Somebody asked me the other day what I look for in employees. Of course, that could be a long, drawn-out topic—I’ve dealt with hundreds of employees over more than 20 years of running my own business, and I have a lot to say on the subject. However, as I think about it, I can boil what I’m looking for in an employee down to these three things:
1. I want real information
I hate the way the boss-worker relationship and the office culture tempts some people to tell me what they think I want to hear instead of what they think is true. It screws up working together. I don’t want to guess what you really think. Work with me; don’t work around me.
The problem starts with the job interview. You think you’re supposed to find the right answers, and impress me, instead of just you and I figuring out whether what you like and know how to do matches up with what I need done. This problem is deep in our culture. The smoke screen is supposed to be good. And maybe that works for you, because you’re unemployed and you want a job, no matter how bad the fit, but it doesn’t work for me. I want to find the match between job and person. And your smoke screen gets in the way.
It gets worse if the working relationship, day to day, isn’t straight. I hate getting half-truths like “I called and got voicemail” or “I sent an email” when the truth is that you forgot about it and you’re buying time with a little lie. And I hate getting “It can’t be done” when the truth is that you haven’t spent the time it takes to figure it out. I don’t want you to be afraid of me. I want you to trust me with the truth. If you’re late, or you screwed up, then sure, that’s bad; but it’s worse if you don’t trust me. I want to deal with the problem, collaboratively. Don’t manage me.
Which brings me to the worst information problem, by far: I want bad news fast. The absolute worst behavior in boss-worker relationships is hiding or delaying bad news. Good news can wait, but bad news can’t.
2. I want you to own the job
By owning the job I mean that you really care whether your function is working or not. When it isn’t, I want that to hurt. When it is, I want that to feel good. I don’t want to manage you or your job; instead, I want your results to speak for themselves. And if you own your job then when results are bad you’re aware, you’re watching, you’re figuring out what’s going wrong and what it takes to fix it. And you’re coming to me, if your results are bad, asking for help, resources, ideas and collaboration.
I really hate the way some people act as if having an excuse, a reason why not, is just as good as having results. I’m grateful for my first boss, some 40 years ago, making that point very well. “Don’t come back tomorrow with a reason for this not being done,” he said. “I don’t care the reason. If it isn’t done, don’t come back.” Some of my worst boss-worker moments came when people gave me a reason why not instead of results, and acted—or seemed—like they thought the excuse was just as good as having something done. As if “the dog ate my homework” was just as good as having the work done.
I love it when somebody owns the job enough to defend it, argue for more resources, and build it up. I want to be the composer, or maybe the orchestra leader, while you play your instrument yourself. I want to be the coach, or maybe the owner, while you do your specific part on the team. I want things set up so that when you win, I win, and the business wins.
3. I want us to have compatible goals
I don’t expect your goals to match mine exactly, but I do expect your goals to match what the company needs from you and your job. Compatibility means that your career growth matches my description of your job. It means that the job with me is good for you too, at least for long enough to make it worth my time and money to have hired you. Working for me has to be good for you. If it isn’t, you’re not the right person for me, and I’m not offering the right job for you. We’re going to fail.
A corollary is that if you outgrow your job and I don’t find a way to help you grow on my team, that’s my bad, not yours. If my company doesn’t have the upward path you want and deserve, I’m not going to prevent you for moving on. In fact, I’ll help you, and wish you well.
A final thought
Having written here these three main points, I realize that as the employer, I can screw this up with my work style and behavior as much as you, the employee, can. If I respond to truth badly, generating guilt or fear, or blaming, or failing to help and collaborate, then I can’t blame you for not giving me truth. If I don’t let you own the job, by micromanaging and second guessing you, then you can’t really own it. Over time you’ll start asking me every detail, instead of just doing it; and that will be because of me, not you. And, finally, if I’m not clear with myself on my own goals, then I can’t blame you for not having yours be compatible.
That boss-worker thing goes both ways.