There are countless courses, coaches, and materials on management.
But, what about the other half of that relationship? How do you learn to be a great employee? In school? Probably not. On the job? Maybe. But learning on the job can be too late, and often doesn’t happen unless you’re lucky enough to have a great manager who dedicates themselves to training you.
So, here are 20 guidelines on how to be a great employee.
It doesn’t matter what your job is or who your manager is. These guidelines (almost definitely) apply. And, if you follow these guidelines, you’ll (almost definitely) be a great employee.
We’ll start with the easy ones and get more complicated as we go.
1. Write it down.
This one seems especially obvious and easy, but still doesn’t always happen.
Never show up to a meeting without something to write on. When you get an assignment, write it down. When you learn something, write it down.
No one cares if you memorized the assignment. Everyone cares if you did the assignment.
It’s like those restaurants that you go to where the server doesn’t write down the order. I’m not impressed by your ability to memorize. I just want what I ordered!
2. Have a to-do list.
Now that you’ve written it down: Never! Miss! A! Task!
Have a foolproof to-do list that ensures you never miss a task. Use your calendar, pen and paper, trello, asana, google sheets, email, or rubber bands on your wrist, but whatever you do, make sure that your system works. Make sure to never forget to do a task. Make sure your manager can cross it off their list after they assign it to you. Don’t rely on your memory. Build systems that don’t let you fail.
3. Organize your notes into usable documentation.
After you write it down, organize it. Create a documentation system where you save, and can find, all the notes and lessons for future use. Don’t ask the same thing twice because you lost the notes. Don’t do the same work twice because you didn’t document it the first time. Don’t make the same mistakes twice because you didn’t document the mistakes you made the first time.
4. Use checklists.
If you’re doing a task that you’ll repeat, then create a checklist for it. No reason to reinvent a process every time you do it. With a checklist, you’ll make fewer mistakes. You’ll do the task faster. You’ll be able to delegate it sooner. Other people can fill in for you when you’re on vacation or busy with other tasks.
5. Ask for feedback.
How do you become the best version of yourself?
Ask for feedback from anyone who will give it. Your manager, your customers, your coworkers, your family, your friends. If you know what you’re doing wrong, then you can do it better.
Not only will it help you become the best version of yourself, it demonstrates to others your drive and ambition to do so.
6. Produce high quality work.
Obvious one, but don’t forget to do your best work.
7. Focus on work.
When you’re working, actually work. Don’t be on social media. Don’t email, text, TikTok, Slack, Snap, or message with friends. Don’t read the news. Don’t take a thirty-minute coffee break four times a day. Take reasonable breaks. Don’t burn yourself. Find balance. But also get focused work done for long periods of time.
To help yourself with this, make it easy to focus on work. Turn off notifications. Use timers to create uninterrupted work sessions and don’t check your email until the timer goes off at the end of the work session. Schedule working blocks in your calendar to ensure you get consecutive hours of uninterrupted work time. Put on headphones to discourage people from interrupting you. Put a sign on your headphones that says, “Work in progress.” Attend meetings if you can create value, not based on fear of missing out.
Focus on work and produce a high volume of high quality work.
8. Be on time.
Another obvious one. If you’re a few minutes late to a meeting, then it shows that you’re inconsiderate, unprofessional, and don’t value the other person’s time.
Being on time is evidence of the opposite. It shows that you’re professional, organized, and considerate.
9. Set clear goals.
Don’t leave a question about whether you’re a great employee. Prove it by setting measurable goals with your manager, and achieving those goals or having a good explanation for why you didn’t with lessons for next time.
10. Act with urgency and intensity.
Most companies will have their own foundational materials and all companies will have their own culture. No matter the culture of your company or team, you’ll have a hard time finding a manager who doesn’t appreciate someone who intensely and urgently charges towards their goals. If you can do it now, do it now. No reason to wait.
11. Volunteer for everything.
Everyone loves the person who is always willing to jump on every task that comes up. If you’re the one who volunteers for every project no matter how big or small, your manager and other senior leaders will love you.
You might think that volunteering for the boring, low impact tasks will get you more of those tasks, and you might be right in the short term, but it will also get you the best work if you’re capable of doing it. Prove yourself on those simple tasks. Prove yourself to be the kind of person who is able and willing to do anything. And the rest will work out.
Eventually, after you have too much to do and you’re indispensable, you’ll end up with your own team. You’ll also learn a ton this way.
12. Dress professionally.
The time when you had to wear a suit has passed (at least for now). But that doesn’t mean you should wear ripped cargo shorts that are falling off and a half shirt with no sleeves and a dirty work on it. Your appearance says something about you. Dress neatly and professionally to send the right message.
13. Act professionally.
Make friends at work. Be comfortable at work. Be yourself. But we all have different versions of ourselves. We have one version for our friends, one for our family, and one for our job. You don’t do tequila shots and swear in front of Grandma Helen. You’re always you, but figure out which you to bring to work.
14. Consider your manager’s wants and needs.
Your manager is a person, with their own manager, their own interests, and their own wants and needs.
What does your manager want? Probably a lot of the same things you want.
- They want to look good to their own manager.
- They want to spend their time and brain power on high level work.
- They want to do work they enjoy.
- They want to be promoted and earn more money.
- They want to have the biggest impact possible.
- They want to spend time with friends and family.
- They want their team to like them.
- They want their team to do a great job.
- They want their team to be low maintenance.
To be a great employee, consider your manager’s wants and needs when doing your job. This is one of the many times that a strong sense of empathy will serve you well in your career.
15. Know your manager.
To consider your manager’s wants and needs, you have to know their wants and needs. Not only the foundational ones listed above, but also how to work with them day-to-day:
- How do they like to communicate? Do they prefer email? In person?
- How do they want meetings to run?
- How often do they want to be updated on your work?
- What parts of your work do they want to be involved in?
- What decisions can you make on your own?
- What are their most and least desired characteristics in an employee?
- How do they like their documents formatted?
- What’s their writing style? Do they love the oxford comma?
- How do they like to give and receive feedback?
Those are a few examples of the questions you’ll want answers to.
How do you learn the answers to those questions? You could get to know your manager over months and years of working with them by making mistakes and learning from them. But why not get to know them in minutes by directly asking the questions instead?
One method to do this is to ask your manager to create a user manual for themselves. You could even interview your manager and create the manual yourself.
Your television’s user manual instructs you on how to work your television to get the best results. Your manager’s user manual instructs you on how to work with your manager to get the best results.
Having a user manual for your manager will save them tons of time and make you a better employee.
Even if you don’t feel comfortable asking for a full user manual from your manager, you can still ask those questions over time and gather the answers based on their actions. You can also ask other people who have been working with your manager to help. And, you can ask for examples of your manager’s work product to see how they like to do things.
16. Be your own manager.
What’s your manager going to say when you turn in that assignment? Will they have to ask you ten questions to get what they need? Will they have to think hard about the work you did? Or will they be able to ask you one quick question and then tell you to keep moving the project forward yourself?
Before you turn in an assignment to your manager, review your work and anticipate what your manager’s feedback will be. Make your manager’s life as easy as possible by doing their work for them.
First, consider the straightforward feedback on your work product. Are there obvious follow up questions they’ll have? Will they want it formatted differently? Will they want to see the sources or data? Will they not understand something? Are there typos or grammatical errors? Does the writing style match what they want?
Second, consider the larger context of the task and how they’ll use your work product. Often your task is one step in a process. When your manager gets your work, what will they do with it? Can you make their task easier by going further on your task? Show your manager that you’re ready for more by doing more. The good employee does what was asked of them. The great employee anticipates, takes initiative, and does more.
For example, the great employee’s work product has every question answered and has next steps proposed with something like: “Based on this research, I propose that as a next step we contact the vendor and discuss our options. Should I go ahead and reach out to them and report back? I’ll check your calendar add you to the invitation in case you want to join the meeting.” In that case, the manager can review the work product and has nothing more to do except say: “Great work. Please do. But no need for me to attend.” You’ve made your manager’s life as easy as possible. And you’ve proven your ability to handle more of this project on your own.
How many keystrokes does it take for your manager to respond to your work? Use that as a metric of your success.
One way to help you be great at this is having a checklist that you follow before you turn in a work product to your manager.
17. Manage up.
Management is a two-way relationship.
Having a great manager can be the difference between success and failure, happiness and misery.
Great managers will help you be a great employee. They’ll teach you how to be a great employee. They’ll manage you in the way you need to be managed. They’ll change your career and your life.
But great managers are rare, unfortunately. And, it’s not just on them to make the manager-employee relationship work. It’s on you too. Don’t wait until you have a great manager to become a great employee. Help your manager be a better manager by managing up.
What does managing up mean in practice? A few examples: When your manager doesn’t communicate something to you clearly, ask questions. When your manager should have given you broader context on an assignment but they don’t, ask them about it. If your manager isn’t giving you the feedback you need, ask for it. If the goals setting process isn’t working or is non-existent, propose changes. When your manager forgets to tell you when a project is due or what the deliverable is, ask them. If the performance review process is broken, tell them and give ideas on how to fix it.
Obviously, if you are managing up, you need to do it diplomatically. And you need to know if your manager is open to taking feedback. In some cases, you’ll have a bad manager who can’t be helped. In those cases, managing up will involve more of you trying to fit into their system and giving them exactly what they ask for. A sad but common experience. But don’t write off your manager until you’ve given everything you can to the relationship. Even if you don’t have the best manager, your actions can make the situation much better or much worse.
18. Own your tasks.
Your manager can almost definitely use more time. So, one of the most important things you can do is to give your manager more time and more brain power for their own tasks. One good way to do that is for you to completely own your tasks.
That doesn’t mean you don’t ask for support from your manager. You’ll still need to ask questions. But it does mean that you never forget to do a task. It means that you keep your manager informed about the status of the tasks. It means that you know when to do work yourself and when to ask for help.
Most importantly, it means that when your manager gives you a task, they cross that task off their list because they know you’re on it.
If your manager gives you an assignment, but then still keeps that task on their own list so they know to check in with you, and it takes up space on their to do list and in their brain, then you’re failing. If your manager is asking you for updates on your tasks, then you’re failing.
19. Know when to ask questions and when not to.
Can you think of a bigger annoyance than when someone asks you a question that you’ve already answered for them or that they could have answered themselves?
To be clear, it’s always better to ask a question than to make a mistake.
But, get in the habit of first asking yourself and the internet before you ask your manager.
20. Have perspective, not entitlement.
Finally, have perspective on your situation. You’re entitled to what you earn, nothing more, nothing less.
Before you complain about all the ways that you deserve more, put your head down and do a great job. Don’t even consider asking for more money, more responsibility, or a bigger title until you’ve left no question that you deserve it. After you’ve done a great job, then ask yourself whether you’ve earned more.
Those are guidelines. Adapt them to your situation.
To summarize with an example, here’s a manager’s dream employee relationship:
- Manager Mary asks employee Emily to come to her office for an assignment at 10:45 AM.
- Emily is there at 10:43 AM and ready to start the meeting right on time.
- Emily has a pen and paper to write on.
- Mary gives the assignment.
- Emily takes notes.
- Emily asks a few questions to clarify the assignment, about the larger context of the project, and about timing and deadlines.
- Mary checks the task off her list and puts it out of her mind. Based on Emily’s past performance, that she was taking notes in the meeting, and the great questions she asked, Mary has confidence that Emily will get it done.
- A few days later, on a different project, Emily reminds Mary about a meeting they have the following week and offers to take some of the work off of the Mary’s list, after the higher priority work she’s doing now.
- Emily works diligently on the assignment, keeping Mary updated daily, asking a few questions, but also answering many of her own questions online or based on past work product from Mary.
- Emily turns in a high quality product with no open questions. In the email with the final work product, Emily proposes a next step that Mary simply has to answer “Yes” and do nothing else. Emily’s work product includes a checklist and documentation for future, similar projects that she shares with Mary.
- During and after the project, Emily requests feedback on her performance and work product. Mary gives the feedback and Emily is receptive and improves the next time.
Hope that was helpful.
Please share this resource with anyone who might find it valuable.
If you found this valuable, here are some other OpsMBA resources you might like:
- Ten Tips for Getting the Job You Want. There’s a list of steps to follow to get the job you want. Here are ten tips for getting the job you want by setting yourself apart from the crowd.
- How To Be A Great Manager. Two prerequisites and ten guidelines for being a great manager.