Some employees, though, are exceptional. They have skills and qualities that aren't evaluated on performance appraisals but make a huge impact on that individual's performance, the performance of the people around her, and especially on the company's results.
Here are eight signs an employee is truly exceptional:
1. They think well beyond job descriptions.
The smaller the company, the more important it is that employees can think on their feet, adapt quickly to shifting priorities, and do whatever it takes, regardless of role or position, to get things done.
When a key customer's project is in jeopardy, exceptional employees know without being told there's a problem, and they jump in without being asked, even if--especially if--it's not their job.
2. They're quirky...
The best employees are often a little different: a little eccentric, sometimes irreverent, even delighted to be unusual. They seem slightly odd, but in a really good way. Unusual personalities shake things up, make work more fun, and transform a plain-vanilla group into a team with flair and flavor.
People who aren't afraid to be different naturally stretch boundaries and challenge the status quo, and they often come up with the best ideas.
3. And they know when to rein in their individuality.
An unusual personality is a lot of fun--right up until the moment it isn't. When a major challenge pops up or a situation gets stressful, the best employees stop expressing their individuality and fit seamlessly into the team.
Exceptional employees know when to play and when to be serious; when to be irreverent and when to conform; and when to challenge and when to back off.
It's a tough balance to strike, and a rare few can walk that fine line with ease.
4. They praise other people in public...
Praise from a boss feels good. Praise from a peer feels awesome, especially when you look up to that person.
Exceptional employees recognize the contributions of others, especially in group settings where the impact of their words is even greater.
5. And they disagree in private.
We all want employees to bring issues forward, but some problems are better handled in private. Great employees often get more latitude to bring up controversial subjects in a group setting because their performance allows greater freedom.
Exceptional employees come to you before or after a meeting to discuss a sensitive issue, knowing that bringing it up in a group setting could set off a firestorm.
6. They ask questions when others won't.
Some employees are hesitant to speak up in meetings. Some are even hesitant to speak up privately.
An employee once asked me a question about potential layoffs. After the meeting I said to him, "Why did you ask about that? You already know what's going on." He said, "I do, but a lot of other people don't, and they're afraid to ask. I thought it would help if they heard the answer from you."
Exceptional employees have an innate feel for the issues and concerns of those around them, and step up to ask questions or raise important issues when others hesitate.
7. They like to prove other people wrong.
Self-motivation often springs from a desire to show that doubters are wrong. The woman without a college degree or the man who was told he didn't have leadership potential often possesses a burning desire to prove other people wrong.
Education, intelligence, talent, and skill are important, but drive is critical. Exceptional employees are driven by something deeper and more personal than just the desire to do a good job.
8. They're constantly exploring.
Some people are rarely satisfied (I mean that in a good way) and are constantly tinkering with something: reworking a timeline, adjusting a process, tweaking a workflow.
Good employees follow processes. Great employees tweak processes. Exceptional employees find ways to reinvent processes, not just because they are expected to...but because they just can't help themselves.