What makes a great employee—the kind of employee that consistently exceeds expectation and who keeps coming up with new and better ways to benefit the business?
I believe one answer to that question is that every great employee possesses the following seven traits:
Great employees are life-long learners who often ask “why?” because they have a need to understand how things work. This curiosity causes great employees to ask questions and seek answers when others wouldn’t.
Great employees get excited about stuff, and they aren’t afraid to feel or express those feelings. In short, great employees care. They care about quality, they care about excellence, and they care about the business and want to help the organization meet its goals, too. These employees possess a sense of ownership about their work that can’t be faked or manufactured, and that sense of ownership fuels their “get it done” attitude.
Unfortunately, some employers will mistake passion (and the outspokenness that tends to accompany it) with suspicion, and these employees may be unfairly labeled as “troublemakers” or “non-team players.” What a shame! An employee who cares enough about your business to risk standing out is an asset, not a liability.
Although many leaders might like to deny it, they’re not always too happy with employees who challenge how work is done (see above). And yet, when courageous employees challenge “how we do things around here,” they encourage innovation.
Let’s be honest. Many organizations will resist change, even when the signs are all around that change is desperately needed. Without employees courageous enough to question company processes, procedures, and strategy, how would the company grow and adapt to emerging workplace and market trends? It wouldn’t.
Great employees are humble, and this humility keeps them on the lookout for a better way, because they understand that success is never guaranteed—other organizations with similar products and services are always ready to assume the market share of a company too satisfied with past achievements.
Great employees are diligent. They “sweat the small stuff,” because they know that details matter.
That said, a concern for detail is not to be confused with a tendency to micromanage (for the great employee with direct reports) or with a lack of understanding or focus on the “big picture.” Great employees comprehend the importance of both short- and long-term objectives, and they appreciate both. Their insistence on excellence, however, won’t allow for a “good enough” attitude, as in “The numbers are good enough, let’s run the report now.” No, the great employee insists on accuracy when accuracy is possible.
Great employees are practically genius at assimilating bits of information quickly, drilling down to the core issues, and using that information to act when action is needed.
Example: After receiving a disturbing phone call from a professional colleague, a clearly upset executive comes into the HR manager’s office with some troubling news. The former HR manager, who’d left the company months earlier to work for the colleague, had just been fired on suspicion of theft. This executive can hardly believe the employee he knew would steal from her employer, but he has no reason to doubt his colleague either. He asks the HR manager—what should he do? If Employee X is a thief, perhaps she stole from his organization, too? Should he inform his boss of the potential thief? And then what? But what if his colleague is mistaken!? The executive doesn’t want to sully her reputation for no reason.
The HR manager pauses, then asks a few questions:
The answers were no, not much/nothing, and none/no.
“Well then,” the HR Manager told the harried executive, “You don’t really know anything, and you’re not prepared to do anything either. Let it go.”
Was it a perfectly executed decision? Probably not. Would the decision have been different had different information been available? Most assuredly.
But great employees know that oftentimes the best we can do is make decisions with the information we have until we can secure more information or determine that more information is unnecessary, and then they act.
Seriously, who wants to work with someone who can’t be trusted or taken at face value? Great employees don’t provide these dilemmas, because they’re reliable and trustworthy. With very rare exception, they say what they mean and mean what they say. They keep their word or are communicative and apologetic when they can’t. They also accept responsibility for mistakes without making excuses.
It’s relatively straightforward to determine whether an applicant has the technical skills a job requires, but teasing out traits during the hiring process is another matter.
Asking lots of questions about past performance, focusing on how tasks were completed not merely what tasks were completed, and administering pre-employment behavioral assessments designed to reveal traits are two very good ways a hiring manager can discover the best talent for the job.