Last month I wrote a column about recruiting for start-ups. In it, I recounted my "green beret" speech, in which I warned aspiring employees just how tough an experience working at a new company can be.

In response, I received a thought-provoking email from one reader, Alex Brown. He wrote: 

"As a former Green Beret Commander finishing up my MBA at Georgetown this spring I'm focusing on finding my place in the start-up community out in Boulder, Colorado. It's been a challenge to convey my comfort with discomfort, and my love of ambiguous environments. Funny enough "find work" was a common phrase that I heard and spoke throughout my Special Forces career."

The 'Find Work' Mentality

I love the "find work" phrase he uses to describe his proactive attitude about work. It encapsulates what every great employee does: rather than sit around and wait to be told what to do, actively scan the horizon searching for needs. I know I've been lucky to have worked alongside many such work finders; until now, I never fully appreciated that is what made them so great.

This might be a valuable phrase to add to the job descriptions you write when you're hiring, if you use them. Another variant I've seen is: "If the ball's falling, catch it." The point is that in great companies, no one is waiting for instructions. Everyone is aware of what needs to be done and keen to do it--whatever "it" is. That the work is self-selected makes it more rewarding. And a workforce that looks for problems will always be smarter and more adroit than any leader or system can be.

The alternative is to load people down with rules and assignments. This gets the work done but it won't give you the early warning system that the work finders provide.

One Requirement of a Work-Finder Workforce

That said, for a work-finder workforce to truly be effective, every single person has to appreciate the difference between real and unnecessary work. To be able to draw distinctions like that requires a clear strategy, crisply articulated. Which means, of course, that you had better have one.