Wednesday, 5 November 2014

5 Characteristics of Exceptional Employees

I have been fortunate enough to work with people across geographies, roles, companies and demographics in my career so far. I have worked with people in the capacity of an individual contributor as well a manager. I have been an active job seeker and a hiring manager. Having seen things from both sides, and based on this cumulative experience, I have realized that it really boils down to a few basic things that set employees apart as exceptional. Here is my list of top 5 attributes that differentiate average employees from the best ones:

1. Initiative: 

I believe taking initiative is one of the most important things that one can do to have exponential career growth. Initiative means doing things without your boss asking you to do something; it is about taking interest and taking charge.

I remember a co-worker from my first job who started his career at the same time as I did. He was the perfect example of how much initiative one could take. He was always stepping up to do things that he had never done before. He took on challenges and saw them through. He may not have been significantly smarter than his peers but he was definitely a lot more proactive. Ten years down the line, he is now a Director in the same multinational company heading a big practice independently! Undoubtedly, he is one of the most successful people in my peer group, and he attributes a big part of his success to taking initiative.

In fact, some of our most successful employees are those who constantly take initiative to do things, to make a difference!

2.Ability and willingness to learn:

Let’s face it – our education doesn’t quite prepare us well enough for the workplace. No matter what we know, or where we are in our career, we will find ourselves faced with tasks that we have never done before. In this fast changing world, our ability to learn quickly is not just an asset but almost a survival skill.  The best employees are not those who know it all, but those who can learn quickly and get things done right. I find quick learners to be the easiest employees to work with. They pay attention to detail, internalize feedback, take interest in what they are doing, and come up with ways to do the same thing better and faster!


Noone likes naysayers! It is very important to be flexible, especially in early stages of your career. While I am a strong advocate of saying no to unrealistic expectations, yet one should be extremely careful about it. If you want to be counted as a good performer, you would be expected to be flexible around the assignments given to you, when and where to work, who to work with and so on, of course genuine personal constraints being factored in. Managers don’t like to hear “No” or “I won’t do this”.

Flexible people are those who accommodate and find ways of doing things rather than finding excuses for not doing them. Flexible people do not get hung up on “job descriptions”. Instead they focus on opportunities.

4.Good Attitude:

Good attitude is hard to define in a few words. But most managers know within the first few days of working with a person as to whether or not that person has a good attitude towards work. Good attitude is an amalgam of commitment, optimism, can-do attitude, problem solving mindset and self motivation. Employees with a good attitude take their work seriously and are committed to getting things done. They don’t let others weigh them down and stay focused on the positivity around them. Employees with a bad attitude are injurious to the overall team morale as their negativity spreads like a virus. Not only do they not give their 100% to work, they distract others from good work.

A few years ago, in one of our departments, we made the mistake of keeping a person with negative attitude on board because of her excellent skill-set. While the person performed well in her own role, she was constantly distracting others, complaining about how bad their manager was, or how employee unfriendly the company policies were, without ever going to the right people to get any real issues resolved. We kept counseling her with the hope that her attitude will change. However, this employee eventually left our organization on really bad terms at the worst possible time, and took 2 more people along with her. Suddenly we were left with a team short of members and a team low on morale, and the lesson that we can change a person’s skills but not their attitude.

So, over the years, I have become a firm believer in – Hire for attitude, train for skills.


Just as in all other aspects of life, trust is very important in workplace. Being trustworthy means you will honour your commitments, it means you will be consistent in your behavior, it means you will do the right thing. Trust is very hard to earn and very easy to lose. Therefore, there is a lot of premium attached to it. Managers always surround themselves with employees they trust. And automatically those employees get greater responsibilities, close mentoring and hence better career path. Trust is earned by small actions and betrayed by small ones too. Something as small as giving a false reason for taking a leave erodes the trust of your Manager. Trust is earned when you complete a task assigned to you by its deadline without the Manager reminding you multiple times. For me, trust is the foundation of any personal or professional relationship.

While there is no magic mantra for being successful in our career, yet I believe that cultivating certain attributes certainly increase our chances. So, I would encourage everyone to observe and learn from other successful people, and cultivate those attributes through small actions every day to lead themselves onto a great career path…  

(Article originally published in Aakansha, the corporate magazine of PCTI Group)      

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