I'm often asked how to be a good manager, a topic I've taken on in this column more than once. Less often does anybody ask an equally important question: What makes a good employee?
Here are 10 of the qualities I find in the "best and brightest" employees, the people companies should attract and retain.
If you have all of these attributes, you're probably a terrific employee.
First, it's important to have a fundamental curiosity about the product or products of your company or group. You have to use the products yourself.
This can't be stressed enough in the computer world. It also carries special weight in other knowledge-based fields where technology and practices are advancing so fast that's it's very hard to keep up. If you don't have a fascination with the products, you can get out of date--and become ineffective--pretty quickly.
Second, you need a genuine interest in engaging customers in discussions about how they use products--what they like, what they don't like. You have to be a bit of an evangelist with customers, and yet be realistic about where your company's products are falling short and could be better.
Third, once you understand your customer's needs, you have to enjoy thinking through how a product can help. If you work in the software industry, for example, you might ask: "How can this product make work more interesting? How can it make learning more interesting? How can it be used in the home in more interesting ways?"
These first three points are related. Success comes from understanding and caring deeply about your products, your technology and your customers' needs.
Fourth, you as an individual employee should maintain the same type of long-term approach that a good company does. Employees need to focus on lifelong goals such as developing their own skills and those of the people they work with. This kind of self-motivation requires discipline, but it can be quite rewarding.
Management can also encourage motivation, of course. If you're in sales, quotas are important tools for measuring performance, and it's great when employees beat a quota. But if beating your sales quota or maximizing your next bonus or salary increase is all that motivates you, you're likely to miss out on the kind of teamwork and development that create success in the long term.
Fifth, you need to have specialized knowledge or skills while maintaining a broad perspective. Big companies, in particular, need employees who can learn specialties quickly. No one should assume that the expertise they have today will suffice tomorrow, so a willingness to learn is critical.
Sixth, you have to be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities that can give you perspective. At Microsoft we try to offer a person lots of different jobs through the course of a career. Anyone interested in joining management is encouraged to work in different customer units, even if it means moving laterally within the organization or relocating to a different part of the world.
We try to move people from our product groups out into the field and move field people into the product groups. We have many people in our U.S. subsidiary from other countries, and we have many U.S. employees who work for subsidiaries in other nations. This helps us better understand world markets, and while we do a pretty good job of cross-pollination, there's still not quite as much of it as I would like.
Seventh, a good employee will want to learn the economics of the business. Why does a company do what it does? What are its business models? How does it make money?
I'm always surprised to learn of a company that doesn't educate its employees in the fundamental financial realities of its industry. Employees need to understand the "make or break" aspects of their industry so that they know what it is about their own job that really counts. Of course, employees have to be willing students who direct attention to the areas where it makes the biggest difference.
Eighth, you must focus on competitors. I like employees who think about what's going on in the marketplace. What are our competitors doing that's smart? What can we learn from them? How can we avoid their mistakes?
Ninth, you've got to use your head. Analyze problems but don't fall prey to "analysis paralysis." Understand the implications of potential tradeoffs of all kinds, including the tradeoff between acting sooner with less information and later with more.
Use your head in practical ways, too. Prioritize your time effectively. Think about how to give advice crisply to other groups.
Finally, don't overlook the obvious essentials such as being honest, ethical and hard working. These attributes are critical and go without saying.