What I Wish I Had Known About Being A Great Employee

  • March 22, 2019
  • Plum Insights

Now that I'm a manager and a founder, I wish I could take what I know and go back in time to be a better employee. There were so many things that were never explained to me, but became obvious once I was managing and leading others who were far better employees than I ever was. As time goes on, I see my team doing or saying certain things and find myself thinking "a-ha, that's why so-and-so was successful and I wasn't." I have also been in a position to witness behavior that makes me ache for the person's career.

So much time is spent teaching leadership, but very little is spent on how to be a good follower, especially for kids like me who didn't have white collar parents to coach them. And the fact is that no company succeeds without disciplined, loyal, and effective followers, which you'll find out quickly the first time you have to manage a team or start a company. If you can avoid some of these mistakes, you'll be far more likely to get into a position of leadership faster - and be better at it from the start.

If Only I'd Known These Things...
Keep Your Word - Do Your Job
Do what you say you will do. No excuses. This isn't your high school English class where you can beg for extensions. Get your work done, on time, with as little drama as possible. This is your single most important job.

Your Manager Wants You To Succeed
One of the most forehead-slapping things for me to realize in hindsight was that most of my managers really did want me to succeed. Yes, there are a lot of toxic managers out there and I had my share of them too, and more on that later. I let those poor managers trigger me into setting myself up as the enemy of my manager. In normal healthy work environments, your manager usually is not your enemy. They're busy and under pressure and ambitious too. Truly, they want you to succeed, because it's just easier for them than dealing with the issues that come up when you don't. Coaching, managing, and yes, firing and hiring people is a LOT of work, and they really do think it would just be easier if you could be great at your job. So help them as much as you can, and think for yourself as much as you can, and you'll be a hero to your boss.

Your Manager is Not Your Parent - Get A Therapist
If you're fresh out of college, it's especially easy to continue on in the role of child. After all for your entire life to date your parents and teachers and professors have been authority figures with a lot of power over you. It's normal to have baggage and to even be triggered when your boss demands things of you in a way that reminds you of that parental relationship. But your boss is not your mother or father. They have a job to do, and so do you. Don't read so much into everything they say or do. They're human, they make mistakes, and they're not trying to keep you insecure or powerless. Seek a therapist to discuss these issues with. As you grow in your career, these issues will come up - even as you lead people, you learn about your triggers and therapy will make you a better manager, too.

If There's a Problem, Don't Wait or Hide It...
Say something before it gets so bad you want to quit, you start acting out, or someone gets fired or arrested. Managers assume you are fine until you say something. They're busy too, and yes, it's their job to ask and check in, but if not, you need to own this for the sake of your own career.

...But Don't Complain About Everything, Either
Those who rarely complain usually get immediate attention when they do finally speak. Figure out what's in your manager's control and selectively air your gripes in those ways. Try not to whine about the rest or you'll be labeled a malcontent. Work isn't easy, and no one wants to hang around complainers.

Get Stuff Done With No Drama = You Are A Star
Those who get "stuff" done and create no interpersonal drama are highly prized in organizations. Be that person. Don't let your emotions run your decisions. Take a breath, cool off, go for a walk. Make decisions with your head and think long term as much as you can. If you are truly this person and you are not highly prized for this trait, something is wrong, so leave your manager or your company. Tell a prospective manager that you are this person, and prove it, and you will be hired.

Ask For What You Want, Explicitly
Managers are busy but as I said above, they want you to be successful and happy. It's easier for them! So, get to the point. If you want help, or just want to explore some ideas without judgement, or need something, just say it out loud, explicitly and as clearly as you can. Don't just flop down in your boss' couch or the conference room and vent your emotions. Think it through, and figure out exactly what you want. Then ask for it.

Make Your Manager Look Great And Good Things Will Happen
If you do this and you are not being rewarded, get a new manager. Don't bother complaining about it, because it's not going to change. Move on and don't waste time trying to wonder whose fault it is.

Be Loyal To Your Boss
You never look good when you bad mouth your boss, and it always gets back to them. At that point, trust is dead and your career in that organization is likely now at a dead end. Loyalty in people is highly valued by managers. Don't gossip about them or your other team members. Believe me, they notice when you do, even if they never say anything to your face.

Fess Up, ASAP
The minute you think your deadline is at risk, or you know you've made a mistake, own it. Don't hide it! The earlier you fess up, the more time your manager has to help you fix it and help you clean up the the mess. It should go without saying that nasty but avoidable surprises are unprofessional, and you should never repeat them.

Choose Your Allies Carefully
When starting a new job, the first person to befriend you is likely disliked by everyone else. So pick your friends and allies carefully. Spend time observing where power and influence flow in your new company, both formally and informally, to avoid inadvertently making a career-limiting move early on.

Nobody Wants To Hear About How They Did Things At Your Last Job
After you have been there for awhile you can just suggest those things as your own ideas, like this: “Has {idea} been tried? I have had some success with it before.”

Pick Up After Yourself
Don’t leave dirty dishes in the sink. Keep your cube orderly. Apologize if you make a mistake. Volunteer sometimes, but not always, to take on grunt work. When a manager asks for volunteers they (should) value/reward those who do. Stop if they don’t.

IMPORTANT: None Of This Excuses Poor Management!
There's an inherent assumption in everything I just wrote. The workplace you are in and your manager must be reasonably sane and healthy. If your culture or leader is toxic, I suggest you get out as soon as you possibly can. Don't gaslight yourself into thinking you can change that. In fact, the longer you stay, the more damage you will do to your own psyche and your career as you adopt unhealthy habits.

At the same time, the purpose of this article is to challenge you to think about the parts of the relationship with your manager that you can own, even in the earliest and most powerless parts of your career. You do have choices in every situation, and those choices can either push your career forward, or stifle it.

The Myth And Reality of "The Feral Founder"
Recruiters often refer to founders as "feral" because some employers think we're unmanageable after we've had a taste of running our own show. The question is, were the founders unmanageable before they were founders, or did founding making them so? To some extent, I am probably a little feral, but it's no longer because I am unmanageable. The real reason it would be hard to be an employee again is because the longer I run my own company, the more I realize this is what I was born to do and where I am happiest.


By Melinda B