Being the best you can

You don’t have to have aspirations to be a multi-millionaire, globally recognised high flyer to learn lessons from those who are, and ensure that your work ethic helps you in your own career

Take a look at the work ethic of some of the world’s most successful people and it can make for quite intimidating reading. For example, Apple CEO Tim Cook (pictured) obviously had enormous shoes to fill after the untimely death of Steve Jobs, but when one looks at his purported work ethic it is easier to see how he got the role. Fortune magazine reports that he begins sending emails at 4.30am and a profile in Gawker reveals he’s the first in the office and last to leave. Apparently he used to hold staff meetings on Sunday night in order to prepare for Monday.

Meanwhile, Anna Wintour, US Vogue's editor-in-chief and Condé Nast's artistic director, was apparently the inspiration for the formidable boss in The Devil Wears Prada, a book written by her former personal assistant later made into a movie. But her perfectionism and attention to detail have played a huge role in her continued success in an industry where many other magazines and editors have failed.

And Simon Cowell, who – according to Forbes 2013 rich list – topped the highest earners in the UK in 2013 making a huge $95m in a year, grafted in the music industry for years before his perseverance ad commitment as X-Factor supremo and an America's Got Talent judge saw him become one of the most successful and wealthy men in the world.

‘A lot of people think that a good work ethic is simply turning up on time, doing your job as well as you can and then going home, maybe working a bit of overtime if required,’ says Toby Corning, who is training with BDO and is currently doing his AAT Level 4 exams. ‘But I think there's more to it than that; first, working in audit involves spending time with clients on client premises, so looking respectable and maintaining professionalism around clients is key. My company puts a lot of emphasis on providing exceptional client service because, ultimately, if the client's happy and good client relations are met then they are more likely to use you again.’

It’s not just about the 9–5

And Corning points out that a good work ethic subtly moves beyond the realms of the working life. ‘Showing a good work ethic is also realising that work is not simply a 9–5 desk job but it's also key to be sociable around your work colleagues and get involved in any social events upcoming. We are a sociable office with a good atmosphere and I would hope that anyone who joins the office would embrace that.’

And the experts agree with his viewpoint.

‘For me, a good work ethic begins with being organised and disciplined enough to do the things you've promised to do by the deadlines you've agreed,’ says Dr Rob Yeung, director at leadership consulting firm Talentspace and author of How To Win: The Argument, the Pitch, the Job, the Race. ‘But that's not enough on its own. I would also add that someone with a good work ethic doesn't just wait until being given work but also takes the initiative to look for ways to contribute to the team.

‘Work ethic is one of those slightly vague terms that can't be measured in a precise fashion. So the work ethic that's required to succeed in say an aggressive investment bank or a top law firm may be very different from the work ethic that's acceptable in perhaps a small family-owned business or a non-profit.

‘The key to developing a good work ethic is to understand the expectations of the people around you and delivering appropriately. So if your colleagues all generally stay until 7pm or 8pm, and often come in over the weekends, then that's what you'll have to do. Or if it's an unspoken rule that you do not disagree with what has been laid down for you by senior managers, then that may be how you need to behave too.

‘Given that the term is so vague and amorphous, I would ask the person having a conversation with you for examples of what they mean. Ask for specific examples of how your work ethic hasn't been good enough. Then listen and take on board what has been said. Don't get defensive. Don't try to disagree, justify or explain your behaviour. Just allow the other person to speak their mind. Thank them for their feedback and then take what they've said and reflect on it.

‘Clearly, if someone has raised an issue, it's an issue for them. So wait until you are calm and can reflect on what you might need to do to resolve the situation.

‘In today's competitive world, we all need to work hard. But there's more to being productive at work than merely putting hours in. To me, having a good work ethic is as much about being able to prioritise and decide what not to do as trying to do it all. Many of the successful leaders I've worked with or coached are the ones who have a sense of balance. They know what's important to them outside of their work and having that something else in life other than work helps them to recharge and feel more in control. That could be their family, their health, some community project, a religion perhaps or even a sport or personal interest.

‘In an ideal world, line managers would set a good example and set clear expectations for what employees should do. But we don't all live in an ideal world. Managers are busy and often have their own pressures. So sometimes it's up to us to ask our managers for clearer expectations and guidance. Don't wait until your manager tells you off for having a poor work ethic. Take the initiative and ask how you're doing and how else you could be contributing.’

Finally, the relationship between sporting success and business excellence has been well documented, so how can the determination and work ethic in the world’s top sports stars help the business successes of the futures? Toby Corning has an unusual and yet illuminating take on the matter.

‘Well, my sporting hero is Shane Warne, and his work ethic was never particularly great,’ he says. ‘However, you don't become the best spin bowler in the world without putting in a bit of work. I think he just knew what his discipline was and stuck with it rather than trying to be something that he wasn't. Since he retired he has undertaken several business ventures including online poker and cricket punditry. I think he's got where he is today just by pure hunger and desire to be the best.’

"A lot of people think that a good work ethic is simply turning up on time, doing your job as well as you can and then going home, maybe working a bit of overtime if required. But I think there's more to it than that."

Toby Corning