Want to Exceed Expectations but Don’t Know How? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I want to be a rock star at my job. I have always been driven and ambitious—but now, a few years into a professional job after college and grad school, I find myself a bit at sea. I work in a big company and I love what I do.

Here’s the problem. My boss checks “meets expectations” on all counts at my regular performance reviews. I want to get “exceeds expectations” on all counts, but I can’t get to the bottom of what that means. I see myself as getting to VP level quickly and having a shot at C-Level, but unless I can understand what that actually takes, I can’t make a plan.


Want to Be a Rock Star


Dear Want to Be a Rock Star,

What a great question this is. I have often wondered the same thing, mainly because it seems like a mystery to everyone.

Ultimately, the only person whose opinion you really need on this topic is your boss’s. So first, I suggest you interview your boss and find out what “exceeds expectations” means to them. You don’t want to go out and do a bunch of extra stuff that’s not the right stuff or that causes static in their world.

I do think the reason this is such a mystery is because most bosses don’t know what their expectations actually are, let alone what it might mean for someone to exceed them. So don’t be surprised if asking your boss doesn’t shed much light—they may not know what “exceeds expectations” looks like until they see it.

Some questions to ask your boss might be:

  • Have you ever had a direct report who consistently exceeded expectations? If yes, what did they do that made them stand out?
  • Is there any way I don’t live up to your expectations? Have I ever failed to live up to expectations in the past and wasn’t told?
  • What exactly would it take for me to exceed expectations in these different areas?

I spent a week asking all of the senior executives I know what it means to them when a team member exceeds expectations. Here is a synthesis of what I heard:

Generally, an employee who exceeds expectations:

  • Shows up to 1×1’s prepared to discuss all tasks and goals with clear requests for direction, re-direction, ideas, requests for resources. They show respect for their manager’s time by having thought in advance about what they want or need.
  • Thinks things through—when they run into an obstacle, they troubleshoot and come up with ideas for possible solutions rather than just presenting the manager with a problem to solve.
  • Never complains, never makes excuses—if something isn’t working or they can’t complete a task, they surface the situation matter-of-factly and share ideas about what they might need to get back on track.
  • Does what they say they are going to do without being reminded.
  • Meets deadlines and doesn’t procrastinate. When a big, high-stakes project is approaching deadline, they get their work done as far as they can and present it to the manager and others for input and feedback with plenty of time to iterate and make changes so the final product is next level.
  • Submits work that has been proofed. They take the time to review their work for errors or inconsistencies. This doesn’t mean they never make mistakes, it means any errors they make are from lack of experience or knowledge, not from turning in sloppy work that was rushed through.
  • Pays attention to what is going on around them and connects the dots in the event it isn’t obvious.
  • Goes out of their way to support coworkers, spends time helping new people, volunteers for tasks that aren’t necessarily part of their job but that make a contribution to the team. For example, one person shared: “when our organization rolled out a new software system we all hated, one of my people spent time over the weekend watching tutorials on YouTube and then shared a bunch of tips, tricks, and shortcuts with the whole team at our next staff meeting. That was above and beyond. Everyone else, including me, just whined about how unintuitive the platform was. She made all of us pull up our socks and get on with it.”
  • Figures out where to go to get things done. They take the time to look at the organization around them, what people’s job roles are, and what matters to them. They go out of their way to create relationships with all types of people and make the effort to understand what they do. If they don’t know how to do something, they tap their network until they find someone who does.
  • This seems obvious, but they are always on time, always ready to work, always on camera, bright and shiny. It isn’t that they don’t have bad days. Everyone does. They just don’t let a bad day get in the way of getting the job done.

One person put it succinctly: “They have high attention to detail, and they get things done on time without fuss.” Anything you can do that will make your boss’s job easier is always a good idea—taking on extra projects, going the extra mile, submitting excellent work that doesn’t need extensive revisions.

Finally, keep careful track of what you do. There is always a good chance your boss will forget the times you went above and beyond. When the time comes, submit an accurate, detailed record of everything so your boss will have no choice but to give you the highest possible rating. Anytime a direct report does this, I am always a little astonished at everything they have done; especially when they are the kind of person who makes it look easy.

These ideas should get you on your way. In terms of your ambition to get to the very top, I will tell you that becoming an expert at anything you do will help. Be disciplined about never complaining or gossiping about people. Also, creating and nurturing a wide and deep network of diverse relationships will always help, never hurt.

Rock on, my dear. I have a feeling you will get where you want to go!

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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