Seven Vital Characteristics of a Superior Employee


During my time as a Fortune 500 CFO and as a business advisor, I noticed that successful organizations have a culture that attracts high performing employees. Their culture matches their business goals, and the business seems to grow effortlessly.

While these companies use resumes and extensive review processes to select or train their employees, they look deeper at the individual. For instance, Amazon has fourteen traits they look for in a perspective employee. Before they hire, they ensure these traits exist. At Footlocker, we had a list of five traits.

Before we hired or promoted anyone, they had to fit this profile. While resumes are great indicators of future potential, they are just the first step in selecting the right people. Making sure employees fit the culture eliminates many problems down the road.

After reviewing a number of companies desired characteristics, like Amazon and from my work experience, I noticed seven critical characteristics of a high performing employee. They:

  • Get things done
  • Develop other people
  • Listen to learn
  • Analyze effectively
  • Are warmly assertive
  • Are ethically motivated
  • Have a positive orientation

People with these characteristics or “profile” employees, always seem to accomplish difficult tasks and support the axiom, “Good people can make a bad plan work.”

Employees who “Get things done.”

At Footlocker, I loved working with Joe Bongiorno, our meetings were always concise, to the point and ended with well-defined next steps. Once Joe knew where we were going with our plans, he simply executed and invariably his tasks were performed better than expected and completed ahead of schedule. Over time, he changed Footlocker’s slow supply chain system into a world class operation.

Working with people like Joe, that didn’t require excessive follow up, made life easier for all. He, “did what he said and said what he did.” People who “get things done”, require little administrative overhead. They perform without fanfare and over time we trust them and they smooth out the complexities of difficult tasks. They make life easier for all.

People Who Develop Others

Duane Buersetta worked in many of my organization’s for nearly two decades. While very strong technically, his real gift was getting people ready to be promoted. Many times large organizations have openings and the ability to hire from within reduces the cost and time of having to go outside to fill these jobs. Duane always had somebody ready for the next step.

He did this by challenging his staff by asking questions like, “what do you think?” He took a back seat and let his staff do critical presentations. He made sure they were ready and well-rehearsed. He supplanted his ego and need for approval, so that others could learn. We all knew Duane was the driving force in getting his people prepared, but to him helping others grow was his personal goal.

Being a great coach helped us in many ways. Many of the young executives that went on to prosper, would look back and thank Duane for his influence. They also learned from Duane how to develop others.

Listening to Learn

One of the things I have observed in successful organizations, is that the executives ask questions first and state their opinion after they have all the facts. By doing this they give other people a voice and increase their own understanding. Their main goal is to know more. They supplant their desire to be heard, so that they can perform at a higher level.

These executives follow a three step process. First, they ask questions. Second they restate what they have heard and state what they agree with. Third, they reach for a conclusion and create action steps.

Their goal isn’t to show how smart they are, but to learn.

Analyze Effectively

The most important part of any business decision is “what are the facts?” Many times in corporations, opinions swirl that clutter up decision making. Being able to know the details and sort out what they mean becomes a valuable tool. Fact based decisions are always better than opinion based decisions.

Having employees that desire to study results and come up with their own insights, greatly aids any corporation. These employees have a high desire to know the results and to analyze the results with a sense of completeness.

We all know them, they show up to meetings prepared and with well thought out answers. They are sure of the details and have studied the results.

Warmly Assertive

Early in my career, I was told there are four types of behaviors in a corporation. They are:

  • Hostile assertive
  • Hostile passive
  • Warmly passive
  • Warmly assertive

The first three categories are not ideal communication styles. The hostile assertive behavior demands to be heard and can be demeaning with expressions. Being warmly passive means you agree even if you know the answer is wrong. The warmly passive behavior is an expression of wanting to get along, even if it leads to an inferior solution. Hostile passive behavior is a statement of “leave me alone.”

Ideally, being able to be warm and assertive is the best behavior. It is a behavior that is respectful of other points of view, but will ensure that the correct conclusions are reached. This behavior is learned and many times hard achieve in the face of anger or frustration. But those executives who can achieve warm and assertive behavior, are the ones who are the most helpful to the culture and decision making of any company.

Ethically Motivated

The once bright star of the banking industry, Wells Fargo has dimmed. Driven by a desire to achieve extraordinary sales results without ethical decision making. Five thousand people lost their jobs, including the CEO. It makes us wonder, “wasn’t there somebody who could have halted the effort. While it’s easy to second guess the action, a different point of view could be, where did the hiring and promotion process fail Wells Fargo? Having in place a process that rewards, hires and promotes ethical people, certainly would have changed the course for Wells Fargo.

While the results in the short term for Wells Fargo would have been less, in the long term a disaster could have been avoided and likely equal results with higher quality would have been achieved. Rewarding, promoting and hiring people who are committed to achieving results based on ethical decision making is the first step in preventing bad short term decisions. 

Have a Positive Orientation

In my current advisory business, I meet a number of people who are looking for employment. When they ask me, “what is the most important thing I can do in an interview?” I always reply, “be positive.” Very few companies will hire a negative person who has a strong resume. While this seems simple, in the heat of an interview little things can seep into the conversation and being riveted on staying positive can’t be said enough.

The best companies know that people that see the positive in situations are invaluable. These people index to understanding before they criticize. They tend to see the silver lining in problems. They make the work environment more productive.

Negative people never build up. Positive influencers build up. Having positive people in an organization strengthens the culture and significantly improves the odds of overcoming tough business obstacles.

In summary, one of the most important aspects of being successful is who is hired, rewarded and promoted. Many times we have to look beyond the resume to identify the best people. Successful companies have a process in place to identify the characteristics that make a successful culture and company. Knowing and identifying these intangibles significantly improve the operation of any business.

*Article originally published on CEOWORLD Magazine