Regardless of who that employee was, I think I can probably describe him or her. That's because the most valued employees have a lot in common, regardless of their jobs or the companies they work for.
Here are 20 of the key things they do almost every day.
1. They buy into the vision.
A great leader's top priority is to provide a goal that is worth his or her employee's time. Having offered that vision, great employees will buy into it and ensure everything they do for the company helps to achieve it.
2. They do their jobs (and then some).
You might think the worst employees are incompetent or destructive, but at least with them the solution is clear. Worse is the average, middling employee, who might barely accomplish the minimum expectations.
3. They pay attention to time.
Sometimes you need to hold meetings. Sometimes you need to ask for help and hustle to complete a project. But great employees recognize that the most valuable commodity any of us has is our time--and they respect other people's.
4. They communicate effectively, both ways.
Part of a boss's job is to communicate effectively--even better, to inspire. It's just as important for an employee, and it goes both ways: offering good insights and actively listening.
5. They anticipate.
I once saw a coffee cup that read, "Keep your boss's boss off your boss's back." That's decent advice, but it's better to go further. Any great boss will appreciate an employee who says "I saw this problem down the road, and I've come up with an efficient solution."
6. They share information.
Insecure employees hoard information and expertise to make themselves invaluable. Great employees have the confidence to share--and the further confidence that they'll continue to learn more, become even more of an expert, and remain invaluable.
7. They make decisions--and stick with them.
You'll never agree with every decision made in an organization. But great employees are willing to make hard choices. They're also willing to "disagree but commit," as Jeff Bezos says--getting on board with decisions they don't necessarily agree with.
8. The give good feedback.
It requires tact, but great employees give smart, honest feedback to bosses and colleagues. They also praise when it's appropriate. Hey, bosses are people, too--they appreciate hearing when they're appreciated.
9. They demonstrate honesty.
A reputation for honesty takes time to build, but it can be destroyed in an instant. So great employees err on the side of truthfulness, even when it doesn't put them in the best light. Besides, it's usually better to be the one disclosing bad news if it involves you.
10. They lead.
The mark of a great leader isn't attracting more followers; it's creating more leaders. Great employees step up as leaders within their organizations when they see constructive opportunities to do so.
11. They explain what they need.
Often, great leaders say their key role is to make sure everyone else has what they need to succeed--from a worthy goal (see above) to the technical requirements and tools required. Great employees return the favor by being able to explain what they need.
12. They say thanks.
A culture of gratitude has been shown to improve well-being and productivity. This has to start with the boss, but great employees take their cue and express thanks (to everyone) when they have reason to do so.
13. They make good suggestions.
Great employees should be experts. They should know more about their roles than their bosses do, which in turn means they should have suggestions on how to improve. They also understand that there are times and places for that kind of feedback.
14. They can laugh and have fun.
One of the funniest "workplaces" I've ever been in? Embedded with an infantry platoon in combat, when I was a foreign correspondent. The fact that people made jokes while bullets were flying made everyone calmer and more effective. If humor works in that kind of situation, I'll bet it will work at your job.
15. They're not afraid to enjoy themselves.
Great employees show enthusiasm, and they get that forming relationships and getting along with co-workers is part of the job. Besides, we've all worked with people who view the "mandatory fun" parts of work with a skeptical, sarcastic eye--as if they're trying to ruin it for others. Nobody likes that.
16. They stand up for themselves.
Not in an unpleasant way. But great employees are proactive, and they ensure that when they do something good, their contributions are recognized. They know that stepping aside if someone else takes credit is a recipe for resentment and long-term failure.
17. They come up with unexpected additions.
Whether it's finding a great new employee to recruit or identifying a strategic opportunity, the best employees look beyond their job descriptions for chances to help the entire company. But they recognize that whether to pursue those opportunities might not be their call.
18. They share the blame when appropriate.
We all fail sometimes in life. Great employees do too--but just as they won't let others take credit for their contributions, they also won't let others take the blame for their failures.
19. They act ethically.
Highly related to honesty, great employees seek to behave morally and ethically. It's often true that more progress is made when we seek forgiveness than when we seek permission. However, there are rules, social norms, and basic decency. Great bosses strive to uphold them.
20. They move on when it's time to do so.
Maybe the employee no longer believes in the vision, or needs different challenges, or has different interests. Maybe he or she just needs more money than the company can afford. It's always scary, but a great employee won't stick around after it's time to move on.