Uncle Al’s Rules: How To Become Your Company’s Most Valuable Employee

Today, I’d like to give you a simple, three-part formula that, when followed, will make any ordinary employee into a superstar.

If you are working for somebody else now, you can use it to become your company’s most valuable employee. And within six months, here’s what you can expect:

  • Your income will increase dramatically.
  • Your job satisfaction will skyrocket. (You’ll love coming to work!)
  • Opportunities for career advancement will start flowing to you.
  • Your boss and coworkers will start treating you as someone special — with admiration and respect.
  • Your sense of job security will soar, knowing that you will never, ever be fired.

If you are a business owner, you can give this article to your employees and expect to see at least one of them quickly begin to work at a much higher level.

Imagine how great it will be when you don’t have to be the only person who:

  • Comes up with all the marketing ideas
  • Keeps a concerned eye on expenses
  • Makes all the important deals
  • Keeps the vendors honest
  • Really, really cares about the bottom line

How does that sound?

Okay. Let me tell you about Uncle Al.

“Show up. Do your job. Keep your nose clean.” Those were the rules that Al Perot, owner of The Maple Avenue Deli, laid down at 6:00 a.m. the first Saturday I worked for him.

At 15, I had little use for maxims — and less for those delivered before I was fully awake. But Al’s three rules, as I kept learning later in my life, were a formula for wealth, health, and happiness.

I ignored them at first because I didn’t truly understand them. But when I finally realized what he meant, my career caught fire.

Uncle Al, as we called him, was an interesting guy — a blue-collar Renaissance man. He read widely. He was a connoisseur of classical music. He coached football. And he mentored his teenage employees.

I was one of his proteges for a summer in 1965. And during that short period of time, I am quite sure I heard Uncle Al repeat his rules no fewer than two dozen times.

“Show up. Do your job. Keep your nose clean.”

So simple. Three imperative sentences — the first consisting of two words, the second three words, the third four.

As an author of self-improvement books, I have contemplated many prescriptions for successful living — from the Ten Commandments to The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. But I never found one as simple as Uncle Al’s.

Simple, but hardly simple-minded.

I think of his rules now as individually sealed little packages — each one containing a lifetime’s worth of wisdom.

Show up. Woody Allen famously said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” But Woody didn’t mean just drag your body to work at the appointed time — and neither did Uncle Al.

Do your job. Lots of people consider a good workday to be one where they do as little challenging work as possible. The more idle or fun or lazy time they can get paid for, the better. This belief is amazingly widespread. It is a big part of union mythology, a big part of executive mythology … and even a big part of the Internet business world.

Keep your nose clean. Most people take this to mean “Stay out of trouble.” But Uncle Al was too smart to think you can achieve greatness by avoiding conflict or staying on the beaten path.

Let me show you what Uncle Al’s three rules really mean. To illustrate, I will introduce you to RM, a woman who came to work for one of my clients just three years ago.

Show Up

I remember the day I met her. Her boss, my client, introduced me to her. She stood up, shook my hand, and greeted me with a big smile. “I’ve read all your books,” she said. “I’m a big fan.”

I’ve talked about the power of flattery before. It doesn’t matter whether it’s intended or accidental. So long as it is delivered with enthusiasm, it always works. It works because nobody can get enough of it. Okay, maybe Brad Pitt gets tired of it. But for the rest of us, enough is never really enough.

When you meet someone who has the power to affect your career trajectory, you have a one-time opportunity. Instead of trying to impress the individual by acting smart or smart-alecky, a genuine smile and a sincere compliment will work wonders. The more specific the compliment, the more powerful it will be.

I once met a distinguished Ezra Pound scholar — Hugh Kenner. He gave a lecture at Catholic University, where I was enrolled in a very competitive graduate program. After his speech, I walked up to him with a copy of his most recent book and asked him to sign it. I told him I had read every one of his books, and I mentioned a specific idea from one of them to prove my point.

He was immediately interested in me. We spent a good 10 minutes talking. Correct that. We spent that time talking about him. He talked. I admired what he said.

The next day, the chairman of the English department called me into his office. “What in God’s name did you say to Hugh Kenner?” he asked.

“Why?” I said.

“Because he said you were the most intelligent graduate student he had ever met.”

This is a true story. During that brief conversation with Hugh Kenner I told him I had read all his books, and I cited the one example. Other than that, all I said was, “Yes, I see what you mean. Yes, I never thought of that!”

This is all basic stuff for anyone who has read Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. (If you haven’t read it, buy a copy today.) It’s all about the power of focusing your attention on the person you are communicating with.

If RM hasn’t read Dale Carnegie, she is Dale Carnegie reincarnated. Because she showed up at that first meeting with a full understanding of Carnegie’s secret of influencing people: Win the friendship first. And every time I have met her since then, she has taken the time to prove to me that she appreciates everything I have to say to her. By making a friend of me, she has gotten all my best ideas and best wishes. At every stage of her career, I have done my best to move her forward.

And don’t think for a moment that I am the only one. RM has this effect on everyone she meets.

But that’s only part of what RM knows about “showing up.” It also means preparing yourself for every important interaction.

Before RM comes to a business meeting, she knows exactly what is expected of her. She has the facts. She’s done her homework. When she speaks, it is clear to everyone that she knows what she’s talking about.

She also makes a great personal presentation. She is always well groomed and well dressed. She is always energetic and cheerful. When problems are discussed, she never gets discouraged. She is the “can do” woman. That has a very positive effect on the people who work with her — her coworkers, her employees, and her bosses.

If you want to become your company’s most valuable employee, you must start by adopting RM’s happy-to-be-here attitude toward work. I know more than a few employees as capable and intelligent as RM, but none that brings so much to the table. In fact, I am thinking of firing a potential superstar right now because she thinks that showing up means just showing up and being smart.

Being smart doesn’t cut it. When you show up, show up the way RM does!

Do Your Job

When RM does a job, she never does what she is asked to do. People who do what they are asked to do are “B” employees. Reliable. Conscientious. Keepers.

But when the boss is thinking of promoting an employee to a responsible position, the last person he wants is someone who is reliable, conscientious, and a keeper. The best jobs are given to people who do more than they are asked. Upward mobility in any organization worth working for is about astonishing the boss. Satisfying him won’t get you anywhere.

In Automatic Wealth for Grads … and Anyone Else Just Starting Out, I put it this way:

“So long as your work performance is ordinary, you can’t expect anything more than an ordinary salary. But if you change your work habits and contribute substantially more than your fellow workers, you can rightly expect to be paid substantially more than they are getting.”

You may be thinking, “My boss is so demanding … I can never satisfy the son of a bitch. How the hell am I going to astonish him?”

But the truth is you can. Demanding businesspeople are dissatisfied with 99 percent of their employees because they have set their standards too high. They want everyone who works for them to be a superstar. That is impossible and self-defeating. But it doesn’t mean you can’t astonish these people. All you have to do is work harder and smarter and with more enthusiasm than anyone else.

You can do it. You really can. It’s just a matter of deciding you should.

And why should you? Because even if your boss is Mephistopheles in an Armani suit, he notices his superstar employees and becomes dependent on them. If you become a superstar, he may not praise you … but he will never let you go. And when you ask for a promotion or raise … he’ll give it to you. Trust me.

RM understands that. She also understands that doing your job is about paying attention to the big picture. And the big picture in any business is focused on two goals:

  • Providing exceptional value to your customers.
  • Realizing long-term profits from your relationship with them.

Every time RM has been given a challenge, she’s planned her strategy according to those two goals. She would never produce a product unless she was convinced it would be genuinely valuable to the company’s customer base. And she always makes sure the marketing plan she’s working with is one that will produce long-term profits.

Keep Your Nose Clean

RM made her way from a beginning employee making less than $30,000 to a partner in the business making six figures. She did it in less than three years. And she did it by following Uncle Al’s first two rules.

Yes. If you really show up and you really do your job — like RM — you will be really successful. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

So what need is there for another rule?

And such a rule! Keep your nose clean?

Well, it’s not an accident that this rule comes last. Because you can understand it only after you have fully understood the first two.

In fact, I only began to figure it out about 10 years ago, more than 20 years after Uncle Al died.

Briefly, here’s what I think …

Keeping your nose clean is about attending to the small details that make for a more mannerly and considerate life. Keeping your nose clean means taking care of those small details, even if you have achieved great success while ignoring them.

One example: In the information marketing world — ETR’s world — good spelling, punctuation, and grammar will have no impact on your success. So long as you are a master of using the English language to persuade people to buy what you’re selling … it doesn’t matter how you butcher it to achieve your goals.

Time and again I’ve seen mailings go out with terrible mistakes, even on headlines. And never once did I see it have any impact on sales.

If your core ideas are good and your will is good — i.e., you provide exceptional value — your customers will be more than happy to forgive you for making small blunders along the way. If they even notice them. Which they probably won’t.

So the reason you want to keep your nose clean can’t be to achieve more success, right? Right.

Why, then, would you worry about it at all?

You want to keep your nose clean because, in the long run, your career is much less about achieving the status symbols of success — wealth and its trophies — than it is about being spiritually healthy and feeling proud of yourself.

That, it turns out, can be achieved only by keeping your nose clean.

If you think I’m talking out of my butt, don’t fret about it. Just keep working on the first two rules. When you are young and strong and wanting to become rich and powerful, it’s enough to show up and do your job.

But just keep this third rule in mind. And I promise you — after you have achieved everything else, you will say to yourself one day, “You know, Michael Masterson was right about Uncle Al’s third rule. I’m going to start wiping the snot from my nose.”

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]