How To Excel At Work And Achieve Career Success

I was a teacher, coach, and education administrator for 44 years to 10 years at the high school level and 34 at the collegiate level. I also organized and directed basketball camps and clinics throughout America and in 4 European countries.

I was privileged to work with a good number of people who excelled at work which led them to successful careers.

So, how to excel at work and achieve career success?

Through the years, I observed 6 characteristics that I thought led to excellence in the workplace.

1. Humility

The most successful people I worked with were humble from their first through their last day at work. I found that people who made it to the very top of their professions in business, education, law, or medicine were humble people.

Incongruously, people who were trying to excel but had not reached the top were the arrogant, egotistical ones. This seemed to be a recurrent occurrence.

For its 75th anniversary, Fortune Magazine dedicated the entire publication to one concept – decision making. They interviewed leaders from the business, military, education, and political worlds.

I thought the most insightful interview was with Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. His comment was that the most important decisions made in the last 25 years in American boardrooms, regardless of the business, all began with the leaders saying the same 3 words, “I don’t know.”

I have worked with leaders who knew. In fact, to say I worked “with” them is a misnomer. Nobody could work “with” them because they already had all the answers.

I also worked with leaders who, when tough decisions had to be made, called in their principal people. They were not afraid to say, “I don’t know how we should handle this issue, but let’s put our heads together and find the best solution.”

I found these humble leaders to be the most secure and strongest leaders I ever worked with.

John Wooden, the iconic UCLA basketball coach, summed up humility when he wrote:[1]

Talent is God-given, be humble. Fame is man-given, be thankful. But conceit is self-given, be careful.

2. Caring

People who excel at work care about their fellow workers.

Our basketball players at the University of St. Francis used to demonstrate for the coaches who spoke at the Chicago Nike clinics. They had to demonstrate for Indiana coach, Bob Knight, on a Saturday. They had to be nervous because Coach Knight had the reputation of being tough on players and because there were 800 coaches at the clinic.

The very first drill Coach gave our players was a disaster. Our guys totally messed it up. The coaches laughed.

Coach Knight went right over to the coaches and said, “These kids left campus at 6am to help me teach you. So, here is what we’re going to do.”

“If I hear anymore laughing, I’m going to pick 10 of you guys to demonstrate and the kids are going to sit in the first row and laugh at you.”

You never heard 800 coaches get so quiet so quickly!

Bob Knight showed he cared about our players and they were excited to work with him for the rest of the clinic.

People who care, show up. I worked with a great coach at Providence High School named Bob McAlpin. When Bob died, I naturally went to his wake. While there, our St. Francis president, Dr. Jack Orr, came into the room. I was surprised Jack was there because I knew he never met Bob. However, Bob’s daughter, Terri, was a student at St. Francis and Jack cared about her.

Successful people care.

3. Extra Mile

Successful people always do more than is expected of them.

When problems arise, people who excel at work do whatever it takes to resolve the issue. They do not have to be asked; they are always ready to go the extra mile.

My fellow coach and great friend, Jack Hermanski, worked with Special Education students. He was a “traveling” teacher who worked with students at ten different schools within his district.

Like many school districts, budgets were minimal in Jack’s district. Jack was totally committed to teaching his students and refused to let budgets impede his serving his kids.

Having to travel daily from school to school, Jack kept all his equipment in his truck. But there was something different about the equipment in Jack’s truck. He bought all of it!

Jack went the extra mile to provide his students with the best educational experience possible.

When I worked at Providence High School, Father Roger Kaffer, who later became a Bishop, came to us as our new principal. He came at a precarious time. The year prior to his coming a diocesan committee had voted to close Providence due to low enrollment and financial problems. The Bishop at the time, Romeo Blanchette, after much urging from the Providence community, vetoed the committee and named Father Kaffer as principal.

If Providence was going to remain open, we had to increase our enrollment. Father did two things to enhance enrollment – one to attract new students and one to retain the students who came to us.

The first plan was to visit every parish school in a 20 mile radius of Providence. Scheduling these meetings in the evening, we met with the parish pastor, the principal, and the 8th grade teacher and shared the benefits of a Providence education with them. These visits definitively attracted more students to our school.

Secondly, Father did something I have never seen a principal do before or since. Throughout the school year, he visited the home of every new student who came to Providence. He continued with these visits every year he was principal. They were very instrumental in our student retention rate.

Providence went from near closure to becoming the outstanding school it is today because of one man who went the extra mile.

4. Listening

I am convinced the skill of listening can never be overemphasized. We have numerous classes in speaking in our college courses; but I believe a mandatory class in LISTENING within the General Education requirements would be of more benefit to the students.

Rather than giving you my perspectives on listening, let me share the wisdom of some Thought Leaders on listening:

  • “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Bryant H. McGill
  • “Listening is one of the loudest forms of kindness.” Anonymous
  • “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” Bernard Beruch
  • “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill
  • “God gave us a mouth that closes and ears that don’t. That must tell us something.” Anonymous
  • “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen Covey
  • “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I am going to learn, I must do it by listening.” Larry King
  • “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do something else at the same time.” Scott Peck
  • I never thought of this before. Have you? “The word listen has the same letters as silent.” Alfred Brendel

People who excel at work have developed the skill of listening. They have paid attention to Will Rogers advice:

“Never pass up an opportunity to just shut up.”

5. Continuous Learning

“The mind is like a parachute. It works best when open.” Frank Zappa

Much like listening, knowledge leads to respect. Whatever your profession, you must work hard to learn all you can about it. Once you have the knowledge that is great; but it’s not enough.

You must, like the parachute, keep your mind open; you must continue to learn for the rest of your life. In my coaching career, it was not a sometime thing to find another coach teaching a skill or a strategy better than me. It was quite often.

As far back as the 1960’s, I believed in weight-lifting for basketball players. This practice may have been the only time I was ahead of the proverbial curve!

We lifted two days a week during the season. We were lifting for strength – trying to ready our players for the physicality of the games.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with the Chicago Bulls strength training coaches. Like everyone else, they lifted for strength, but they took it one step further.

They also lifted for athleticism. They showed us some lifts that not only enhanced strength but also improved quickness. We kept an open mind and changed some of our weight training exercises.

We also made a change in our drills that we learned from Coach Bob Gillespie of Ripon College. He taught us the value of One Minute Drills.

We always believed this adage: Repetition is the Mother of Learning. The only way you master a physical skill is through hours of repetition. Bob’s teaching led us to ascertain the main points of emphasis for each of the fundamentals we taught.

We then developed One Minute Drills for each fundamental – drills that could be executed in a short period of time. This enabled us to repeat the fundamentals more often in practice which enhanced the muscle memory of our players.

We made other changes as we were continuously learning from our peers in coaching.

Would there be merit for you to study your fundamentals, your principles? Could you find ways to teach them better and emphasize your primary points with less verbiage?

6. Consistency of Effort

I used to think effort was the key to athletic success. I no longer believe this for athletics or any profession. I believe the difference between good and great in any endeavor is Consistency of Effort.

No one has their “A” game every day, but the great ones develop the ability and the mindset to reach down and bring the best they have every day.

Good athletes can find their best effort periodically. The great athletes have the mental toughness, once they tie up their shoes for practice and walk onto the field or court, to reach maximum effort immediately.

I worked iron working and hot tar roofing during my college summers. The men I worked with, once we got to the work site or to the top of the roof, immediately began with their best effort and sustained that effort throughout the day.

The best teachers I have worked with walk into the classroom ready to teach because of all the effort they have put into preparation.

The best clergy I have known make time for all those in their congregations. The best priest I worked with lived his mantra,

“People are more important than things.”

Whenever people in need came to him, he made time for them.

In his famous Pyramid of Success,[2] John Wooden defines success in this way:

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.

It is critically important to accept that there are no shortcuts to success. When you can consistently bring the best you have each day, you will excel at work and have a successful career.

To excel at work: Be humble. Be caring. Go the extra mile. Be a listener. Be a life-long learner. Bring consistency of effort.

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[1] John Wooden: The Importance of Having Humility
[2] John Wooden: Pyramid of Success

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