The title of this Insights column reflects what has been my guiding philosophy ever since my first managerial position. And I truly believe that the statement is accurate. Throughout my career, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with many wonderful people. This observation led me to muse recently about what makes employees not just good, but exceptional—the types of employees we all want as colleagues and staff members. Having written previous columns on characteristics of exceptional leadership and governance, I think it's time for me to comment on characteristics of exceptional employees.
As usual, I consulted a number of reference sources, including a couple of recent blogs on qualities of remarkable employees and highly effective entrepreneurial employees. I also looked at my usual source, the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, and then thought back over my personal experiences from 30-plus years in management and leadership. The result is the following list of 12 characteristics of exceptional employees, plus an additional one that is a basic must-have for all employees:
- They see their job description as a springboard. These employees see their job as getting the necessary work done. They are not constrained by their official job description. They are prepared to do whatever is needed, even if it involves some less challenging work. They are capable of multitasking, handling several important priorities at the same time. They see no work as above or beneath them if they have the capability to perform it.
- They are natural leaders. These employees take ownership and responsibility for their work. They lead by example and take responsibility for guiding colleagues. They meet commitments and help others who might be having some challenges meeting theirs. They are "go-to" people, the ones their boss will rely on, knowing the job will get done.
- They convey positive energy. These employees are enthusiastic about their job and their work. They encourage others to behave similarly by modeling a positive attitude, even when the challenges mount. They are the people who see the glass as half full.
- They are team players. These employees know that organizational success is a team sport. They strive for understanding individual needs and styles so that the team functions effectively. They develop listening and communication skills tailored to the needs of their teammates.
- They are results-oriented. These employees believe that organizational priorities are their priorities. They know that results are not limited to financial results. They embrace category 7 of the Baldrige Criteria. So they see that achieving results includes product and service performance, customer engagement, and colleague engagement. And they see that results include efficient and effective operations because all of these characteristics are necessary to deliver long-term financial results.
- They are communicators. These employees believe in sharing information. They know that "knowledge is power" but that closely held knowledge is wasted and will not yield organizational sustainability. These employees give and seek constructive feedback graciously and earnestly. They are sensitive to how messages should be delivered. They are willing to speak when others are not, asking the questions (politely) that are on their colleagues' minds but that others shy away from asking.
- They praise others in public, criticize in private. These employees offer praise for colleagues in public and with sincerity. They know that praise from your colleagues is as important—and sometimes more important—than recognition by your boss. And when some criticism or correction is warranted, they do it in private, not embarrassing a colleague or their boss in public.
- They understand yin and yang. These employees know balance. They know when a situation benefits from some levity and when it is necessary to be serious. They know when to challenge concepts (and challenge them, they should!) and when it is necessary to follow instructions. They know what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds.
- They are flexible and adaptable. These employees know that change is the only constant in today's work environment. They are prepared for change and will serve as change agents, encouraging needed changes and supporting their adoption. They are "early adopters."
- They are improvement-oriented. These employees know that there is always an opportunity to improve. But equally important, they know how to prioritize improvements and select those with the biggest benefits relative to outcomes. They know how to balance the easy wins with the important longer-term improvements. They know that improvement is the means, not the goal. They aim for positive outcomes that impact important customer, process, and organizational needs.
- They are innovative. These employees know that improvement is important, but that breakthrough improvement is what differentiates the exceptional contributor and organization from the rest. They know that innovations break the existing organizational mold and lead to discontinuous betterment in critical areas.
- They are lifelong learners. Given that all people and organizations thrive if they are learning, exceptional employees thirst for knowledge. They share it and they seek it. Incidentally, we learned in the early days of the Baldrige Program that one of the hallmarks of role-model organizations is a commitment to learning. A few years after the program started, we added learning to our definition of performance excellence. The definition initially contained only internal operational effectiveness and external customer and marketplace success. However, we learned that learning was an equally important outcome that enabled the others.
Beyond this list, I did promise you a "bonus" characteristic—one that is so essential that organizations need all employees to demonstrate it—and the highest-performing employees to be role models of it. That characteristic is ethical behavior. A person and an organization can be no more successful than the ethical practices that underpin their every action.
I encourage you to check yourself against this list. I know you come to work every day wanting to do a good job. Are you committed to doing an exceptional job?
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