Although much has been said about being an entrepreneur and starting a company, I think there’s a lot of merit in learning how to be a good employee. For one thing, it provides you with income as you work on building the next Uber. And another, you are literally getting paid to learn: you learn what organizations do, what processes they need, the key people to help the organization move forward, how to manage or work with coworkers, and more.
And for me, if I’m going to do something, I’m not half in it, I’m fully into it. And from one employee to another future stellar employee, here are the ten things I believe outstanding employees have in their blood.
“The way to happiness: keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, expect little, give much. Fill your life with love. Scatter sunshine. Forget self, think of others. Do as you would be done by. Try this for a week and you will be surprised.” ― Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking
I have been to many meetings where people are critical. Everyone in the meeting talks about the risks of doing something or why the organization can’t do something. I instead, bring a positive light. I focus on the positives. What are the opportunities that come with a certain option? What are things we can learn from something we could do, but would never go through with?
It’s like the improv rule: never say no, it’s always a ‘yes and’. When you say no (or focus on the negatives / critical aspects of something), you don’t move forward. Focusing on the positives is your ‘yes and’ that moves you forward.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ― Voltaire
Most people who read this article will likely be young professionals trying to find their path to the top. They aren’t seasoned executives who know what questions to ask. The way to know what questions to ask: ask a lot of questions and don’t be afraid when some of those questions are dumb.
My trick: I preface any potentially dumb questions with “this might be a dumb question but..” and then I ask anyway. 80% of the time, the question I think is dumb isn’t actually a dumb question. Part of it is your pride in appearing smart all the time. Maybe another part of it is ego. Whatever the case, I ask the dumb question because not asking the question and not having the information is worse. Here are a few good questions to ask when you can’t think of a good question to ask:
- What does this look like from your perspective?
- What am I not seeing that’s important to understand?
- What are we assuming that just might not be true?
“The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.” – Helmut Schmidt
These days, being a good employee is not about maintaining the status quo and keeping things going. Either the employees are continuously improving, or the organization comes to a standstill. And to help enable your organization to move forward, you need to be continuously learning and improving your skills. If you are self-aware, great, you know what to work on. If you don’t know what to improve, see the next point.
Be open to feedback
“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” – Ken Blanchard
The best employees at an organization don’t just seek feedback, they actively thrive on it. When there are people who are telling you how to be better, don’t shun or avoid those individuals. Those people are rare, especially if they give valuable feedback that you otherwise wouldn’t know.
When I was in Toastmasters, a speaker who was about to give a presentation told me they were afraid of the feedback the members were going to give to him. He saw it as deflating his ego and the feedback would bring him down. I told him the feedback should be seen as an opportunity to improve. All the members wanted to see him succeed, and the feedback was one small step in helping him get even better.
Raise risks or concerns
“In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.” ― Robert T. Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad
By virtue of being an employee, you have an advantage over your boss or your boss’ boss: you are closer to the work and have a better understanding of what the specific pain points and challenges may be. So when your boss proposes a solution or new approach, tap into your knowledge and experience and help them understand what they might not be seeing.
Connect the dots
“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” — Michael E. Porter
Generally, your boss or manager is at a higher-level than you are and can connect the dots. But sometimes, you have knowledge or networks that your boss doesn’t have and you’re able to connect different dots. Help your boss connect the dots on things they don’t see. Maybe you heard something through the grapevine. Or customers provided you with specific feedback that relates to what your boss is thinking about.
Bring your entire self to work
“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” ― May Sarton
I think there are two things with this: one is being authentic at work. I know not everyone is fortunate enough to work in an organization where authenticity is valued, but I encourage you to be authentic anyway. When you don’t like the work that you’re doing, or don’t respect your colleagues or boss, it shows in the work. You waste energy by doing things that don’t align with your values and you are drained at the end of the workday, with little to no energy to do other things. When your work is aligned with your values, it’s strange – you have more energy at the end of your day then when you began it. And that also shows through your work.
The other point is don’t be afraid to bring all of your skills and experiences to work. Part of the reason I was successful in management consulting was not that I was a good consultant, but because I brought other skills to the work, skills I wouldn’t have thought were valuable. It just so happened that those skills were relevant to the work we were doing for clients, but you never know what is valuable until you speak up and share your self at work.
Set an example
“Change starts with YOU. When you step up, you invite others to step up, too.”
― Mandy Hale, The Single Woman: Life, Love, and a Dash of Sass
Ever been in a meeting where the presenter or your boss asks a question and everyone is waiting for someone else to speak up? Yeah, I’ve been there too. And I’ve been on both the receiving and presenting end. The silence can be uncomfortable. But then what happens? One of your coworkers speaks up. Now other coworkers are nodding their heads, or chiming in with their thoughts. And now other coworkers are jolted into action, providing other thoughts.
If you’re in a position where there is an uncomfortable silence, speak up. Take action, even if it’s a short or small thought. Be the starter fluid and match, and watch as the fire roars around you.
Get help when you need it
“One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.” ― Shannon L. Aldera
I wonder if it’s pride that prevents people from asking for help? Or that people think they will somehow appear weak or not capable if they ask for help? But when you’re burned out or taking on too many things and struggling to keep all the balls in the air, that isn’t helping the organization either.
If you ask for help, your boss knows: there’s too much on your plate so they shouldn’t give you more, and you need help otherwise things are going to fall apart. If you don’t ask for your help, the irony is it will look like you’re not capable of doing the work, which isn’t the case at all.
Remember how you began
“Every expert was once a beginner.” – Rutherford B. Hayes
I find myself taking a deep breath when a coworker asks me a question I have answered multiple times. Or when I see simple spelling and grammar mistakes in documents, I find myself trying to be calm. I always remember it wasn’t that long ago where I was that person asking the same question the hundredth time, or the analyst who spelled a client name wrong. It’s not easy being the beginner, but what did make it easy was realizing that everyone around me was patient and understanding. That’s what you have to do too when you’re in a leadership position – you can’t expect everyone to be as knowledgeable or as skilled as you are.