How to Be a Superhero at Work


If you want to be a hero at work, you gotta do two things.

First, you gotta do your job well. Heroes aren’t dead wood.

Second, heroes do what’s expected of them, and then some. The “then some” is the key. And it needn’t be spectacular. Just something that is above and beyond the job specs.

When I was a foreman for a highway department on Long Island, I did a lot of “then somes.” For instance, when I cut grass, I did so only after I purged the grass of litter. To a normal person, this would be considered a common-sense practice. Running over litter-strewn grass with a lawnmower only makes a lawn look more unsightly. Cut grass laden with thousands of pieces of shredded paper and plastic is not attractive. But in my bizarro world of government, running over litter with a lawnmower was standard practice. Picking it up beforehand was not in the job specs.

Here’s another example of going above and beyond from my foreman days. On a cul-de-sac in my area, there lived a family with a severely handicapped child. It was paramount to the parents that they could get their child to a hospital at any hour. And 99 percent of the time, this was never an issue. But during snow storms, cul-de-sacs were the last streets to get plowed. Understandably, the policy of my municipality was to plow the main roads first. There were thus several hours during every storm in which residents living on cul-de-sacs were trapped. But to me, this policy was unacceptable for this family. So the first thing I did during every snow storm was to personally plow this family’s cul-de-sac and cut a path to the main road.

Okay, becoming a hero at work is relatively easy. Do your job well, and develop a habit for doing a bunch of “then somes.” But what if you want to take it to the next level? What if you want to become a superhero? What do you have to do then?

Being a superhero has the same requirements as a hero. The only difference is that a superhero is more strategic with his or her “then somes.” A superhero uses his or her “then somes” to solve problems.

Again, you needn’t solve a monumental problem to become a superhero. Just find a problem—which every organization has in ample quantities—and fix it. And don’t wait to be asked. Find and fix a problem on your own volition. Here’s an example of what I mean.

A few years ago, my company decided to shutter the Charlotte office (my workplace). My main duty, managing the Louisiana Medicaid project, was being transferred to the corporate headquarters in Irving, Texas. So every month I would fly to Texas and explain to the transition team how I did this job.

Now, the database and code I created to manage the Louisiana Medicaid project was nothing special. The transition team in Texas had no problem understanding it. But my database and code was a one-off. It wasn’t part of my company’s formal IT infrastructure. And because of this, the transition team was having a tough time duplicating my process. It was a classic case of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

One particularly thorny issue the transition team encountered was the creation of a file that we were contractually obligated to send to Louisiana on a daily basis. Failing to send this file would result in a steep fine. I could have, of course, sat back and watched the transition team flounder. It wasn’t my job to show them how to make the Louisiana Medicaid project work in their system. But the people on the transition team were good people. And they were really trying. So I said, “f**k it,” and spent about a week developing a query after hours that created the file from the Texas system.

When I gave the query to the lead guy on the transition team and showed him the file it produced, he was stunned. He looked over the query for several minutes and then turned to me and asked, “What the heck it this? Black magic?”

It wasn’t, of course. Someone on his team would have eventually come up with an equally magical query. But because I did it, and did it on my own volition, I instantly became a superhero in the eyes of the transition team and the company.***

Final Thoughts

Okay, groovy freedomists, that’s my three-step formula for becoming a superhero at work. Be competent, do “then somes,” and solve problems. Are you a hero at work? Are you a superhero? If you are, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it.

***I’d be remiss if I didn’t explain that producing this query catapulted me beyond superhero to megahero. You see, my status was already dead man walking. That’s right, I was given the pink slip. Because all processes were being handed over to TX, I was no longer needed and I was down to my last few weeks of work. Yet, still, I made life easier for my co-workers. Ultimately, because of my work habits and my reputation, I was promoted to another position in the company. 

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  1. Work character is so important. I wish more folks understood the value of doing what is good for the world. I’m extra happy to know that you are the type of person who’ll make sure that a person with a disability has their rode plowed first. Not enough folks notice other people’s needs. Even fewer act on them.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Agreed, ZJ. Looking out for others is important. The good news is that the foreman who replaced me was a good egg too. He personally plowed that cul-de-sac himself and made sure that that family was never stranded during a snow storm.

  2. Nice article. There are too many people that just do their job at work. They are present the number of hours required by their contract and do work some of these hours… 😉
    I also try to do more. I do not mind helping other departments if that would speed up my projects. I do help the sales team when there is a trade fair. None of this is part of my formal job spec.
    One of the companies I worked for before called this “going the extra mile”. This was actually a line item in the yearly evaluation…
    The points above in the comments to be selective is true… There are other priorities first in life. You can spend hours and hours and hours being a superhero at work. It is even more important to be the superhero at home, for the wife and kids.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Amber Tree. Nice points. I especially like the last one you made. If you’re going to be a superhero anywhere, start at home! I love it.

  3. I pick and choose – hopefully wisely – when to be a superhero. As noted by Stockbeard, there are times when it doesn’t bring you much. First and foremost, my first priority is my life (i.e. friends, family, hobbies, travel, etc.) and putting more into work than I will get out – at the expense of things that are most important in my life – is not for me. However, there are occasions when some time can be dedicated to being a superhero … It’s just a matter of choosing the times/situations wisely.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Excellent point. It definitely can’t be an obsession, especially when the ROI is so fickle. And like you added, one’s first priority should be one’s family, friends, and non-work related interests. So let me qualify. Short bursts of superhero-dom are okay. Long, continual bursts are counterproductive. Thank you, James (and Stockbeard), for recognizing a flaw in my reasoning. Cheers, my friend.

  4. Good points, but I’d argue that being a superhero at work doesn’t bring you much. If you’re lucky and persistent, it can bring you a promotion. In some cases it can bring you trouble. Not worth the effort in many cases, in my opinion.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Ha. Mrs. Groovy agrees with you. I’ve had good results with going above and beyond. But like you pointed out, there are no guarantees. Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Stockbeard. It never hurts to hear the downside of any strategy.