the time with your manager. Don’t expect your manager to lead the meeting.
- Follow up and follow through. These skills cannot be overemphasized enough. Leaders don’t want to run after you to get what they need. Write down everything you commit to, and don’t miss deadlines. Trust is an important factor when managers promote employees.
- Anticipate your manager’s needs. One of the best employees I ever worked with would approach me often to ask what she could help me with. She wasn’t bored—she had plenty to do—but she made it her priority to help take things off my plate. She stood out from her coworkers by offering assistance regularly.
- Don’t complain to your boss. Don’t complain about other team members, and don’t complain that you don’t have enough time. Whether conscious or not, your manager will question whether you can handle more responsibility if you can’t handle your current workload.
- Ask for clarity. If you do feel overwhelmed with work, approach your boss and ask for clarity. For example, “I have three projects that seem important right now. Which one would you say is the priority?” or “When do you need this report by?”
- Come with a plan. Many times, managers aren’t in tune with the everyday tasks and projects you have on your plate. Instead of complaining about your workload, develop a realistic plan of what can get done with the time and resources you have. Again, leaders want solutions, not problems. For example, “In evaluating our resources, the team doesn’t have the capacity to do projects A, B, and C this quarter. Here is what we can reasonably do with the time and resources we have.”
There are many ways you can approach your work with a proactive mindset and become the go-to employee for your manager and team. Developing your knowledge and skills is an important part of preparing for the next step in your career. But if you really want to stand out, put in extra effort as part of your everyday work.