When I first started working, I did not know what a great employee did. What separated average or good employees from great ones? What skills did I need? I lumbered around for a while, making minimal raises, and being a rather mediocre employee before I figured it out.

Let me save you a few years and shortcut your way to being a great employee. Mind you, this is my experience working my way up from the bottom of two cut-throat big 4 professional services firms, from consultant to manager. And if I can make my way to management (and beyond), you certainly can too.

Great employees don’t just take initiative, they take the next step

“You can’t cross a sea by merely staring into the water.” -Rabindranath Tagore. 1913 Nobel laureate for literature

You may have heard that great employees take the initiative. They do the things that others in their company won’t do. It could be a dirty job. It could be a repetitive job taking a lot of time. Maybe it’s work on the weekends and evenings. Great employees are certainly proactive. But even better than being proactive is identifying and taking the next step.

One of my personal rules, for example, is to respond to emails and move things forward in some tangible way. An email might land on my inbox asking about a particular document I am the author of. Some employees may find the link or attach the document. What I like to do instead is understand what information that person wants, link or attach the document, but also insert the relevant information from the document directly into the email. In 90% of these cases, the person gets what they need without ever having to access the document, but the document is there if they need it.

Before you reply to an email, or send back a document to your manager, what’s the next step you can take? Can you take it without asking for permission?

Great employees find out how they can help their boss or their boss’s boss, and then over-deliver

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Great employees do not just finish their work, delivering quality outputs well ahead of deadlines, they also take on more responsibility. It’s not just any responsibilities though – the best employees find the work that directly helps their boss (or their boss’s boss) because that’s the work that will get their name out to everyone in the organization.

For example, I’ll have a one-on-one conversation with my boss and they offhandedly mention they have a presentation they still need to work on for executives. Perfect! I’ll volunteer to help with the presentation because it’s a key strength of mine, and I’ll hit the presentation out of the park. Not only am I taking some work out of my manager’s hands, I can also, if I develop an incredible presentation, get the executives excited about the work and value I bring to their organization.

Great employees are constantly learning, growing, and asking for feedback from people above and ‘below’ them

Work hard at your job and you can make a livingWork hard on yourself and you can make a fortune.” – Jim Rohn

I never really understood what that meant until I learned about the world of personal development. I see friends and coworkers who do the minimum or maybe go above and beyond in their jobs, but only every few weeks or months. Several years later when we catch up, I still see them in the same job. Because I’m their friend, I don’t ask them why they haven’t gotten ahead in life. What do I know? Maybe they’re happy staying where they are. But that’s definitely not me.

I spend significant amounts of time reading, taking courses, and trying out new things, especially if it pertains to something to my job. When I was a management consultant, I would get thrown onto projects, knowing little to nothing about the industry or client I was supposed to be an ‘expert’ in. So I immersed myself in books, articles, courses, and any similar deliverables available. I would never call myself an expert, but I at least had something to say if I was asked by the client.

And any time I worked in a team, I asked for feedback from people above and ‘below’ me. Sure, in a lot of cases, the feedback from people that managed me was likely more important and relevant, but I wanted to be open to feedback on how I managed and delegated work to others.

Great employees are positive, enthusiastic, and excited about the work they do

“In all matters, be enthusiastic, and others will want to be around you including work with you, and you’ll flourish.” – Adam Robinson

Adam Robinson, in the above quote, says that enthusiasm is the one trait he suggests all graduates who are looking to make their mark at a company or career have. I’ve worked on a few dozen projects over my career and the people I want to work with the most are those that are positive, enthusiastic, and excited about the work they do. That enthusiasm and positivity is infectious – so much so that even when the work isn’t all that exciting, that individual is the difference between a bad project, and a project you look back on and think “wow that was fun”.

Let’s be clear, positivity, enthusiasm and excitement isn’t easy, nor is it something you need to fake. For terrible projects, it can be about focusing on the positive things. For the truly awful projects with bad clients, it could be about learning something new about yourself (or about learning how to gracefully exit a relationship).

Great employees ask questions. And not just any questions, questions that cajole, nudge, and get people to consider something new

One who never asks either knows everything or nothing.” – Malcolm Forbes

Early in my career, I knew nothing. I started out in consulting not even knowing what consulting was. On my first trip to the client with a more senior consultant, I asked him what we were doing (because honestly, I did not know). He told me that consulting is asking the client what their problems are, what solutions and ideas they have to fix those problems, and then to write a report documenting everything we heard. I looked at him in surprise “clients pay us to do this?” There’s a lot more to it than that, but at its core, that’s what consulting is.

I would sit in both internal and external meetings and go for stretches, where I never said a word. My brain was empty. I didn’t know what to ask. I could not plan good questions. Looking back on it, I was in the ‘absorption’ phase of my career. I was trying to gather as much information and knowledge I could. I wasn’t naturally a consultant though, and I have to work hard at getting up to speed on projects whenever I get a new project.

Having a decade under your belt, and a few dozen different projects changes your knowledge and expertise. Nowadays, I know at least enough to anticipate questions and to ask a few questions myself when the time arises. Although I can’t tell you what questions you should ask, here are some questions I think about that might help you ask your next question:

  • On strategy. What is the big picture? What small details are we missing? How does this link up to bigger plans or strategies?
  • On analysis. What assumptions are we making here? What if those assumptions aren’t true?
  • On analysis. Is this MECE? Mutually Exclusive (not overlapping), Collectively exhaustive (captured all data points?)
  • On analysis. How do we know this is true? Are we making logical steps to the conclusion?
  • On next steps. Every time someone is communicating something, ask yourself “what, now what, so what?” What is it the person is communicating? Now what does that mean? And then what are we going to do about it?
  • On next steps. What is the next step? Who is doing this? What is the timing? How do we know this will change anything?

Takeaways

In my experience, and based on the lessons I have learned in my career, great employees are:

  • Proactive – Great employees always ask themselves “what’s next?” and then take the next step if they can.
  • Help others succeed – Great employees take on additional responsibility, especially work that is beyond their pay grade.
  • Constantly learning – Great employees are constantly growing, learning, and asking for feedback from everyone, not just people that are more senior than they are.
  • Enthusiastic – Great employees tackle the hardest tasks and then ask for more. They make the work environment suck less.
  • Ask questions – Great employees ask questions to nudge people in the right direction, always intending to leave people or work better off.