We ask managers periodically what attributes put individual employees ahead of the competition on the job. Aside from the ever-present if decrepit clichés such as “hard work” and “motivated” here is what we learned.
1. Anticipation and resourcefulness. More managers mentioned people who can guess, anticipate, or divine the next step without asking the boss. It could be as simple as asking someone who’s done it before. It might require looking at past projects. What is not wanted is the employee who “checks in” with the boss every few hours for further direction. (This is sometimes described as “dependency” or “lack of motivation.”)
2. People who think like owners. Especially owners of small and medium-sized companies pine for people who think, “If this were my business what would I do next?” and then do it. Example: An employee encountered an irate customer in the lobby. Instead of letting the customer vent the employee took him back into the office and said, “I’m going to help fix this,” as if the customer were his customer. (Remember the things that most aggravate customers are rarely quality-related by style.)
3. Everything is a problem to be solved. Bigger problems need more complicated solutions but — this is key — nothing is impossible. What managers reported was that employees developed solutions for common problems but were disconcerted by problems that didn’t fit in-stock solutions. “I thought people would be bored by solving the same problem multiple times. Not so. My people apply the same solutions because it’s easiest,” or so several managers reported.
4. Attention to detail. The commonest, most irritating habit, especially of twentysomethings is doing things by rote — or appearing to do so. When managers talk about engagement they mean people who focus on the whole job, not just pieces, and complete everything before they call it done. Less the twentysomethings get huffed by this, there are plenty of older workers who decide it really doesn’t matter if something is complete as long as the “bulk” of it is right. I have not met any managers who agree but then I haven’t met every manager either.
So, what does this mean for you? Did you, in the interview or since, ask your boss what he values most? If so, did you take the answers seriously? If you knew that your boss valued clear definition of a problem followed by three possible solutions isn’t that what you’d deliver? Sometimes taking a boss’s words literally — or visually checking his values — dwarfs the competition. I had a client whose boss spent $10,000 a year on clothing. My client bought suits at the Good Will which, unfortunately, had not been donated by people like his boss. Does the boss need to articulate how much he values appearances when he’s walked the walk? My client left because he felt his boss “disapproved” of him. I’m sure he did.
The tail on this tale: Separate what your boss really values from what he says. The obvious is often the most important clue.
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