7 Characteristics of Stand-Out Employees

Every company has stand-out employees, even if they don’t realize it. By looking at characteristics that help propel your team forward, you can identify your rockstars and help encourage everyone.

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Running a business, or even a department, can be a tricky undertaking without good employees to help carry the load. The best employees might seem like they’re easy to spot, but traditional worker characteristics that companies have held dear don’t always make for the best teams long term.

For example, employees who do what they’re told but never challenge themselves aren’t going to be able to grow and will eventually need to be replaced.

I’d argue that the best employees, the stand-outs, are the ones who challenge you and the rest of the team to be better and do more with whatever resources your team has available. When it comes to my team, these are the absolute must-have characteristics in stand-out employees.

1. Communication

My company provides marketing and digital content to clients from solopreneurs and SMBs to enterprise-level organizations. That being said, deadlines are absolutely vital, and missing them is costly both in hard cash and reputation. For that reason, the employees who are the most communicative about what’s going on in their lives and anything that might create a potential bottleneck get extra brownie points.

If I know there’s a problem coming, I can find a solution. If I find out that we’ve got an issue on deadline day, well, that turns into a problem for everyone — and the kind we don’t like to have. It means everybody has to work late to try to pick up the slack, and nobody is in a particularly good mood about it.

I see serious improvements in employee satisfaction when my communicators are the ones who need help because we can plan for it, versus the dread that’s part of having to deal with deadline hustles coming by surprise.

2. Autonomy

There was once a business philosophy that suggested being surrounded by "yes" men was the way to succeed, because these subordinates were truly subordinate and would do whatever they were asked, even if they thought it was bad for themselves or the company. I prefer to keep a few "no" men around.

That’s not to say that these employees will automatically deny any and all requests, just that they consider each task and act according to their understanding of the heart of the business.

It is refreshing to have people on my team who have opinions that differ from my own and who are willing to defend them without being overly aggressive or stubborn. We could have a discussion about issues they see as counterintuitive, and sometimes they are absolutely right.

It’s hard to be the boss, and things like overwork and burnout can cloud your judgment. Your "no" men are the ones who will calmly tell you when you’re totally wrong and encourage you to rethink the plan.

3. Motivation

Small businesses and departments that have a lot of moving parts regularly require employees to switch between tasks quickly. It’s one thing to have employees who will do what they’re told when they’re told, but quite another to have some who will simply jump in and put their shoulder to the wheel to get the job done without needing specific instructions.

Highly motivated employees help keep managers who have a lot to juggle from dropping balls all over the floor.

These are the ones you want to watch for future leadership roles. After all, they’ve already proven themselves over and over again, plus everyone knows they’re ready and willing to do whatever it takes to meet deadlines and finish projects. These people also give a huge boost to employee morale with their infectious attitudes.

4. Personality

Maybe it’s just me, but I love employees with a lot of personality. I don’t want to work with a whole bunch of people who all think the same and dress the same and act the same. My best employees have always kind of gone their own way, which has provided amazing insights and perspectives to teams that might otherwise be fairly homogenous.

There’s also the flip side of personality: No one really wants to work with someone who’s boring, especially in a creative environment. We regularly chat about hobbies and interests, and my best employees have found ways to weave those into the work we’re doing.

In fact, one employee who was going back to school for programming helped move us into a whole new market and allowed us to service clients who needed content experts for specialized technology niches like blockchain. Talk about a rockstar!

5. Coachability

Because we service many different types of companies in various industries and provide a wide range of materials based on a client's needs, it’s basically impossible for any single employee to know everything.

I don’t expect them to, but I do expect them to be willing to learn. Some want to do the same type of work consistently, and they deliver, but the truly stand-out employees are the ones who are willing to learn new formats and develop new areas of expertise.

I’m always doing internal employee evaluations and one of the things I consider when deciding if someone will be put on a critical project is their coachability. After all, our industry is constantly in a state of flux, so those employees who can really be coached through new formats and who will take criticism of their work in the spirit in which it’s given are absolutely invaluable.

6. Passion

It’s one thing to be good at something, and yet another to actually care about it. Your employee can be the very best graphic designer out there, but if he doesn’t really feel it, deep down, you’re going to start noticing. It’s those employees who really are so into their discipline that you can see it oozing out of their work who stand out so much.

They’re the same ones who will work and rework their projects until they’re exactly right, not because it changes what they get paid, but because that work is an extension of themselves. When someone is that passionate about what they’re doing, you absolutely can’t replace them with just anybody off the street.

7. Technological ease

I’m hesitant to include this on the list, but the truth is that we live in a world that’s driven by technology. Sure, you can have a good employee who isn’t that great with technology in some fields, but in mine, it becomes a very demoralizing experience for everyone if someone is extremely deficient.

On the other hand, when you have a team member who is super at ease with technology and is willing to explore new tools and techniques, well, they can help bring everyone else on board.

In the marketing industry, things are changing constantly. There are always new tools that can help a small business do more, and upgrades to the tools we’ve been using for a while. Technology means change. When your best employees pivot and do so gladly and easily, it helps encourage the rest to ask questions about things they don’t understand and try harder to adopt the new process or tool.

Stand-out employees make life easier

It’s always nice to have a rockstar employee, but the truth is that it’s more than just convenient to have one or two or ten of them. Your stand-outs make your job monumentally easier by modeling the behaviors you want to see in all your employees. That can help you bring the whole team up together by simply breaking down mental barriers.

As a result, stand-out employees can lead to great big boosts to morale and team cohesion, too!

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