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Kathie Lingle's Work-Life Blog

Great Employees for Great Employers

July 27, 2007 - There are more and more self-proclaimed great places to work, as employers increasingly vie for spots on the “best of” lists and leadership teams everywhere are waking up to the fact that the talent war isn’t a skirmish you win just once. We hear a lot of noise about how the new employment contract requires active two-way interaction with employees to craft the best individual and/or team value propositions to meet the needs of all stakeholders.  And everyone is in hot pursuit of the Holy Grail that goes by the name “employee engagement,” which is shorthand for finding ways to motivate people to go the extra mile.

But what does it take to be a great employee? Surely only great employees get into great places to work, right? Think about the label “employer of choice” for a moment. It signifies exactly what it says: prospective employees ultimately do the choosing, a dramatic inflection point that turns the historic recruiting dynamic on its head.  People stand on line, knock on the door, crawl through the windows or do whatever else it takes to get inside a great place to work. Case in point: I read in a recent Business Week article that Google (Number one on Fortune’s 2007 list of the 100 Best Places to Work For in America) receives hundreds of thousands of resumes. Who doesn’t want to work at a place that provides free meals and massage served up with exciting, cutting-edge work and potentially limitless opportunity?   

So, where did you get your training to be a stand-out employee? What mental and physical workouts did you do to condition yourself for the big leagues? What discipline(s) do you apply? Where, what and who are your resources? Who’s on the Board of Directors of You, Inc.? Educational pedigree undeniably helps employers pick you out of the crowd, even though there is a weaker correlation between academic achievement and business success than you and your employer might think. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are prime examples. Drop-outs can rock and the occasional Harvard grad has been known to go down in flames.

The fact is, there is no such training, at least not in the formal sense. Which strikes me as bizarre, because if work was a sport, there would be a lot more visible conditioning and continual practice to ensure staying at the top of a game so crucial to survival. After all, management gurus such as “Neutron” Jack (Jack Welsh , former CEO of General Electric) and Larry Winget (author of It’s Called Work for a Reason: Your Success Is Your Own Damn Fault and Shut Up, Stop Whining and Get a Life) advise employers to unflinchingly fire 10% or 20% of their workforce, respectively, because ”cleaning out do-nothing employees is important for a healthy business.”

However, Winget also recommends that employers put more time and money than they do now into teaching the surviving (great) employees about the really important life skills they need in order to be successful, like why it is important to do your job, not just how to do it. And to take responsibility for your own health. Other resources I’ve recently encountered for the employee who wants to progress from okay to great are two books and a traveling road show. The first is a workbook entitled How to Be a Great Employee by Thomas Smith, which positions itself as a training course about exactly what it says. Replete with cartoons, jokes and exercises, it is entertaining but comprehensive, ranging from attitude to team work, communicating to reputation, taking feedback to handling conflicts and stress.

The second book is How To Be the Employee Your Company Can’t Live Without  by Glenn Shepard. Subtitled 18 Ways to Become Indispensable, it contains intriguing chapters like “Understand the economic realities of employing people,” “Act like you own the place” and “Answer the questions your boss didn’t ask.” I find it highly relevant that this same author has also written a book about How to Make Performance Evaluations Really Work, because how great you are in the eyes of your employer has everything to do with the skill you display in holding up your side of the action in this watershed governance activity that fuels pay and promotions.

The road show takes root in the sober reality that “half of the American workforce is not satisfied with their job and only a fifth applies a passion toward their career” [quote from the Web site]. Three recent University of Arizona college grads have formed an initiative called Pursue the Passion, which has launched a cross-country tour this summer with the goal of finding and interviewing a minimum of 200 passionate, engaged professionals who love their work and careers. Check out their blog to see what they are learning along their journey. They are determined to produce resources to help others find passion in their work. 

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