What kind of employee are you? Are you a contributor . . . or an energy sucker? Helpful or hurtful? Positive or toxic? Average or exceptional? Often, it's hard to look in the mirror and see truth.

It sure would be helpful if employees knew exactly what kind of employees they are and could see a path to becoming better.

As I look at the team at BambooHR, I see incredible people--and I want even more from them! I feel that each employee has the potential for greatness. One of our goals for each employee here is for them to be exceptional and grow together in meaningful ways. So a few weeks ago, we set out to define exactly what it means to be an exceptional employee. Each leader had a week to think about it.

Our team leaders came to our leadership meeting with their thoughts and here is what they had to say about what makes an exceptional employee:

  • "You can trust them; they're dependable."
  • "They're proactive and lead from where they are."
  • "They're personally invested in the team."
  • "They're hardworking and honest with their time."
  • "They're teachable and looking to improve."
  • "They have a great attitude and are easy to work with."

In addition, the leaders brought role-specific comments such as:

  • "They're great at understanding client needs."
  • "They know our product inside and out."
  • "They have well-under-an-hour response times."
  • "They handle difficult clients well."
  • "They create awesome design and really think through UI."
  • "Clients rave about them."
  • "They get reports done quickly and accurately."
  • "They produce quality, documented code."

Any employee that does the above is somebody I'd love to work with any day of the week! However, as each team lead discussed their thoughts and team members, it became very clear to us: At BambooHR, every single behavior or characteristic mentioned was EXPECTED, not exceptional.

We feel that the 'expected' is absolutely required by every team member. At BambooHR, it doesn't qualify for exceptional.

So, phase two began. Every team lead had another week to drill down further with the assignment to refine their definition of exceptional beyond just the expected. It became more difficult! Most team leads struggled.

Here are some the challenges that came up:

  • "It is difficult for me to define even the standard in order to have a starting point to describe exceptional."
  • "Where do I fit exceptional in my rubric? How do I measure passion? How do I measure not just the completion of a task, but HOW the task was completed--the intangibles?"
  • "Ultimately, the bar is what I need my team to consistently deliver, and then we need to describe the things that delight and excite. I need to know why those things delight and excite."
  • "How do we measure the 'it' factor? How do you quantify what comes naturally to some people and then teach that to the others?"
  • "Even when I define 'exceptional' for my team, I struggle with the way to get them there. All my team members are different. How do I do it?"

It became perfectly clear that some of our teams don't know what we expect, so they definitely don't know how to achieve it. As a leadership team, we also realized specific failures on our part, and we shined a spotlight on them for discussion. We learned a lot as we looked at our own faults. We realized that it's the responsibility of the leadership team to clarify expectations through specific communication. And this is definitely a two-way street, as employees should be expected and empowered to ask questions without hesitation, which will help them learn as fast as possible and grow.

So, what next? Now our team leads are taking our findings to their teams for help refining and finalizing what it means to be exceptional on that particular team. These definitions will encompass behaviors, attitudes, actions and more. We're thrilled at the results we've already seen, and these definitions will be used for purposeful trainings, as well as for recruiting, hiring, performance and engagement. Every employee will know exactly what is expected, and we will all see a clear path to what will make us exceptional.

For me, here are two of the biggest takeaways (although I'm sure more will follow):

  • First, OUCH! I think of our failures to communicate both the expected and the exceptional, and it hurts. We value our people and our culture so much, but we've waited too long and missed many significant opportunities because of this lack of clear direction.
  • Second, AWESOME! We are so pleased to deliberately define what exceptional means to us. Think of the pain we can avoid; the increased speed of execution; and the impact on growth of our people, our company culture and many other factors.

This article is not a 'best practices' or you-gotta-do-it-this-way article. I'm simply sharing what we did, hoping it inspires you to do something similar. Ultimately, the attention you pay to employees is an investment with incomparable returns.

Lastly, as a person with a specific goal to do meaningful work with great people who will help me grow and a co-founder looking to build BambooHR into a lasting and influential company, my favorite comment from the process was, "Average here is exceptional anywhere else. Exceptional here is just freaking awesome."

Best of success to all of us as we seek "freaking awesome."