Tony Woodlief | Author


We’re trying to find an office manager, and so I’ve had to articulate what makes for a good employee. This is a treacherous and particularized endeavor, because the people who appear to be good employees for other bosses would likely drive me crazy to the point of pushing them from a window, and this is bad for morale, not to mention illegal in many states.

The truth is that I’m far better at listing the things I can’t abide, like not-my-jobitis, or an abiding need for frequent affirmation, or an inability to hear criticism, or blame-shifting.

Any one of these can make me apoplectic. But what makes for a good employee?

I suppose there are many attributes one could list, but a distinctive one—a sum-it-all-up kind of trait—is simply this: a willingness to run to the problem.

You know that person. She dives in when a process isn’t working right, or a deadline has been moved up, or something is broken. She makes things work right again because it’s not in her nature to look the other way when something needs doing.

There are all manner of problem-rushers. There’s the nuanced consensus-builder, and the manpower-commandeering crisis manager, and the coach who fires players until he has a winning team. Some are better suited than others to specific challenges, but inside them all is the instinct to converge on the problem.

I like these people. I like them a lot. I hire them and do my best to keep them.

Now, most of us probably imagine we are one of these people. My experience is that most of us are not. Many of us are not because we like to fall back on the complaint that we simply don’t have the requisite authority. Stupid upper management, you see, hasn’t recognized our innate brilliance. The Man is keeping us down.

Washington, D.C. is filled with smart young people, and I’ve lost count of how many I’ve encountered who fit this description. They mutter and mumble and keep their heads down, except to complain when someone even less experienced, who happens to be a problem-rusher, gets promoted. They are experts at cataloging for you all the dysfunctions of their organization. They excel at this because it is the critical linkage between two otherwise conflicting beliefs: 1) their tremendous personal talent, and 2) their relative inconsequence to the performance of their organization. It’s not lack of courage, initiative, and persuasive ability that has them stymied, you see, it’s the messed up place they work for.

Others imagine they are problem-rushers, and in a sense they are right, but they don’t converge on the problem to fix it, they converge to complain about it. You know this person too, don’t you? He’s the one who’s always ready with an opinion about how the new system is a disaster, how the incentives are all screwed up, how upper management is forging ahead without getting buy-in. This is the guy who is a font of wisdom, yet he doesn’t seem to know where the boss’s office is, because you never see him screw up his courage to walk in there and present a workable solution.

Finally, there are the people who ignore the problem, because they are lazy, or comfortable, or out of touch, or, quite simply, because they ARE the problem. We all know a few of these people too, don’t we?

Give me people who rush a problem like firemen to a burning building, and who have the competence to douse it with water instead of gasoline. Problem-solving ability and guts. That’s all I’m asking. Small order, right?

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