The Unwritten Rules of Career Success

Last week, I taught a half dozen workshops for a client on how to succeed at work. In doing research, I came across a survey entitled “Unwritten Rules: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt Your Career.”

According to the authors, Laura Sabattini and Sarah Dinolfo:

“Building professional relationships, whether through networks and affinity groups or with mentors, supervisors, and other individuals who can share knowledge emerged as particularly important. Effective communication and defining career goals were also deemed important to success. Respondents sometimes learned about important career rules by trial and error or simple observations, but many were proactive in asking colleagues and supervisors for information to understand how things work in their organization. Respondents also said that they wished they had known that ‘just’ working hard is not enough to succeed or that they had been more aware of organizational politics and about the advantages of self-promotion.”

I asked the audience to brainstorm who in their organizations they think are highly successful, to say why they are successful, and to give examples of what these stars do and the skills they have. Not surprisingly, the skills they came up with were in line with what the survey said.

According to participants, successful people network with others, plan to exceed expectations, do what they say they will do and take initiative. In addition, my client, a nonprofit organization, said that successful people in their organization are passionate about what they do.

In collaboration with the leaders of the organization, I designed a checklist of skills that are keys to success and grouped the skills under 4 categories; 2 categories were technical skills unique to this organization and the other 2 categories, professional development and professionalism, were more generic.

When the participants complete a self assessment on the checklist, the same 3 skills came up in every group as areas to work on. The 3 skills fell under the category, professional development: seek feedback from a variety of sources, accept constructive criticism in a constructive manner and  implement and evaluate the impact of new professional ideas at work. We then spent some time brainstorming how they could develop or strengthen these skills.

The professional development skills I taught are not unique to my client. According to Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger, authors of For Your Improvement, career stallers and stoppers include Blocked Personal Learner (doesn’t seek input and uses few learning tactics) and Defensiveness (is not open to criticism).

I am curious. What are the top professional development skills you need to work on? What is stopping you from taking these on or what is driving you to do so? And, what cool things are you doing to develop these skills in yourself?

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About the Author

Judith Lindenberger

Judith Lindenberger is President of The Lindenberger Group, an award-winning HR consulting agency. She has over 30 years of experience helping clients create effective human resource management strategies to drive success for their organization and their employees. Lindenberger Group’s seasoned team of consultants offer expert guidance on all aspects of HR from recruitment and staffing to training and development to payroll and compliance. For more information, email


Teresa Rennie

I have been asking myself that same question just recently and came up with very similar answers. The most successful women I know are driven, know how to network, and know how to become the confidants without betraying any ones trust. They are able to look at situations and come up with different ways to solve. The people who inspire me the most are the ones that force me to look at things differently, force me to look outside of my comfort zone and strive to be better than I currently am.
What I need to work on? Same answer that most people have provided – networking and effective communication.


I actually just wrote about this topic this morning. I work with DiSC and recently have worked with The Work of Leaders – using your DiSC style to work on vision, alignment, and execution.

Honest feedback is often tough – to give and to get. It requires trust and integrity and I don’t know if all work environments have that. This tool allows people to get the feedback privately – and work on the development individually.


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