Want to Succeed at Work? Go Ahead, Be a Diva

by Shana Montesol Johnson

What do you need to perform, work and/or be at your best?

A few years ago, pop singer Jennifer Lopez made news for reportedly insisting that the hotel suites where she stayed while touring conform to the following demands: bedsheets must be Egyptian cotton with a thread count of at least 250, walls and furnishings must all be white, and the room temperature must be set at exactly 25.5 degrees Celsius.

J. Lo was ridiculed for being a demanding diva, and later denied she’d made such demands.  Whether the specifics are true or not, it’s apparently common for performers and even politicians to use a document called a “rider” to specify how hotel rooms must be outfitted to suit their needs.  When I hear these stories, my first reaction is to scoff at their demands – but on further reflection, I think it may show an awareness (hyper-awareness?) of what it takes for them to be at their best.

Which sparks a question: what do YOU require to do your best work?

I’m not recommending that you inform your boss that you will only write that report he requested if freshly baked croissants are delivered to your cubicle every morning.

What I am suggesting, though, is that you take some time to think about how your current work – and life – situation is setting you up to succeed…or not.  What does it takes for you to perform at your best?  Do you have these “rider” elements in your life?  If not, what can you do to create those conditions, or, if you alone cannot create them, work toward generating them?  By not being clear about what your “rider” includes, are you inadvertently keeping yourself from performing at your best?

I gave it a little thought.  Off the top of my head, here are some of the kinds of things that help me perform at my best on the job:

  • enough sleep
  • realistic timeframes for projects
  • work assignments that play to my strengths and that make a difference in people’s lives, even if it’s only in a small way
  • enough time alone
  • regular, meaningful interactions with people I care about
  • autonomy and flexibility in choosing my work hours and blending work with the rest of my life
  • the support, encouragement, and guidance of mentors I respect
  • a stable Internet and Skype connection for coaching calls
  • high-quality, trustworthy, and reliable childcare so that I can focus on my work without worrying about the welfare of my kids

I don’t ask for much, do I?  It’s not like I’m asking for a separate dressing room for my wigs or a pink podium and pink butterfly-shaped confetti.

In order to set yourself up for success, you need to know what you need to succeed.  A big piece of that is self-awareness: knowing yourself; being clear on your strengths, priorities, quirks; the ability to articulate what makes you miserable and what makes your heart sing.  This will help you to figure out how to get, create, and/or choose a situation that works best for you.

If you’re a sought-after pop star, you can simply put all your demands into a “rider” and a gaggle of concert promoters will jump to implement them.  For the rest of us, we have to find ways to make them happen.

Don’t wait for someone else – your boss, your organization, your colleagues – to make things work better for you.  It’s up to you to identify the changes you need, and work to put them in place.  Some will be under your control.  Others may fall under your sphere of influence, which is where you need to pull out your best advocacy, strategy, and problem-solving skills.

I’ve developed a downloadable worksheet that you can use to reflect on these questions, and hopefully, identify some concrete things you can do to set yourself up to succeed.  Go ahead – be a diva.


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Yvette Efevbera


As I read this, I’m struck by some of your major points. The idea of being a “diva” is often viewed so negatively, yet as you point out, there’s an element of self-awareness that allows you to be your best. As a graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health deeply committed to global health and social justice, I have adopted the nickname of “diva” over the past several years for many reasons including being my best so I can help others do the same. My own rationale has been to draw from the positive elements (as you’ve pointed out), and to set aside the negative and often ridiculous actions associated with the title.

In reading the article, I think it’s important to add that being a “diva” entails demonstrating energy, excitement, and painstaking commitment to your work. Whether in global health, like myself, or any field, it signifies not just “what you need to be your best” but putting in the time and effort to reach those levels. My current blog “A ‘D.I.V.A’. in Malawi” is exactly about using these elements to improve global health in Malawi and critically think about issues in health, policy, programming, race, culture, and more in order to make the world a better place. And although many have been surprised by the title I’ve selected, I think that your revelations help to capture that. Divas are not just selfish people with demands to do their best; they are people who continually do their best, and that passion should not be forgotten!



Shana Montesol Johnson

Hello from Manila to you, Yvette, in Malawi! Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts. I love that your blog title defines D.I.V.A. as “Diligent, Innovative, Vivacious Advocate” — the world needs more of those, in all fields! Thanks for the reminder that “divas” bring energy, excitement and commitment to their work. Best wishes to you as you live that out in Malawi. I look forward to hearing more!


Yvette Efevbera

Thanks so much for your response. I’m wondering what inspired you to write this article? As you noted, the idea of being a “diva” is often negatively viewed. What was the catalyst for this insight?


Shana Montesol Johnson

Yvette, in terms of what inspired me to write the article, I was thinking first about how we can set ourselves up to succeed (or fail!). And as I thought of people who know what they need to succeed, I thought of Jennifer Lopez and other celebrities whose riders have been publicized. As long as we don’t alienate others with an arrogant attitude, there certainly is something powerful about knowing what you need to be at your best, and advocating for it. Best to you in Malawi!


Jenni Bennett

What a fun post! And I’m totally working on my diva, I mean “must-haves,” checklist tonight. I wish I was in Manila to take part in your What’s Next Coaching Program next month – wishing you huge success!


Shana Montesol Johnson

Jenni, thanks for your comment! It would be great to have you in the “What’s Next?” Coaching Program. I plan to offer it again in early 2012 as a web-based program, so people can participate from anywhere in the world. If you’d like to sign up to receive updates on that, just click here.

Enjoy working on your “must-haves” checklist!


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