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Go From Great to Greatest

Ready to take your career to the next level? These smart moves will propel you to the top.

Advice on how to succeed is ubiquitous. There's even that book, From Good to Great.

But how do you go from great to The Greatest: the revered, the preeminent, the legendary?

It's not easy, but if you have the potential for preeminence, I believe that -- in almost any field -- these eight tips will set you on the path to the top.

1. Work long and smart

The Greatest know that there's 60-plus hours a week of work that shouldn't be delegated. They decide it's more important to do what it takes to, for example, create a world-class product or be a world-class physician than to have dinner with their family every night.

2. Don't be a risk-taker

No matter how long and smart you work, bold innovation usually requires you to be lucky. A surer route to preeminence may be to be an incrementalist who executes magnificently.

3. Be inspirational

  • Be like Barack Obama: enthusiastic without ever seeming out of control. Americans dislike both impassivity and hyperenthusiasm. Remember Howard Dean's war whoop? That one second killed his presidential chances.

  • Your efforts to persuade should often include powerful anecdotes. Tell stories as an actor would, but, as actor Spencer Tracy said, "Never let 'em catch you acting."

  • Smile. Most people react much better to someone whose default expression is pleasant and who frequently smiles broadly and laughs. Bonus: You'll find yourself feeling more positive.

  • Be as encouraging as you can without being dishonest.

4. Hire only A players

If you've guessed wrong, quickly cut your losses. Studies find (and logic confirms) that time spent remediating weak employees is more wisely spent elsewhere. Don't let emotions keep you from doing the right thing. There's room in the world for B and even C players, but not working for The Greatest. They'll be happier and more successful in a workplace with other average performers -- and they won't drag down your A workers and the quality of what you produce.

5. Get feedback from A players

Whether you're about to give a talk, submit an article, make a strategic move, or develop your annual goals, solicit candid feedback from A players and/or people in your target market. Accept or reject their input on the merits. The Greatest reject feedback as well as accept it.

6. Be a master communicator.

  • Speak in the most pleasant part of your vocal range. To hear what's most appealing, record your voice at the top, middle, and bottom of your range.

  • Be brief: 10-60 seconds per utterance. That doesn't overwhelm the listener. For example, if you've said something in the first few seconds that he wants to ask about, he's forced to listen (usually half-listen) to you prattle on for what seems like forever before he can ask his question -- assuming he still remembers it. (See Do You Talk Too Much?)

  • Insert pauses in your utterances to give people time to assimilate what you're saying. After all, The Greatest say things worth chewing on. When you speak, you're not spewing; you're teaching.

  • When making a key point, increase volume and decrease speed.

  • Know when to interrupt. The standard advice to never interrupt is wrong. The Greatest recognize when the benefits of allowing the speaker to blab on are outweighed by the time saved and by ensuring you remember what you want to ask or say in response.

7. Be a master criticizer:

  • Criticize as often as necessary to keep people growing without dispiriting them.

  • Ask permission before criticizing: "Would you mind if I offered a suggestion?"

  • Criticize so as to create the right amount of disequilibrium. Usually, you'll want to criticize in a way that preserves their self-esteem: "I'm wondering if it might be a good idea to (insert suggestion). What do you think?" But if that is unlikely to yield the necessary improvement (for example, if his self-esteem is higher than his merit,) you may need to calmly hit him between the eyes: "I'm not happy with this. Any explanation?" If the explanation is insufficient, say something like, "I need to see X, Y and Z by 9 a.m. tomorrow." And walk out.

8. Get your spouse to support your commitment

If you are to avoid burnout, your spouse must not expect you -- after you've put in your high-powered 12-hour workday -- to deal with life's extraneous crises, for example: fighting with Johnny to do his homework, arguing with the kitchen remodeling contractor, or "processing" the emotional issue du jour. This, of course, applies to male as well as female spouses.

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Is it worth the effort to go from great to greatest? For me, whether or not I attain it, I believe the pursuit of preeminence is the key to a life of maximum meaning.

Marty Nemko (bio) is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies.

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