Top Traits: Defining the perfect employees

Yikes – It has been a while since I blogged and I have an excuse. We are working on some amazing things at Aviva and as part of that I have spent the past few weeks in meetings. Yes, being in meetings can sometimes be a royal P.I.T.A., especially if they are pointless. HOWEVER, I have been in FANTASTIC meetings. About dreaming, creatively thinking of new ways of engaging with clients, driving change, building new systems and tools, and SHARING. So, its been tiring but GOOD. Enough with the CAPITALIZ(S)ATION, right? Smile.

So, while I’ve been “away” from the blogosphere, I’ve been observing teams, learning about my new teams here and observing vendors, consultants, baristas at my favorite coffee spots, bartenders and servers at nice restaurants, my dry cleaner, the folks that work for London Transport, and the owner of the flat I lease. And, as I observe, I’ve noted things I like about these various employees and team members. As importantly, I’m refocusing on what I as a leader can do to enable the behaviours I like and discourage other behaviors. In my next series of blog posts, I will share my OPINIONS. I am NOT speaking for any company, nor am I speaking for Cafe Nero, Fino, etc. Just me.

… Trait # 1 – Hard working AND talented

Maybe you’ve had this guy on your team: The fact is he is simply brilliant. He knows so much about every relevant topic and can think beyond any analyst you have ever hired. Give him any problem to solve and, with focus, he can solve the most complex of them within minutes. Yet, when you compare his output and the value created from his efforts to the rest of your team, he falls short. Why? Because he is LAZY. In some ways, there is nothing worse than a LAZY smart person. Like a perfectly grilled prime rib being placed in front of a vegan, a USELESS waste. Offensive even!

Or perhaps you’ve seen more of this guy: Every night as you leave the office you say goodnight to this guy. He is in every meeting, takes copious notes, has severe frown lines from constantly working, thinking and pushing himself. He rarely takes vacations and always goes that extra mile. And yet, again, output is severely lacking. Deadlines are missed and errors are made. This person, while in my humble opinion much more acceptable than the lazy genius, still falls short. These guys are great to have on the team and can be highly valuable. They have the passion but not all of the skills… Which brings me to my first trait of the perfect employee…

Hard Working AND Talented

What I like

People who work hard and think hard are the foundation of a good team. And it is these people with whom I most like working. I don’t need geniuses actually, though the occasional rocket scientist does bring a uniquely different perspective to the team. I need people who are clear about what they know, comfortable researching or asking elsewhere about things of which they know little, and passionate about continuing to improve their knowledge base. But I also need them to want to work hard, push themselves, and execute. Brilliant strategy without effective delivery is … well, what many consultants produce. (And before I get the hate mail, I can say that because I am a former consultant. And of course not all consultants produce paperweights….)

I’m looking for people who have a strong base of talent on which to build, and the industriousness to see their base as a foundation and not a ceiling. Vision to dream about going further, learning more, and gaining even more knowledge as they execute and deliver. I had an architect at a prior company (confession: I hired/poached him from a consulting firm) that was not only the most knowledgeable person about Notes to Exchange migrations, he was also truly hard working. And he was humble; which I will discuss in a future blog. I could get more out of this one person than five others more polished, more educated, and higher paid. But he had a passion for solving problems and thinking harder about ways of working. And he never stopped learning.

I need people who think and push. Who work hard and study hard. Who bring a unique skillset to the table, share it with others, and in so doing make the entire team better.

What I need to do as a manager to enable


  • EMPLOY. I need to find these people and bring them in to my teams. Typical HR processes seem to focus on assessing skills or fit. I need to assess ability to work hard, continue to learn and dream big. My goal will always be to find people smarter than I am, that work as hard or harder than I do, and give them the opportunity to shine.
  • ENGAGE. I must actively seek to connect with these high performing high value generating team members, making clear how much they are valued. Too often, the smartest guy that does little work but knows when to speak up is rewarded first. As a leader, I must continuously look to find the hard working and talented and ensure they get the recognition they deserve.
  • EMPOWER. The worst thing a manager can do with any top talent is to relegate them to worker bee status when they should be empowered to make decisions. These are your leaders and should be allowed to lead. These folks should be encouraged to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

For those interested, I found another blogger that commented on this topic and grouped people into four blocks instead of three. Where I cover smart and lazy, smart and hard working, and not so smart but hard working, this person also addresses stupid and lazy. I of course ignored that group because I would not even consider keeping someone in that bucket on my team. As Donald Trump says, “you’re fired!” Here is the other blog.

I also found a humorous take on choosing one or the other when you only have smart/lazy or dumb/hard working as your options.

From a “real world” perspective, it is FAR better to be smart and lazy than dumb and hardworking. You see, if a dumb person does a lot of work, chances are they’re going to do a lot of it wrong since they don’t know what they’re doing. Then the smart people are the ones who have to fix everything; and they spend all their time cleaning things up instead of being productive with their smartness.

I guess that is certainly one way of looking at things. As for me, I will continue to seek out the perfect ones, while also recognizing it takes all kinds to make a great team. Most importantly, I will continue to strive to find balance in life and work toward doing the right thing. I like what Teddy says on this topic.

Let me know what you think. What do you view as top employee traits? How do you build the best teams around different types of team members? Are you working hard on something worth doing?

Be sure to view the other Top Traits:
Trait 2: Pride in work product
Trait 3: Fun to work with


First published on:

About Adam Stanley

Adam is an award winning technology executive with extensive achievement in driving value for businesses through technology and operational excellence. He was named one of the Top 25 CTOs by InfoWorld, garnered Crain’s Chicago recognition as one of the Tech 50 for 2014, and cited as one of the 100 most social CIOs by HuffPost. He is a strong inspirational leader and change agent with proven success driving growth, performance, talent retention, and innovation. A fixer and builder that can define problems, Adam can analyze large quantities of data, strategize, and execute on needed transformation. He has led global organizations and programs and is constantly looking for ways in which he can help drive positive change.

Adam is an avid traveler and has visited or worked in over 40 countries including South Africa, India, Netherlands, Thailand, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Egypt. He is an avid reader, a devoted dog owner, and a passionate fine wine and food lover. Having received his MBA in Strategic Management from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in May 2000, Adam also holds a BSBA in Finance from Washington University in St. Louis. He is a proud son of Chicago and got his start at Whitney Young Magnet High School and Academic Center.


Adam's latest Meddles

Subscribe to OP|EN for BUSINESS!
Receive A Weekly Digest of the Most Popular Posts to Your Inbox!