Are You a Star at Work?

In other fields, there’s very little doubt over what it takes to be a star. But do you know what it takes to be one at work? Robert E. Kelley has the answer.

How do you become a star at work? For more than a decade, Robert E. Kelley has tried to answer that question, conducting in-depth research at such companies as AT&T’s Bell Labs, 3M, and Hewlett-Packard. How do average performers differ from stars? Are stars just smarter? Or more self-confident? Or better at interpersonal and leadership skills? The answer, says Kelley, is none of the above: “It isn’t what stars have in their heads that makes them stand out. It’s how they use what they have.”


In How to Be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed (Times Books, 1998), Kelley details his research and offers a blueprint to help average performers lift themselves into the realm of the stars. “Most people know that they have a star within them,” he says, “but for some reason, it hasn’t clicked. They see other people getting ahead, people with roughly the same talent as they have – and these other people are on a faster track. Most people genuinely want to be more productive, do their best, and live up to their potential, but they don’t know how to do it.”

Kelley is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration and the president of Consultants to Executives and Organizations Ltd. His previous books include The Gold-Collar Worker: Harnessing the Brainpower of the New Workforce (Addison-Wesley, 1985) and The Power of Followership: How to Create Leaders People Want to Follow and Followers Who Lead Themselves (Currency/Doubleday, 1992). Fast Company found Kelley at his home in Pittsburgh and asked him to describe what it takes to be a star at work.

Is your star on the back of your T-shirt?

My colleagues and I spent more than 10 years trying to find a valid, objective measure that we can apply to all people – or even to everybody in the same kind of job, or everybody in the same company. It’s almost impossible: No two jobs are alike, no two companies are alike. So we gave up on finding one metric that everyone can agree on.


Instead, we developed a definition like the one sometimes used for “pornography”: Nobody can tell you how to measure it, but everybody knows it when they see it. Everyone is an armchair expert. Everyone has an opinion. And everyone is more than willing to dispense that advice to anyone else who will listen.

So we collected all of those opinions: There are roughly 45 beliefs that people use to explain why some people are stars. A lot of people chalk it up to raw intelligence: Stars are smarter. Another set of explanations emphasizes social skills: Stars are born leaders. And then we heard personality explanations: Stars are driven, they have the will to succeed, they’re self-confident, they’re self-motivated. We also researched explanations that stress environmental factors: Becoming a star is all about having the right job or the right boss.

We spent two years putting all of these beliefs to the test. We put stars and average performers in rooms and gave them IQ tests. We gave them personality tests. We measured their attitudes about whether they liked their jobs, their bosses, their companies. After two years, we came up with the results: None of these factors distinguished the stars from the average performers!


We finally developed our “back of the T-shirt” theory. Your IQ, your personality, your social skills, even things like where you went to school – that’s all on the front of your T-shirt. Think of all that as your potential energy. But the important thing is how you transform potential energy into kinetic energy. That’s on the back of your T-shirt. If you want to know if someone is a star, or is going to become a star, focus on what’s on the back of that person’s T-shirt.

In other words, it’s not what people bring to the party that makes them a star – it’s what they do with what they bring. The secrets to being a star are not in people’s personal characteristics but in how people go about doing their work.

Do you shine in the white space?

When you’re starting out, remember that the things you do first not only build a foundation but also send important messages to your colleagues, your customers, and your boss. That’s why the first step toward becoming a star is to show that you take initiative. Initiative is about working in the white space. In today’s workplace, you see it more and more: work that no one can predict will need to be done and that doesn’t fit neatly into someone’s job description – in other words, work that gets done only when people step forward and tackle it.


But it’s not enough just to take initiative – first you have to understand it. If you ask average performers, “How do you get ahead?” they’ll tell you that initiative is important. Yet star performers and average performers have a fundamentally different understanding of what constitutes initiative. Here’s an example: A young woman is asked by her boss to go to a meeting in another department, to take notes, and to report back to her group. She realizes that just taking notes won’t do the job, so she takes a tape recorder with her. After the meeting, she listens to the tape, writes up her notes, and reports back. To her, using the tape recorder was taking initiative.

When stars hear that story, they say, “That’s not initiative – that’s just doing your job!” The boss told her to report on the meeting. How she chose to do that was up to her – but tape recorder or no tape recorder, she was only doing her job. For stars, initiative generally has four elements: It means doing something above and beyond your job description. It means helping other people. Usually it involves some element of risk-taking. And when you’re really taking initiative, it involves seeing an activity through to completion.

Here are a couple of other rules about initiative: First, before you take on anything new, make sure that you’re doing your assigned job well. Second, remember that social initiatives don’t count for much. Organizing the company picnic or a blood drive won’t get you the kind of recognition you want. They’re fine things to do – but do them because they bring you satisfaction. Third, the kind of initiatives that matter to your career are those that relate to the company’s critical path. Find out what promotes the company’s core mission, and tie your initiatives to it.


Do you have a star-studded network?

Networking is the way work gets done. most people don’t have all the knowledge they need to do their work. Jobs today are too complex, they’re changing too quickly – or they just involve more work than one person can handle. That’s why stars turn to others to get help. They use networks to multiply their productivity.

If you want to be better at networking, start by recognizing what you don’t know but need to know. Then figure out who can supply that knowledge – and cultivate relationships with those people.

Stars do this all the time. They are always on the lookout for people to add to their network. When they find themselves in a meeting that’s a waste of time – and we all have too many meetings like that every day – they use the time to identify people in the meeting who are worth getting to know.


Stars also understand the economics of networking. Average performers look at networking as if it were a right: They call someone they don’t know and simply demand help. Stars realize that networking is a barter system. If you expect people to trade with you, you have to establish that you have something worth trading. You have to have expertise that people need but don’t already have. You also have to be patient: Be prepared to help out a lot of people before you ask anyone for help in return. You start with a negative trade balance, and it takes time to build up credits.

Do you see your career as a constellation?

Average performers see self-management as time management: “If I get my work done on time, then I’m a good self-manager.” To stars, that’s just the beginning. You’re expected to manage your time well. You’re expected to manage your projects well. Real self-management means managing not only your work but also your relationships with people, your career, and your career assets over time.

Here’s an example of how average performers and stars differ in this category. The average performer finishes a project, and then goes to the boss and asks, “What do you want me to do next?” The star starts looking around six months before a project is done and asks, “What experiences do I have in my portfolio? What assignment should I tackle next that would make me more valuable for the company and more valuable in the marketplace?” Stars select their next project before they finish the one they’re working on.


What you hear from average performers is a complaint: “It’s all political. All the best projects around here are wired to stars. They get whatever they want, and we have to take what’s left over.” Average performers don’t see what’s really happening. It’s not that the organization is wired. It’s that stars know how to get ahead of the game – while average performers wait for the game to come to them.

There are some core skills that you can develop to do a better job of managing yourself. Start by understanding the company. What is its critical path? Then align yourself with its core business, so you contribute more directly to its larger purpose. Second, understand who you are and how you work best. Too many people think they’re going to become a star by changing who they are – but that almost never works. It’s more important to recognize how you work and then to turn that into an advantage. There are plenty of stars who have messy desks, for instance. They know how to be productive and have a messy desk. How do they do it? You can find out by talking to them – and then figuring out how to apply their techniques.

How much (star) light do you let in?

Average performers suffer from tunnel vision: they see the world from their viewpoint, and they keep pushing that viewpoint over and over again. Star performers see things in a much bigger way. They step outside of their own viewpoint and adopt different perspectives: “How do my competitors think about this? What do the customers think? How about my colleagues? What about the boss?”


I think of perspective as pattern recognition plus experience. Think of how doctors work: Over time, they see hundreds and hundreds of patients, they build up a base of case histories, and they learn to identify the symptoms that go together. Stars build up their own case histories, they develop the capacity for pattern recognition, and they internalize the information so that it clicks together.

Perspective comes partly from experience. But it’s something you can work on. After each project, ask yourself, What did I learn? Then seek out an assignment that will give you a different kind of experience – even if conventional wisdom says it’s not a prize job.

Take software testing. People in the software business don’t like to do testing, because it’s kind of boring: You’re testing other people’s code and finding bugs – you’re not creating anything of your own. Most average performers think of it as drudgery that won’t help them get ahead. But lots of software stars do their time in testing: It gives them a chance to see a lot of products, and they can apply everything they learn from it to building their own code in the future. It’s a concentrated dose of pattern recognition plus experience.


Are you a star follower?

When people hear the term “star performer,” they think “prima donna.” In fact, stars are very good at helping other people succeed. Followership means knowing that you can’t always have the lead. You’re going to be in a followership role a lot of the time, and you have to help those in charge do the best they can. Stars not only know how to stand out – they also know how to help out.

For example, when they’re on a team as a member, rather than as the leader, stars know how to pitch in. They check their ego at the door. If they think the leader is going off in the wrong direction, they know how to disagree without being disagreeable – and without undermining the leader’s authority with the team. Instead of taking the leader on in public, for example, they might sit down in private and say, “There might be some things that you’re not aware of. Let me be your eyes and ears – just to be sure you’re in the loop.”

Too many average performers become preoccupied with their own needs and ambitions. To be a good follower, focus on the project’s needs and on the leader’s needs. Don’t try to make records for yourself – try to make wins happen for the team.


Being a good follower doesn’t mean sitting passively and taking orders. You should figure out what to do before you’re told. Good followers are fact-finders: They find out how to do as much as they can without bothering the boss. When you work in this fashion, you gain a reputation as someone who’s working for the good of the enterprise, rather than as a showboat.

Do you spell leadership with a small “l”?

These days, there is a lot of talk about leadership. but most of it is about what I call “leadership with a capital L.” It’s the kind of stuff that you see on all the magazine covers: CEOs promoting their big visions, their big ambitions, their big egos.

For star performers, that’s not what leadership is. Stars exercise “small-l” leadership. Star performers very often don’t have the power to fire anybody. They can’t give out promotions, bonuses, or raises. What they have is the ability to bring people together to get things done. And they have it because of the way they work.


Stars strip away the visionary and charismatic stuff, and get to the three components of real leadership: People want leaders who are knowledgeable. People want leaders who create momentum – who bring energy to the job and create energy in other people. And people want leaders who pay attention to everyone who’s involved in a project – leaders who can attract followers.

If you want to be a small-l leader, start by understanding the people who are following you: Why are they following you, what’s in it for them, and how can you help them? Next, take seriously your responsibility for building momentum in the organization: You’ve got to have intent. Do the small things that matter – and do them in a way that shows that they matter. If you say you’re going to take on a leadership role, make sure that meetings get called, that the agenda gets set, and that things don’t slip through the cracks.

The important thing to realize is that you can be a small-l leader. It’s not a matter of how strong your jawline is. Stars have a very action-oriented definition of leadership. If you do the small-l stuff, people are going to want to work with you.


Are you using a star’s approach to teamwork?

We’ve created a whole culture of teamwork – largely because of the elimination of so many middle-management jobs. Teams are supposed to fill the vacuum left by middle managers. But they often don’t succeed. The problem isn’t with the teams, of course. It’s with how and why they get formed and with how they actually work – or don’t work.

I like to compare the way stars think about teams with the way Charles Lindbergh thought about what to take on his historic flight across the Atlantic. His plane could carry only so much fuel, so he had to decide what he would take and what he would leave behind. With each item, he’d ask, Do I absolutely need this to get across? If the answer was no, the item got left behind.

Stars look at teams the same way. They say, “I’ve got only so much time. Do I absolutely need this team – or does this team absolutely need me – to make something important happen?”

Of course, once stars are on a team, they become very good team players. They make sure that everyone on the team knows and buys into its goals. They make sure the work gets distributed in a way that makes sense and that’s fair to everyone. They also make sure, once the team is put together, that it actually gets the job done.

Do you know how your company really works?

Stars also have what we call “organizational savvy.” In Chicago, where I grew up, people call it “street smarts.” It means understanding the lay of the land in an organization. Part of it is knowing whom to trust and whom to avoid. Part of it is knowing how to navigate all of the competing interests within the organization – recognizing which ones will come into play and which ones you can safely ignore.

Stars also pay attention to conflicts. In most organizations, conflicts don’t get enough of an airing. People who are opposed to a decision often just get run over, and often it turns out that they should have been listened to. But the flip side is also true: There’s too much agreement in organizations. Remember The Abilene Paradox, by Jerry Harvey? In it, he told a story: Nobody wants to take the trip to Abilene, but nobody wants to be the one who speaks against it. That kind of complicity can lead to all kinds of fiascos.

That’s why organizational savvy is important. But how do you develop it? You start on your first day at an organization: You keep your eyes open. You pay attention. You get your boss’s view of what’s going on. You talk to some of the old-timers who have been around and get their views. You talk to star performers and get their sense of how things work. Chances are, you’ll get several different perspectives. It’s not important which perspective is right. What’s important is knowing that there are these different perspectives. Then, as you go about doing your work, you can take them into account.

These days, a lot of people recommend that you find a mentor. That’s very good advice. But it’s one of those pieces of good advice that doesn’t apply to most of the population – because mentoring doesn’t happen very often. Most people can’t find a mentor. Most mentoring programs that companies set up don’t work, because mentoring isn’t something you can command.

But you can become your own mentor. Pay close attention to what goes on. Find out who the people are who make things happen. Find the stars and study them. Become a student in the workplace. When you study different approaches, you learn what works and what doesn’t work in your environment.

Are you a star at show and tell?

Stars also know how to use the right message with the right audience at the right time. They are superb communicators. But being a good communicator doesn’t mean always “being on.” In fact, one of the things that average performers do wrong is to overcommunicate: Every day, they send another memo to the boss. They chatter on, but they don’t really have anything to contribute. People turn a deaf ear to them. Star performers know how to time their messages, and how to craft them, so that people pay attention.

If you want to excel at “show and tell,” understand your audience: What moves people in this particular audience? What do they listen to? What language makes sense to them? For one person, it’s going to be dollars; for another, it’s going to be values. You match that language with the way you deliver information – whether you’re making a presentation, sending a memo, or cornering someone in the hallway to test out an idea. Figure out the message that moves people, put it into the language they speak, and deliver it in a way that works for them.

What do you do on Monday morning?

If you’re an average performer and you want to become a star, what do you do on Monday morning? Start by taking a hard look at yourself and at the star performers. Ask yourself, “What are they doing that I’m not doing? And what am I doing that gets in my way?” Then become a student of the stars: Do what they do.

Try it for a while. You’ll know you’re making progress when you start hearing about it from your colleagues. They’ll start asking you to be on their team. You’ll start getting calls from people asking for information. You’ll know your efforts are working, because you’ll find that you’re being included in the stuff that counts.

The good news is, all of these skills can be learned. Becoming a star at work is like improving your golf or tennis game. You identify your bad habits and the improvements you need to put in place – and then you practice those improvements every day.

Alan M. Webber is a founding editor of Fast company. You can reach Robert Kelley by email , and you can learn more about his ideas on the Web .


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