washingtonpost.com
Staffers' Superhero Skills
Confidence, Flexibility Earn Highflying Marks

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 17, 2005

This is the final column in a series of four where you, dear readers, shed some light on the good, the bad and the ugly of the workplace. In the first column, you shared with us what you didn't like about your supervisors. The next column was about what you thought made a good manager. Two weeks ago, it was time for managers to point out common worker mistakes.

Now, for this week's column, we end on a good note. I asked you, as managers, to share your experiences with stellar employees and how their traits could perhaps teach all of us a little something.

It was refreshing to hear all the positive experiences floating around in the workplace.

Kate Premo in New York wrote to tell me about a worker who was lent to her from another executive to help with a project updating the Web site for Niermann Weeks, a high-end home furnishing company based in Annapolis.

"Dan definitely had the skills to handle this project, but he turned out to be a great employee on this project for three other reasons:

"1) He had the confidence to propose some new ideas, many of which worked out really well and helped advance our marketing program.

"2) He had the grace to accept when his ideas weren't right for the project. He never whined or complained, but instead would say, 'Hmm, okay, I'll try something else.'

"3) He never seemed to lose his sense of humor, but he was never disrespectful or snarky.

"The combination of skill, innovation, grace and humor really helped us make the most of this highly visible project. In fact, Dan did such an amazing job on this project that I felt comfortable recommending him to associates of mine for freelance work on the side!"

Then, Premo added, because he did such a smart, efficient job, she practiced her good manager moves and sent e-mails to Dan's boss, as well as the company's human resources director, president and chief executive "stressing how much he contributed to this project. These e-mails took only a couple of minutes, but they made a big difference for Dan -- and really, after all he did to help with this project, it was the least I could do."

Sure, Dan was doing what he was asked to do, but he took charge of his own work, he listened and he worked hard. And Premo was great to e-mail the higher-ups, something that shows not every good deed gets punished.

Sandra Slappey, a social worker at a human services consulting firm in Northern Virginia, has hired many college students. Through trying to help them, she has learned a few things she thinks are relevant for all employees, "including myself," she wrote.

Her "good" employees have had a strategy to help them learn the things they are taught on a daily basis. They let their new workplace lessons sink in. "Take notes, clarify anything that's unclear, keep references handy," she said. Good employees also kept their manager informed of their work, because, she reminds us, the manager is ultimately responsible.

In keeping with that theme, she acknowledged that every manager is different. Some like e-mail communication. Others like face-to-face interaction. And so, she said, good employees watch and then adapt to their manager's style.

But some good employees must find their own style.

An executive at a large nonprofit group said one of his department heads was having a "tough time shedding his 'nice guy' image among his new staff when he was promoted." It is always tough when someone is promoted to lead former peers.

Unfortunately, certain people could not grasp the friend-as-boss thing. What made the newly promoted worker such a good employee, according to the executive, is he recognized this issue early on and "was proactive in reaching out to me and others to understand how to go the next step. He had honest conversations with problem staff and didn't beat around the bush. The employees appreciated his direct approach and it earned him a new kind of respect. He gave them the freedom to do their work, resisting the temptation to take control and micromanage, but demanded accountability. His patience and honesty paid off with an aggressive and loyal staff who now feel they have a strong captain steering the ship and looking out for their best interests."

Almost makes you want to jump your current ship, no?

Finally, another manager of a nonprofit group, Alison Green, said she is always impressed by employees who know how to handle a mistake. Many times, workers try to cover up a goof or two, but often it will come back to haunt them. And if they didn't own up to it in the first place, then that one goof can have a multiplying effect.

"No one is perfect, and mistakes will occasionally be made -- but it's how the employee follows up on that mistake that often counts the most," Green wrote. "People who take responsibility for the mistake, alert me to it if necessary, tell me how it happened and -- most important -- how they plan to ensure it doesn't happen in the future impress me a great deal."

As a manager, she said, she is not looking for apologies or excuses. She has much more respect and faith in a worker who shows that he or she "understands the degree of seriousness of the mistake and that they have a plan for preventing it from happening in the future."

"If they take the initiative to address both those things, then there's generally nothing left I have to do. But if they don't, then I have to address those things myself -- and having a manager impress upon you how serious a mistake was is usually much less pleasant than simply making it clear that you understand that in the first place," she said.

"It surprises me how few people seem to realize this."

Well, perhaps now a few more will learn. So thanks.

Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon July 26 athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company