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3 essential skills for a great career and life

Career illustration

January 01, 2019

Editor's note: This piece was written by May Busch, senior adviser and executive in residence in ASU’s Office of the President. She is also a professor of practice in the W. P. Carey School of Business and chairs the Idea Enterprise. Find her at

When someone in a senior position asks you to “jump,” do you say “How high?” Or do you start negotiating?

May Busch

Depending on the situation, either response could be appropriate … or a mistake. When you say “yes” to everything, you can end up taking on too much, as well as the wrong things. That could lead to burnout, mediocre work and even relegating yourself to support rather than leadership roles.

But while you’ll probably have a better lifestyle when you negotiate on every point, you could be labeled “difficult.” That can mean missing out on great assignments and closing off career possibilities. So what can you do to advance in your career and have a great life, too? Here are three essential steps for protecting your time and energy.

1. Set boundaries

Set your own rules or guidelines for how much time and energy you spend on your projects or activities. For me, it’s about how long I spend working, because I have a tendency to work on something much longer than necessary.

You can further break this down into specific metrics such as how many days a week you travel, not missing two family dinners in a row, or never working on the weekend.

I learned to set boundaries when my department head gave me a heads-up. He was so worried about the hours I put in that he called me into his office one evening to say, “If you keep working like this, you’ll end up burning out and probably divorced. I want you to take your kids to school one morning a week and be home in time for dinner twice a week. Believe it or not, the firm will still operate without you.”

Illustration of a person

It took someone senior giving me permission (rather, commanding me) to set boundaries before I finally gave myself permission. Because none of us can rely on having a wonderful boss impose such boundaries, it’s important to give yourself permission to set them yourself.

2. Say 'no'

You’re going to be asked to take on many projects and tasks in your career. Some of them will be amazing opportunities, while others less so. But as an achiever, you may find it hard to say “no.” I certainly fall into that category.

I should’ve said “no” to a long list of things. Examples: Being the one to write up task force recommendations (which were never acted upon), taking on a friend’s teenage son for a summer internship (think babysitting), and traveling to Rome for one meeting as a favor to a colleague.

Were they big mistakes? Not really, and there was always a rationale for saying “yes” to each. But they added up to a significant distraction from the truly important things that I could have been working on.

Since then, I’ve learned a new acronym: SIWYSNT — Success Is What You Say No To.

With the help of my team, I now have a decision-making filter for determining whether or not to take on an activity. It includes things like whether it’s core to my mission, builds my brand, develops a new skill, builds my network and whether it is going to spark joy.

3. Manage up

Another key career skill is knowing how to manage up, as in proactively managing your relationship with your boss and shaping their perception of your work.

Do you know how to push back when someone in a senior position makes an unreasonable request? Are you skilled at influencing outcomes? Can you anticipate needs so you can do the task on your own time rather than having deadlines dictated by others?

One of my team members had the latter skill down to a science. Brian would stop by my desk in the morning and ask about upcoming client meetings so he could start on the prep work. This gave me a chance to plan ahead, and Brian added value by making suggestions on what material we could use.

This helped Brian manage his time, helped me be more prepared for important meetings and enhanced his reputation with me. Win-win!

Illustration of a person


As you advance in your career, the above steps and your professional skills will become more valuable. After all, there will be more demands on your time, those senior to you will be more powerful and the stakes will be higher.

They can also apply to your life away from work. For example, set boundaries for the household tasks of each family member, or how much time you spend with the in-laws.

Saying “no” can easily apply to friend and family requests. And managing up by anticipating needs has worked well for me with my husband — and yes, it’s usually wise to treat your partner like a boss or client!

This story originally appeared in the winter issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Also visit Busch's blog at for more ideas and inspiration.