Characteristics Managers Value in an Employee (Great Employees)

Over the course of the last five years, I’ve written a number of blog posts concerning behaviors in the work environment, both good and bad.  While I’ve covered a lot of ground, one area I’ve neglected up to this point are those characteristic that distinguish a Great Employee from the rest of the pack – specifically from the perspective of their immediate boss.  This new series of posts will specifically focus on just those things.

An Overview

If one searches the internet or reads through management literature, it is pretty easy to assemble a list of characteristics that please employers.  One ambitious author even went so far as to present the “ABC’s” of positive employee behaviors, offering up one characteristic for each letter of the alphabet!  It would be a simple task to develop a list of “the 50 things employees must do to please their boss.”  But long lists of obscurely labeled behaviors (which would necessarily consist of multiple nuances of a much shorter list of a few basic characteristics) would simply add confusion rather than clarity.  Better to simply say, “do good stuff,” and leave it at that.

With this plethora of advice in mind, I’ve limited my list to only those fourteen subordinate behaviors that truly delighted me as a manager.  Furthermore, I’ve put them in order from greatest to least –prioritized according to my personal experiences as a boss.  And while there’s no obvious way to “weight” the items on this kind of list, it would fair to say that the top few items are worth multiples of those near the bottom.

Real employees don’t normally demonstrate all of these behaviors, nor is it even a requirement for a “star” employee to display a majority of them.  A good subordinate displays a few, a star has mastered a few more.  And it goes without saying that both “good” employee and “star” has only the tiniest of helpings of those behaviors bosses despise.

Additionally, the precise position on the list is somewhat dependent on the type of work in which the employee engages.  A star production employee likely would benefit little from “Professionalism,” but “Commitment to getting the job done” could easily be the most important characteristic she could demonstrate in that role.  A CPA would likely see “Professionalism” several notches higher on the list.

Alas, prioritization is far from an exact science!

Here then is the list of Characteristics of Great Employees:

1.       Generates High Output.  I’m talking about both quantity and quality, the balance of which can be job dependent.  In the simplest of terms, Great Employees take on large responsibilities and execute them quickly and with excellence.

2.       Is Honest and Trustworthy.  Speaking truth despite the myriad reasons to keep silent takes a measure of courage, and the Great Employee handles this with aplomb.  The Great Employee keeps his manager informed of those critical aspects of their work regardless of fears that it might compromise his “image.”

3.       Works Well with Others.  Many things that “slip through the cracks” in an organization do so because of friction between employees.  The Great Employee maintains positive relationships with (nearly) everyone, and doesn’t let personal grudges get in the way of successful execution.

4.       Demonstrates Good Judgement… in all things, including:  knowing when to ask for help, prioritizing effectively, assessing the capabilities and limitations of others, and staying out of political “hot water.”

5.       Commits to Completing the Task.  The Great Employee is dependable, reliably delivering results.  Even when circumstances change, they eventually circle back and finish what they’ve started.

6.       Offers Innovation and Creativity.  There is almost always a better way to accomplish a task or achieve a goal.  The Great Employee offers her ideas and experience in order to better products, processes, procedures.

7.       Resilient in the Face of Adversity.  Many efforts are abandoned prematurely due to environmental, competitive, or political headwinds.  The Great Employee keeps plugging away despite this kind of difficulty.

8.       Adapts to Change.  A Great Employee recognizes when circumstances necessitate a change in direction or an adjustment in goal or methodology.  Adapting to change also means being willing to put in the extra work (and travel, where necessary) to achieve important objectives in a timely basis.

9.       A Positive Influence on Others.  A Great Employee leaves peers and subordinates feeling inspired and motivated, rather than down and defeated.  They are publically supportive of their manager and his or her decisions when dealing with peers, subordinates and other managers both inside and outside the company.

10.   Self-motivated.  While a Great Employee may offer inspiration to others, they provide their own drive.  In the heart of a Great Employee is a determination to achieve.

11.   Passionate about Work.  Not every job and not every company is inherently inspirational, but the Great Employee finds something in their job to latch onto and in which to take pride.

12.   Makes the Boss Look Good… by taking the heat when they deserve it, and sharing credit where it is deserved.  A Great Employee is also aware of the political implications of their actions, and avoids doing things that might be embarrassing or destructive to their manager.

13.   Behaves Professionally.  In appearance, in conduct, in interaction with others.  Professional in this context means knowing and doing what is expected and within the bounds of organizational and societal norms, whatever those might be.

14.   Is Likable.  Has a positive relationship with both their supervisor and others with whom they work.  While not a strict requirement to be a Great Employee, it is uniformly easier for a manager to deal with a likable employee, particularly when the subject matter becomes difficult or divisive.

I wish I could say there was absolutely no overlap in these categories, but alas, there is some.  It should be more evident in subsequent posts how I’ve split hairs in a few places, identifying some related characteristics as separate for the purposes of the series.  For now, just try to be patient.  Clarity is coming

Of some significance are a few of the items I decided not to include on this list.  While these might still be good characteristics, skills, or behaviors, in my experience they are not a factor when managers identify employees they think of as “Great.”

Super-duper Technical Skills.  In my experience, technical skills are dramatically overemphasized when recruiting for most disciplines.  While a certain technical proficiency is necessary in most jobs, I’ve known many highly skilled people that were terrible employees because of other, unrelated behaviors.  I consider superior technical skills as “nice to have, but not essential” for most jobs.

Ambitious.  While this might be indicative of drive and passion, high levels of ambition tend to drag along a number of problems in its wake.  The ambitious tend to be impatient, worried about appearances to the point of holding back bad news, and are often detrimentally political in their decision-making.

Extroversion.  While being extroverted might help with likability or the ability to work with others, it certainly isn’t essential to being valued by the boss.  In fact, my best employees tended to be a bit on the introverted side, and a couple were raging introverts.  Introvert, extrovert, or somewhere in between seems to be more or less independent of value to a manager.

Persuasiveness.  While it is often helpful for an employee to be able to sell their ideas to others, there can be a very fine line between persuasion and outright pushiness.  And, in my experience, most employees that are “persuasive” (meaning here, on the aggressive end of things) tend to make their manager the target of their demands.  No boss appreciates an employee that is constantly demanding more, more, more.

Working Long Hours.  While Great Employees will sometimes be called upon to supply extraordinary effort, the working of exceptionally long hours does little to advance the average employee in the eyes of their manager.  The opposite of this behavior, known as Clock Watching, however, does irk many bosses.

Each week over the next few months, I will be expanding on one of the characteristics that make otherwise ordinary employees great.  These deeper dives should help the reader better define the behavior, understand how a manager finds value in it, and shed light on where the boundary between helpful and hurtful might be drawn.  Please join me for what I hope will be an enjoyable and informative series.