My job for most of the past 35 years was finding top people to fill critical jobs in a variety of companies in almost every industry imaginable.
More important, I personally tracked many of these people after they were hired and over two-thirds (more than 300 people!) took on larger roles or got promoted into bigger positions within their first 1-2 years at the company. This is remarkable but not unusual when companies hire people who have significant upside potential. More remarkable is that many of the traits these people demonstrated both to get hired and to get ahead can be mastered by nearly everyone.
Here are some things you need to do if you want to excel and get ahead:
One: Clarify and exceed expectations. One thing I noticed about most of the top performers I've worked with is they either force their hiring managers to clarify expectations up front or work for hiring managers who do this naturally. In fact, this is a critical trait of all of the best managers. As the Gallup research has demonstrated year after year, clarifying expectations up front is the #1 trait of the best managers. Whether you're a manager or not, if you want to get ahead you need to do more than required. Volunteering for stretch projects or the difficult ones no one else wants is another way to exceed expectations. Doing more of what you're required to do and/or doing it better is the most obvious way.
Two: Don't make excuses. Just do it. I've learned over the years that it's far better to consistently deliver reasonable results on time rather than perfect results that are always late. As part of this the best people didn't make excuses when things went wrong since things always go wrong, for everyone. The best people just accept the fact that things will go wrong, plan for it as best as possible, overcome whatever obstacles come along and then deliver the required results. Consistently.
Three: Be proactive - Do it before being told to do it. The best people I've met, placed and worked with don't need much more than general direction. They know exactly what to do without being guided step-by-step. They even know what kinds of problems to expect and they plan accordingly. So rather than wait to be told to do something, go ahead and do it. This is what taking the initiative is all about. If you don't mess up too often you'll be branded as a high achiever. As part of our performance-based interview I ask candidates to describe how they'd solve a job-related problem. This helps me figure out why some people are more proactive than others since they can see the future unfolding before it arrives. I then ask them to describe something they've actually accomplished that validates their approach to problem solving. The ability to visualize a problem and then deliver a solution is something the best people do naturally and consistently. Another term for this is leadership.
Four: Aim before firing. Two of Stephen Covey's master habits are "begin with the end in mind"and "seek first to understand before being understood." These are both necessary for influencing others and problem-solving. Asking tough questions is part of this. Also having the confidence and courage to ask questions that might brand you as naïve or uninformed is typically necessary for aiming and acting properly.
Five: Leverage the team. The key to cultural fit is working with and through other people to get results. This includes working with people in other departments and/or functions, as well as peers, subordinates and company executives. Getting the support of the people you work with is essential for getting ahead. That's why on every team project big or small it's essential that you demonstrate the above characteristics. Volunteering for some unpopular team project is one way to demonstrate your team skills as well as your character.
Some people might call the above soft skills. In fact, here's a list of a dozen others that are too important to be called soft. More important, if you demonstrate the above five traits on the job on a consistent basis it's likely you'll get assigned to handle bigger projects, work on more important teams with more important people and get promoted more rapidly than your peers. If not, it's likely you either haven't demonstrated these characteristics to the right people or your understanding of what you're expected to accomplish is vastly different than what others expect of you. If so, reread point one above. Exceeding expectations starts by knowing what they are.