Top 15 things you must do to get promoted

Credits to Marcus Chan

This is an amazing list/share that I wanted to save for posterity sake.

“If you want to get promoted, here are 15 things you must do to increase your odds:

1. Do your job extraordinarily well in every aspect. This means EVERYTHING including the things you don’t want to do.

2. Do MORE than your job-take on projects and assignments that provide VALUE to your boss and team.

3. Self educate for skills that you need for your next role and 3-5 years from now.

4. Treat EVERYONE like they’ll be your boss one day.

5. Help OTHERS become successful aka DUPLICATE yourself.

6. Be patient-timing is half the battle.

7. Invite yourself to meetings to learn and for exposure.

8. Fail forward. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.

9. Seek feedback laterally, above, and below you-then execute on that feedback.

10. Be loyal.

11. Influence up and make your boss look good.

12. Be a positive teammate!

13. Be you, authentic, and real.

14. Build your brand with ALL levels of the organization.

15. Do NOT brown nose.”


Fix the damn truck

I’m fascinated by the concept of work, what people do, how they do it, what makes someone successful and someone else not so much. I’m always looking at people through the lens of their approach to their vocation. If they are successful, I’m looking for clues to what they do right. If they aren’t, they can be useful as anti-patterns for behaviors, approaches to avoid

I have a 2nd cousin in Maine, the son of my cousin, who is held up locally as a successful guy. He is in his mid 30’s and drives a truck for a living. He owns his own vehicles and runs it as an independent business. Lot’s of people drive trucks in Maine. On the surface it seems like a simple job. But why are some more successful at it, significantly so in some cases, than others?

The first thing you notice is Caleb’s truck is spotless. It has no dents or scratches, but it is also washed and clean. As I was admiring it, one thing he said to me was “When my truck breaks, I won’t stop until it gets fixed. In other words, when it breaks I’m gonna fix the damn truck”. This means he will work on it in the middle of the night, on a weekend, in the middle of a blizzard etc. But he will focus on that task until it is done. I thought to myself, this essentially sums this guy up and everything about his success. When his truck breaks, he fixes it. Not later, not tomorrow, not waiting for whatever reason, but right then, in place, no matter the conditions. It isn’t difficult to understand. It’s not complicated. That’s it.

How many people do you know who roll out of the office at 5 PM with a task not completed, a customer waiting for a reply, a build not deployed, a bug not fixed. Now think of the people who commit to finish the job, no matter if they must stay late. Now track the success of those people over time and watch the two groups diverge.

Drive through Maine and you can see beat up trucks sitting in a yard, with beer cans in the driveway. What stops that person from taking some pride in their work horse, that their livelihood depends on? What compels someone like Caleb to lie on the frozen ground, in the middle of the night with a flashlight to make sure his rig can roll out at 6 AM the next morning?

Whatever the difference in motivation, the results are clear. We see it every day. The people who keep their rigs shiny and running smooth make it happen, day in and day out. That is the person I want to be. Those are the people I want to work with.


Be the first in, the last to leave

I’ve been fortunate to be successful, but my cash didn’t always stack right

Golf by moonlight

30 years ago, I had just gotten out of the Army and started a new job in New Hampshire. I had picked up golf as a hobby and used to go down to the local golf course to hit balls on the chipping green, as that was free. Then when the sunset and everyone had left the course, I would sneak on and play a few holes before it got too dark, again because that was also free.

One evening, as the crowd thinned out and I made my way down to the first hole, I saw a lone golfer coming back from the 9th. This peaked my interest, as I had never seen someone golfing so late, besides myself of course!

He noticed me looking at him, and changed direction to walk towards me. He greeted me and introduced himself and invited me to have a beer, out of the back of his car as the sun faded away.

Lessons shared

He was a traveling salesman who had a customer in Keene, NH, and was just passing through. He asked me what I was doing for work and what my goals were. He talked a bit about his career and what he had done to become successful. Then he leaned over to me and said something I’ll never forget, and always tried to live by.

“Kid, if you want to be successful …

be the first one in the office in the morning, and the last to leave at night”

Lessons applied

Now, I was always a hard worker but did take me a little time to get my groove on (See this article for some of my antics at the time), but I leaned into that advice, got traction with it, it became a habit and eventually helped to drive my success.

At my next company, in Boston, I got over-time for coming in early. I showed up 1 and a 1/2 hours early to collect tickets for the trading floor and then left at the regular time all while getting my Masters degree at night. I did this for a year until I was flagged for excessive pay! Later, I went exempt so I could work as much as I wanted to, without being chased out of the office for concern about over-time. After that, I started my own one many consultancy, and billed a high of 70 hours 3 weeks over the course of my 5 year run, and that included a 1 hour commute on either end. In fact, the biggest challenge for me, was when I left my last job and went down to 0 hours. I’ve been too busy and not busy enough. I’ll take the former anytime.

Use case

I had a team member a few years ago who was struggling. His results were poor. But he was taking a bus to commute 30 minutes to the office, staying for 10 hours or more, and then taking the same bus home. The only reason why he wasn’t the last person to leave the office was because I was sleeping there! (using it as a field-expedient hotel room as this was a remote location).

I could tell one night that he was upset and wanted to talk to me about something. It was made more challenging by the fact that he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Serbian, and the last person who could translate had left some time ago. But the gist of it was he was worried about being fired. I told him that, first, his results would improve, and not to worry. But second, even if they didn’t, I would never fire him, regardless of his results, because of his work ethic. He was the first guy in and the last guy out.

Sure enough, after a few months his results did improve. Later he went on to become one of our best analysts in the company, and for a guy who didn’t even know English when he arrived, went on to write amazing content that has been hugely successful. (among many other things he does i.e. product support, testing etc)


This isn’t a long post. It doesn’t need to be. Sometimes the most important lessons are the simplest, delivered by a stranger who took the time to share, … over a cold beer at a New Hampshire golf course at night …


Iron jaws and the ability to accept constructive critisism


I had this guy working for me, to mask his identity let’s call him Adam. I can safety say that he was the “worst” guy that I had worked with in 20 years of running a software company

He …

  • Made the same mistakes over and over again
  • Failed to follow instructions properly
  • Didn’t think through things before he did them
  • Didn’t review his work or anything else before it was published
  • Didn’t plan out his work, make check-lists or refine protocols

My day would frequently begin with seeing some critical and obvious mistake he made and then call him up to, once again, admonish him and try to get him to correct his ways.

I would begin many conversations with the question “Are you going to quit?”. Because if he was, he could at least have done it then, saving us another torturous session of feedback. His answer was always “No, Brian”.

My philosophy on terminations was to terminate for Values problems, not mistakes, and if the employee exhibited at least some of our core values and was expending effort and working hard, to not terminate. In fact, in all of my years, I have never fired anyone, no matter how bad, if they were working hard. And I’ve never regretted that decision.

Fucking up

Over time, and I mean quite a bit of time, mistakes began to be diminished, but more importantly Adam internalized my feedback and transferred it to new team members, who were able to learn and progress faster because of it.

Throughout this process, the mistakes that Adam didn’t make were that he never …

  • personalized feedback. He took constructive criticism in the spirit it was given, no matter how harshly it was delivered
  • got defensive, talked back, argued or ever demonstrated any “attitude”
  • slowed down. He continued to work hard throughout
  • Made excuses or equivocated e.g. I ran out of time, it wasn’t my fault, it could be worse etc
  • said “Sorry”. Apologizing doesn’t help anyone or anything and just wastes time. He seemed to innately understand this, so I never had to waste time listening to apologies, allowing us to just focus on fixing the problem

I refer to Adam’s actions as “Fucking up” vs “Fucking down”

Too many times I see people react negatively to constructive criticism which essentially precludes their ability to grow and ultimately succeed. Also, I’m generally not interested in mentoring someone who is resistant to feedback, nor, for that matter, working with them. Such people have “glass jaws”. They shatter into many pieces when you criticize them. Adam had an “iron jaw”. He could take any feedback, no matter how tough, and not wilt in the face of it, let alone fall to pieces.

“Turning good”

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Adam grew, progressed and developed to a level where I was able to not only stop admonishing him on a daily basis but begin to validate his growth and progress, a process I call “Turning good”. This culminated in him being promoted to a full Level I analyst, no easy feat in our company. His work continues to improve and progress to this day and can be seen in the amazing results of the content marketing effort driven by him and his team.

Adam didn’t turn into the “best” guy I ever worked with, but his success stories are one of the best that I experienced in my career. Nobody was prouder of him getting promoted than I was

Time wasted vs invested

I spent a ton of time with Adam. He invested a ton of time himself. But his actions and the fact that he didn’t quit (and I didn’t fire him) turned what could have very well been wasted time, into simply time invested and in fact, well invested.

Failure vs success

If at any point during this process, Adam had quit, he would have failed. And I would have failed as a leader, mentor, boss. But the fact that he didn’t quit, meant that he never actually failed. And he continued long enough avoiding failure, that he eventually succeeded.

Other lessons learned

  • Take constructive criticism, no matter how tough, objectively and not personally
  • Remember that when a boss is criticizing you it isn’t because they don’t like you, it is because they are trying to help you (applies to good bosses only)
  • When you are taking heat, keep working through it and if you are successful, you may emerge successful in the long term
  • Never get defensive, argue, talk back or demonstrate an attitude. That will make a bad situation worse
  • Keep your eye on long term success
  • Remember the saying “No pain. No gain”. It is true in many situations
  • You don’t fail if you don’t quit
  • Stay true to company values, no matter what, and that will guide you to eventual success

“As if”

There is a great scene from the movie, Boiler room, about “acting as if”.

To paraphrase Ben Affleck’s character

  • act as if you are the president of the firm
  • act as if you are endowed with exceptional attributes associated with manhood

or essentially, act as if you had the next role, position that you were striving for. Act as if, you had accomplished the goals you were working towards.

The reasons were left unstated, but I’ve been evangelizing this concept to my team members my whole career, and the reasons are clear

Many people think that they can apply for a role and then once they get hired, or promoted etc. they can begin to act the part. Wrong. You need to act the part before you get the role, job so that everyone, especially people responsible for hiring you, can visualize you in that role. Once everyone sees you in the role and believes you can fit that role, transitioning to it via promotion, hire etc is just a matter of time. Your simple goal is to make this a fait accompli.

Perception is reality

If you want to be promoted to a leadership position, start looking, sounding and acting like a leader right now.

Sounding like

A good way to stop is to kick the habit of using “loser words”. Nobody wants to promote someone to be a leader, if they act like a follower, or at worst a loser.

Followers ask questions. Leaders make recommendations. If you want to be thought of as a leader, never ask questions of a superior. Every question you ask diminishes you in their eyes and reinforces the superior/inferior relationship. Even if you have no idea what to do, you can still craft a recommendation using a best-guess approach

Wrong: When should we send the reports to the auditors?

Right: I recommend we send the reports out tomorrow to give the auditors a couple days notice.

If your boss disagrees, he can correct you. But, as you get good, you will find he often simply approves your recommendations. That is when your boss will begin to think of you as a leader.

Don’t make excuses or otherwise Fuck down (vs Fucking up)

Don’t constantly equivocate

Looking like

If you want to be thought of as a professional, a good start would be to look like one. A common trait of all successful people, is that they dress the part. This doesn’t mean you need to walk into work in a tuxedo and yes, many people who are really, really good can get away with looking like slobs. But for the vast majority of us, appearance is a critical fact in forming perceptions, often subconscious and often biased, but whether good or bad, they are powerful influencers.

When I was working as an analyst in Boston my suit cost me half of my first month’s pay. I was living in a tiny apartment in a working class neighborhood, taking the subway to work every day, but I looked like a commodities broker taking home some serious money. My goal was to act as if I fit into the financial community, that I was a player, that I deserved respect and to be promoted.

Later, when I transitioned to becoming a consultant, there was no dress code. But I continued to wear a suit and tie, even in shops that were business casual. I billed at a high rate and easily made 2-3x more than full time employees who worked at the shops I consulted at, so I thought it was appropriate to distinguish myself and look this part.

Once I started my own business, generally worked at home and no longer needed to aspire to the next level, I shed my fancy attire and opted to Work naked, a uniform that I’ve maintained to this day!

I will say one thing that I’ve always felt. In the military, leaders were expected to be in good physical shape and it is something I’ve internalized my whole career. I don’t believe you can be mentally strong if you are in terrible physical condition, taking no time and making no effort to eat right, exercise or simply move around. Not everyone needs to work out like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I have less respect for leaders who abuse food, alcohol, drugs etc. and take no time to exercise their body because I know physical fitness is akin to mental fitness. For dynamic organizations that demand rigor, discipline and mental alertness, being physically as well as mentally fit is a key competitive differentiator for aspirational leaders.

Acting like

Professionals are reliable, responsible, dependable. They can be counted on to make things happen. Sure, professionals make mistakes but when they do they take responsibility for them vs making excuses.

Acting like a professional means, first and foremost, that you take full responsibility for your own results, whether they are good or bad. The difference between a professional and amateur is obvious the first time failure is encountered. The amateur will immediately make excuses, equivocate, deflect blame, apologize, etc. The professional will acknowledge the feedback, accept responsibility and commit to resolve aka ARR. When it comes time to promote someone, which person would you choose?

Leaders lead, even when they aren’t in a leadership position. You will always have opportunities to lead, including volunteering for new tasks or assignments, taking it upon yourself to learn some relevant technology, skill, software etc, helping others and in particularly mentoring people less experienced than yourself. In fact, mentoring others is a key attribute I associate with aspiring new leaders.

If you want to transition to a new career, then don’t sit back complaining that nobody is training you. Go out and buy a book, or take a class, and learn it yourself. Create some related projects, start a blog, contribute on social media, answer questions on online forums. Act as if you have already transitioned, and before you know it, you will get a position, having already burnished your resume with a lot of related experiences, if not an actual job. I wrote a story of one such 50+ year old guy who acted as if he was a technical consultant, until he was.


Don’t act the role you are in now, act for the role you want to be. The better you get at playing the role, the more convincing you will become and the more readily people will be willing to promote you to it. And as you work to act the part and internalize all of the values required for that role, you will, over time transition from acting to living that persona, as you adopt all of the traits, actions, behaviors and values of that higher level role.


The gift of never having to say “Sorry”

Business isn’t life. In life, you will have to apologize for your actions, if your transgressions warrant it. But most (1) mistakes in business are just that, mistakes. They weren’t intentional, they didn’t lead to grievous harm or loss of life, so they rarely rise to the level where an apology is required.

My response to people at work who say “sorry” is that unless they ran over my dog, they don’t have to say sorry.

Loser words

Furthermore, people have a nasty habit of using the word “Sorry” as a place-holder for truly Acknowledging the problem, taking Responsibility for it and Committing to resolve it, otherwise known as ARR. Many of these people think that by simply saying sorry, they can use that as a general purpose, get-out-of-jail free card that will at once absolve themselves of having to take responsibility let alone take steps to commit the mistake won’t happen in the future. The one thing I notice about people who reflexively say “sorry” a lot, is that they constantly make the same mistakes over and over. Using this rhetorical crutch, people immediately short circuit the process of introspection that is necessary to take responsibility and ultimately improve, grow and develop. I refer to this as “Fucking down” vs “Fucking up”

This is why I term the word “Sorry” a “loser word” and why it is prohibited from use by people who work in any of my organizations

If you want to work/live/act “as if” you are a professional, someone worth to be hired, promoted etc, it is important that you act “as if” you are that person now, which includes talking like one, not a loser. By taking responsibility for your actions vs just reflexively apologizing in a knee-jerk fashion, you will demonstrate that you are such a quality person. I wrote an article about a person who made more mistakes than you could ever imagine, but never apologized once and eventually met with success and was promoted.

Words vs actions

It seems counter intuitive, at least at first, that a manager, boss, leader wouldn’t accept someone saying “sorry” as a response to a mistake, and even less so that they would prohibit the person from apologizing in the first place, but if your goal is to actually change and improve, apologizing actually is counter-productive because it inhibits that positive progression.

I was broken of the habit of saying “sorry” in the military. The first time I apologized for a mistake I made was the last time, and I still have dreams (or perhaps nightmares) of the response to saying “sorry” during basic training. At first, I felt that the Drill Sergeant was being unfair, vindictive etc. Only later, did I begin to appreciate the gift that he had given me of never having to say “sorry”. No longer did I fall back on some word, that just by throwing it out would negate any mistakes and preclude you from having to take responsibility for them. I started to take ownership of my mistakes and my vernacular changed from “sorry” to …

  • It won’t happen again
  • Consider this resolved
  • I’ll commit to address this problem

Giving up on your immature addiction to reflexively using the word “sorry” is a gift you can give your self and a sign of professional maturity. By focusing on actions like Acknowledging, taking Responsibility and committing to Resolving the issue at hand vs just throwing words at it, you not only will diffuse the current situation but also make strides to ensure less of them will happen in the future.



(1) In some cases professional apologies are warranted, such as the disgraceful behavior of acting Naval secretary, Thomas Modly


“I’ll try my best” and other phrases professionals never use

In this article title I lied, because I implied that there would be other phrases besides “I’ll try my best” that I would address here. To be honest, I did the best I could. So what’s the problem?

When people say they will do “their best”, it really annoys me. There is a lot packed into that little phrase, none of it is any good, and people who use it know this full well. They use it as a rhetorical tool to both lower expectations and wrest control from assessing outcomes of a task from yourself, the task owner, to themselves.

People will say “Don’t be such a hard-ass, they are simply trying to say the right thing”. My retort is that no, words have meanings and people know full well what this phrase means and they use it purposefully; the intent and use of this word is at best useless and at worst goal-misaligned and counterproductive. By using it, you convey to someone that you can’t really be relied on to accomplish tasks, nor are you even committed fully to that goal. This separates you from more mature professionals who never use this phrase (these are the same people you want to talk “as if” you were one of them, even if you haven’t quite made it yet)


When you say “I’ll do my best” there is one, huge uncertainty there. What is your best? What if your best isn’t good enough? What if your best isn’t good at all? So if you need the report done by the end of the week or your team will all lose their jobs, would you rather have someone commit to getting it done or “do their best”. But by tacitly accepting the benchmark of “their best” you implicitly agree that even if the report doesn’t get produced and everyone loses their job, it is fine because the person did their best.

Judging ourselves

Another problem I have is that when people say they will work to their best, they are implicitly empowering themselves to set the benchmark for performance or in other words, internalizing it. We are never the personal arbiters of our own success, no matter how much we may strive to acquire that level of control over our personal brand. In reality, our success, or failure, will always be a grade given to us by others based on our accomplishments. Said in another way, success is externalized. Factors, people, arbiters other than yourself will determine your level of success.

In a work type situation, your success will be determined by your results, production, feedback, etc and ultimately aggregated and delivered to you by your superior. Whether you did your best, or worst, or anything in between is entirely immaterial. Trying to implicitly set a different standard, than direct feedback from your superior, is a classic example of goal misalignment. You need to embrace the fact that regardless of your effort, personal standards e.g. your best or any other concepts, that your success will be determined by someone else.

Lowering expectations

The biggest reason people use this is to lower expectations. So that ultimately, if the task is a failure, they can say “Oh well, I did my best” and by that lowered benchmark claim to salvage some sense of success from the loss. By validating that across the company, everyone could be promoted just because, by their own internal benchmarks, which is that they tried their best. Production could slow, revenue could decline, profit could disappear and share prices can collapse, but as long as everyone is doing their best, collectively we can all rest easy. That isn’t how business works.

Ultimately businesses succeed as a whole, based on the collective micro-successes of all individual stakeholders. Success, not some ethereal concept related to effort, must be expected and achieved. There is no other substitute.

Leadership disconnect

Leaders can’t go to shareholders or investors and say “I will do my best”. They would get laughed out of the room, immediately after being fired. That same sense of expectations, at the top, needs to be implemented at every level in the organization, all the way down to the lowest ranking employee. When employees are simply required to do their best, but an organization as a whole must be required to succeed, there is a fundamental disconnect. Both dualities can’t exist. To become goal-aligned, everyone in an organization must commit to the concept, at least, of meeting expectations and achieving results, even if, in reality, the expectations aren’t always met


This article is part of the “Loser-words” series


No skills, No experience, No English … No problem!


We hired this guy at my old company, out of Serbia. At that point in my career, I wasn’t hiring anyone directly myself, as we had an HR team, and I was only working with people after they had been onboarded.

I happened to be visiting our office in Belgrade and this individual, let’s call him Yivko, to mask his identity, was always at the office, so for a few days, we spent a lot of time together. We’d go out to lunch, I would do all the talking, telling him about our work culture, giving him a lot of tips for success and telling a lot of jokes. He would laugh right at all of the punchlines, with perfect timing. But even so, I sensed something was off. So finally, I leaned over to him and said “You don’t understand a damn thing I’m saying do you?!”. And apparently, understanding enough of the question he kind of slumped his shoulders and said “No, Brian”.

Hiring retrospective

So later in the day I called our HR team and asked, exaggerating a bit “How the Hell did we hire this guy? He doesn’t understand a word of English!?”. Apparently, he had scored well on all entry level tests but done very poorly in English, but somehow that was overlooked.

Me: Where did you get this guy?

He was a refrigerator repairman

Me: Does he have any technical skills? Any testing experience?

No, not really

What do you want us to do with him? Do you want us to fire him?

Me: No, we can’t fire him. It’s not his fault that we made a hiring mistake. We’ll have to try and make it work. How is he doing, in general?

Well, his results are pretty poor

Me: Ok, he doesn’t speak English. He has no skills or experience. His work results are bad. Any other good news about this guy?

Well, he is a hard worker and he seems pretty motivated.

Me: How hard? How motivated?

Well, he seems to be one of the hardest working and most motivated guys we’ve ever hired …


Later in the week, I was in the office late with Yivko and he seemed a bit upset. When I asked him what was wrong, he conveyed to me that he was worried I was going to fire him.

Me: Why would I fire you?

Yivko: Because I can’t speak English (well)

Me: Are you working hard?

Yivko: Yes

Me: Ok, nobody is going to fire you

As I saw with my own eyes, this guy was coming into the office early in the AM, and waking me up as I was sleeping on the couch! And leaving late at night. And he had a 30 minute bus ride back and forth. I knew he was putting in the effort.

As I was reviewing his work, I also knew it was poor, but I noticed one thing that stood out. When I made a correction, gave him a tip and/or offered advice, he immediately internalized it and never repeated the mistake again. This seems simple and obvious, but I spent much of my day repeating the same things to the same people. With Yivko, that was never the case. Yes, he was making mistakes but they were new ones. This is a critical soft-skill that so many people lack. It really stood out and impressed me, not the least of which because it made my life easier working with him.

After I returned to the US, I continued to have conversations with Yivko

Yivko: Brian, my results are bad

Me: Are you still working hard?

Yivko: Yes

Me: Then don’t worry about it. Over-time your results will improve.

We had several variations of this conversation, for the first year of his tenure at the company, and then, he seemed to hit the inflection point with his work. Results started to improve, just as I had predicted based on the effort he was applying, his high level of motivation and his good attitude.

Finally, when he was really hitting high-notes consistently, we discussed the possibility of him getting promoted, and I agreed to that.

His promotion, to Level I, was later than some of his peers, as it had taken him longer, but, in reality, based on what he had learned and the sustainable pace he was developing, I predicted he would be in very good shape for his next promotion, down the road, to Level II. And that is exactly what happened.

Where is Yivko now

Where is Yivko now and how is he doing?

He is still at the company, doing very well.

He has been promoted 2x and his results consistently rank as at or near the best on our team of approx 12 support analysts.

The content he has written, in English, has ranked extremely high, and in many cases higher than native-English authors. He’s written articles that have gotten 100’s of thousands of visits, with more than a million in total, and tons of positive comments like these …

This is fantastic! I searched for days to find an answer to why my remote app couldn’t connect to my local DB. I followed your instructions and Eureka! It works perfectly. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Cheers Yivko, this has worked perfectly and saved me a lot of time.

Marko, thank you. One beautiful day, I woke up and found out that my databases in Visual Studio 2017 could not be accessed by the server. I found out later that the problem was due to the databases being translated to a newer format, namely the SQL Server 2017 format, while the server remained in the SQL Server 2016 format. For a whole day, I have been trying to install SQL Server 2017 LocalDB and recreate the MSSQLLocalDB file to no avail. It wasnt until now that I, thanks to your article, realized that the SQL Server 2017 installer did not install the LocalDB package, which I eventually downloaded and installed manually. Now everything works wonderfully, my databases and the server are working along together again. Cheers to you and keep on saving the days of us developers :D!

Thanks man, you saved my ass!

His articles were so good, we translated many of them into Spanish earning him the Nom de plume, El Yivko

His nickname in his team is “The Animal” because of his high-energy approach to his work and tasks.

The secrets to success

Ok, so how do we break this down. Why did Yivko succeed, lacking any advantages, where others, seemingly much more qualified and experienced, failed?

  • English? No (Although this is something that needs to be perfected over-time)
  • Hard skills? No (this can be learned)
  • Experience? No (this can be gained)
  • Education? No (what needs to be learned can be taught on the job)
  • Technical proficiency? No (this can be accrued via on-the-job training)
  • Motivation? Yes
  • Effort? Yes
  • Lack of entitlement? Yes
  • Attitude? Yes

I’ve hired people who spoke 4 languages fluently and maxed out on our tests who failed miserably, unable or unwilling to do the work. I’ve seen people with PhD’s come in with a sense of entitlement that they are owed everything without having to invest any effort, who invariably didn’t work out. I hired a tester with 10 years of experience who quit the moment I asked him to write a test plan for an app.

Yivko ran circles around all of these guys, simply because he was motivated. What he needed to learn, he learned. What skills he needed to acquire, he acquired. But there is no such thing as learning to be motivated or being able to acquire soft skills like a good attitude, helpfulness, dedication and commitment to the job. These soft-skills are things you need to learn before you get the job[1].


Sure, you like Yivko. He probably works 20 hour days for very little money?

In the beginning, yes, Yivko would work 10+ hour days, but we paid overtime for this extra work at 1.5x so we weren’t necessarily saving money (although often he wouldn’t put in for OT he worked). As he got better, his hours drifted down to a normal workday. He has gotten promoted twice and, for Serbia, makes a quite excellent living with the potential to continue to do even better.

Lessons learned

We can teach you hard skills i.e. testing, XML, SQL, writing, English, typing. But teaching soft skills like work ethic is much harder.

If you are motivated, you will learn all of the hard skills you need over time. If you aren’t, even if you have them, you won’t be willing to apply them to create success

I will take someone who is motivated, is willing to learn and work hard, has a good attitude and good soft skills regardless of their skills, education and experience, any day.


It does take a special organization that will allow people time to learn vs expecting them to hit the ground running on Day 1. We provided time and depth to acquire the necessary skills, mentoring along the way, and a supportive team with a vested interest in everyone’s success


[1] These are things I hope to teach via my employment incubator in Southern Serbia


Have gun, will travel – the true story of Dick Dunnington

Dick Dunnington volunteered (you read that right) for 3 tours of Vietnam, as a military intelligence officer, but wouldn’t breathe a word of what he did there, even though I asked him about 5x a day [1]. He worked hard his whole life and, not being able to have kids of his own, adopted two foster children. He was punctual, responsible and a man of his word. He lived precisely by the letter of his contracts.

Even though he was a warrior, he valued peace, character, integrity, and honesty (remember, those?). Even though he fought a war and lost friends, he wasn’t bitter. Even when he was laid off and out of work for 3 years, he never didn’t wake up at 6 AM every morning and fill his day with productive activities (he eventually bounced back as a consultant – see below).

His politics were as true as his character. We had similar backgrounds, in some ways, as I was a veteran myself, but different politics. Despite our different political persuasions, we ultimately agreed on the same candidate at the time. It was an era where people who disagreed could still talk with each other, and even, sometimes agree. Remember those days?

The big Boom, Boom

A funny story Dick told me once, was when his convoy was moving through some road in Vietnam and the kids, from a local village, who were standing along the road watching them, all suddenly put their fingers in their ears. It seems they were expecting a big Boom, Boom, a clear, albeit unwitting, indicator that they were about to roll into some trouble! 😉 The kids knew what was going to happen, the soldiers did too, but all the patrol could do was reach down and squeeze, in anticipation of the fireworks that would ensue, unable to stop, change course or turn around.

I’ve thought of that so many times at work. How many of us have been in the same situation? I call it “the Big Boom, Boom”

Out of luck, out of work

Dick, like seemingly 50% of Massachusetts at the time, worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). I thought he was old at 50 … oops, the same age I am now! If Dilbert was a human being, he would be it (and that is a compliment). He talked like what you would think a mathematician would talk like. Despite, these admirable qualities, Dick was laid off (eventually along with everyone else at DEC). Dick had a solid position in middle management and his pride and principles wouldn’t allow him to take a job for less than he had at DEC. So he was out of work for a year … then two … then three. Sure, he kept busy. He worked his land in New Hampshire with some heavy equipment he had, but three years is a long time to nurse your ego and turn your nose up to lesser opportunities. So finally, he realized it was time to change.


Wait, what was that little word? Ego? Opportunities? No, change. That is why I emphasized it.

• If something isn’t working, you have to change
• If you are tired of beating your head against the wall, you have to change
• If you have hit rock bottom and there is nowhere to go but up, you have to change
• If you are unhappy, unfulfilled, un[fill in the blank]ed or you simply want to grow and improve, you have to change

No change role play

You: Ok, change … I get it. Easy. What do I have to do?

Me: Really? Are you ready to do this? OK … take all the stuff you are doing now and do it all differently. Stop doing the things you are doing now. Start doing things you haven’t been doing. And for things you should keep doing, do them differently. That is all

You: Whoa … let’s not get crazy here. Sure, I want to break out of my current pattern, but I really have to do things differently? No, that seems a bit extreme. That’s a deal-breaker to me. Instead, let me just sit around a bit more and just hope things get better.

There is a great book that covers this topic really well. It is called “Who moved my cheese”. Go to Amazon, buy it, read it, internalize it. It will change your life. I’ve talked to people who I recommended that book to who I still hear from and thank me for the recommendation. It will take you about 30 minutes, to read it, including a coffee break. So if you haven’t done it, do it.

Change role play

Instead, let’s try this again …

You: Ok, I get it.

Me: Good. Let’s look at some patterns in your life that you can alter to create the foundation for more fundamental change. It starts with going to bed early, waking up early, getting out of the house (even if you have nowhere to go), eating right, detoxing from alcohol, sugar, crap food, drugs, computer games, porn, illicit sex, social media, excuses, self-pity, pride, self-deprecating thoughts, self-destructive behaviors, etc, and forcing yourself to engage in wellness activities like meeting with friends, exercise, reading. music etc.

You: Ok, I can do that

Me: OK, great. I’ll be checking on you to make sure you are! Once you have committed to that and we have the beginnings of a solid foundation, let’s plan the next steps to alter and improve the trajectory of your life.

You: Great, let’s do this thing!

Have gun, will travel

Getting some of these die-hard “older” guys to make changes in life, is a challenge, but that is what Dick undertook. He decided that at 50 years old, he would change his stripes and become a technical consultant. The only problem was that he didn’t know a damn thing about technology, except perhaps mainframes and other water-cooled computer systems.

Undeterred, he went down to the local bookstore and went to the technology aisle. As the books were arranged in alphabetical order, the first topics were for “A”. He grabbed the first book he saw which was on Microsoft Access. Bought it, took it home, read it. Then he bought a copy of Access, installed it, and started to apply the principles he learned from the book. Once he was comfortable, he hung up his shingle, “Dick Dunnington – Microsoft Access Consultant” aka “Have gun, will travel” – an old Wild West American TV show.

He introduced himself to various agencies who were more impressed with Dick’s presence and aura of professionalism and responsibility than he many years of experience with this technology (as he had none). Soon enough he was hired for his first consulting assignment at $40/hr, then his next at $45, then his next … By the time I met him he was at $50 and ready to level up again.[2]

In a few short weeks, Dick decided to get off of his backhoe, change his entire profession and approach, invest in doing the things he needed to do to achieve this transformation, and systematically move forward to execute his plan.


The last time I spoke to Dick he was complaining of too many people contacting him for work assignments. I commiserated with him and we both went about our lives. I always told myself that someday, when I had a little time, I’d write down some reflections of this man, who made such an impression on me.

Dick, if you or your kids, wife, etc. ever find this, I want you to know I appreciated your leading by example, and I always found inspiration in your story.

For others out there, if you are stuck in a rut, as we all get from time to time, perhaps you can also gain some inspiration from this story as well.


[1] He was under a bunch of security restrictions about his duties, missions, etc although I would have expected those to have eventually expired …

[2] These are rates from 20+ years ago

(p) Photo credit – https://www.metv.com/shows/have-gun-will-travel