Meet 12 great employees to toast in 2012

Dear Bosses:

I hope 2012 will be your best year yet as a manager. I know that one of your tasks in the months ahead will be a ritual many of you dread: writing annual performance reviews for staff. It’s not that you don’t believe in giving feedback. In fact, if you’re a follower of this column, you’ve probably worked diligently to double your feedback, to hold people accountable when they fall short, and to make certain you don’t inadvertently undermine the praise you offer for jobs well done. You understand the value of letting people know where they stand.

Still, you get writer’s block when it comes to those annual evaluations. Some of the reasons:

  • You want them to be perfect and you’re not confident you can make that happen.
  • You don’t like the company’s template for reviews, especially if it requires you to reduce job performance to numeric grades enhanced by some supporting narrative.
  • You’re not crazy about your evaluation form’s definitions of performance because they aren’t a smooth fit for every job, every person, or even the current business climate.

I can’t change your company’s format for annual reviews, but perhaps I can enrich your lexicon for describing high achievement. Let’s put some new terms on the table, name the employees that set the standard for others, then note your challenge in getting the best from them — and for them.

I’ve developed a list of 12 top performers. I hope you spot a good number of your staffers on this roster — and if you do, don’t wait until review time to pay tribute to them.

1. The Popular Pacesetter: She distinguishes herself by consistently excellent work, and does so in a way that causes the rest of the staff (including managers) to cheer. Your Popular Pacesetter is a low-maintenance, low drama, high quality performer. Co-workers trust that the product will be better and the work more enjoyable when she is on the team.

  • Your management challenge: When solid performers are low-maintenance, it’s easy to overlook them while tending to problem people. Make sure you give them feedback.

2. The Solution Spotter: Unlike some who are great at talking about problems, the Spotter inevitably identifies solutions and routinely offers to help with the work. He enjoys removing roadblocks for himself and others. If this staffer says something isn’t possible, you know it must be so, because he hates to say “never.”

  • Your management challenge: Encourage your Solution Spotter, but don’t let other people unfairly dump work on him just because he’s so helpful and reliable.

3. The Boundary Spanner: Not the usual “BS-er,” this one makes useful connections all across the organization. The Boundary Spanner builds influence by getting to know people whose roles and responsibilities vary greatly from hers. She finds ways to support those people and build networks that result in reciprocity.

  • Your management challenge: Fly cover for your Boundary Spanner. Make certain you connect with the leaders of the other departments (especially if they are turf-protective) so her relationship-building is understood and valued.

4. The Peripheral Visionary: Cousin to the Boundary Spanner, this employee takes pains to see how his work affects others. He looks both upstream and downstream on the workflow to make certain he’s not causing snags or delays. He thinks big picture, even strategically, about the organization.

  • Your management challenge: Keep people informed. Talk about strategy and how peoples’ work relates to the big picture. Information is currency in organizations, and to Peripheral Visionaries, it’s even more valuable because they act on it.

5. The Jiminy Cricket: Like the venerable little sidekick to Disney’s “Pinocchio,” this employee is characterized by conscience. Jiminy Cricket deftly asks questions that get people thinking about ethics, diversity, fairness, accountability, safety, legality — helping people see past their blind spots.

  • Your management challenge: Emulate Jiminy. Clone Jiminy. It can get pretty lonely for the Crickets of this world if they are left feeling like the group’s “Ethics Scold” or  “Diversity Cop.” Values are everyone’s responsibility. Lead the way and encourage all team members to think critically and speak freely.

6. The Early Adopter: New technology, process or product? This staffer is out front and giving it a try, even gaining mastery. At her best, she serves as a role model for others, proving that learning something new needn’t be intimidating.

  • Your management challenge: Connect Early Adopters with high-potential employees who fear the temporary incompetence of learning something new. Never let the Early Adopters feel you are taking them for granted as you ask them to share their knowledge and experience. Show them respect and recognition for teaching and coaching others.

7. The Co-brander: Today’s business writers encourage people to “build your personal brand.” Social media and blogging platforms allow employees to develop reputations and relationships as never before. Co-branders strategically align their personal brand with the organization’s. While they develop their own voice and presence online and beyond, they do so in ways that aren’t in conflict or competition with the team’s mission.

  • Your management challenge: Recognize your Co-branders for treating social media as an opportunity to connect credibly with customers, rather than as simple self-promotion. Share your social media strategy and ethical guidelines with them and all staffers, so everyone understands your approach to information, involvement and integrity.

8. The Glass Filler: Here’s a toast to the optimists on your team. Glass Fillers refuse to see a vessel as half-empty. Their positive, can-do attitude counteracts negativity and boosts morale, especially when Glass Fillers are also known for high quality work. The staff then feels the positive vibes coming from their heads as well as their hearts.

  • Your management challenge: My Poynter colleague Gregory Favre said it best in a column he wrote about a favorite “Peanuts” cartoon, in which Charlie Brown takes great care of a worried Snoopy, reassuring him that all will be well. Later, Charlie asks himself “Who reassures the reassurer?” The answer: You do, boss. Even devout optimists need a little encouragement and a listening ear from time to time.

9. The Pliable Planner: Some employees are just naturally inclined to be good planners, which is a great help to others on the team. But the downside is that among those who love lists, organization and getting things buttoned up, there are folks who also tend to be controlling and change resistant. Pliable Planners bring the best of both worlds — structure and flexibility — to their work. They build great road maps but quickly shift gears when detours make more sense.

  • Your management challenge: Like Solution Spotters, Pliable Planners can be taken for granted. They may be good at organization, but that doesn’t mean they always want that responsibility and that others shouldn’t worry about it. Thank your Pliable Planner for her talent and enlist her help in teaching others how to think ahead with an open mind.

10. The Responsible Risk-taker: Organizations need employees whose ideas break new ground. At the same time, change and innovation often involve risk. Responsible Risk-takers are the staffers who have such a solid foundation of values that their creative, edgy, unorthodox, challenging, or just plain weird ideas push people toward innovation, not self-immolation.

  • Your management challenge: Explain to other employees precisely what the Responsible Risk-taker does right, and why his ideas tend to get traction. That way, he won’t be misidentified as simply the “teacher’s pet” — and you’ll increase the chances that other staffers will emulate his innovative thinking.

11. The Turnaround Talent: This is the employee with whom you’ve had tough conversations, whom you’ve asked for improvement — and got it! The Turnaround Talent took your constructive criticism, difficult as it was to hear, and acted on it. She changed behaviors and improved her performance. She’s either where you want her to be or clearly demonstrating that she’s taking all the right steps to get there.

  • Your management challenge: Don’t declare victory prematurely, but when you see a clear upward trajectory and permanent positive performance, reinforce it. Then make certain your own bosses recognize the win as well, so her reputation is redeemed at every level of the organization.

12. The Brass Whisperer: Like every boss, you’re not perfect. If you’re fortunate, you have people on your team who help make you better. The Brass Whisperer speaks truth to power — an employee who will tap you on the shoulder and alert you to your bad decision, bias, or bungled message. He has a knack for helping you see things you miss, with no agenda other than looking out for the team’s welfare — and yours. (Not to be confused with the Brass Kisser, a wholly different type indeed.)

  • Your management challenge: Remember that it takes courage to criticize the person who supervises you. It also takes wisdom and maturity to accept negative feedback as a gift. Think of the Brass Whisperer as your “loyal opposition” — and do your best to give that employee little to oppose.

My fondest wish is that as you read this column, you identified people on your team who embody one or more of those 12 descriptions. Your next step will be to let those people know. After all, great bosses never miss a chance to toast great employees.

I share more about those 12 terrific types in today’s podcast:

You can also download our complete library of 110 free, short “What Great Bosses Know” podcasts on iTunes U. Happy New Year!

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  • Jill Geisler

    Hi “e-s-r”:
    I’m happy to tell you that the newsroom managers I work with today are quite a diverse group, ranging from those who came up in the ranks before digital and multi-media to those who are young digital natives themselves. 

    There’s a variety of things managers of all ages and experience levels have to offer pacesetters: sometimes it is teaching and coaching, but today, many know that their pacesetters have craft skills that exceed their own.  In those cases, it is all the more important that managers perform another important leadership function: removing obstacles to the employee’s success. 

    That can take the form of providing resources, running interference, finding new challenges, or just letting high performers know they are truly valued. 

    Take Care,

  • Anonymous

    Most editors were promoted on the basis of reporting or editing work, which in print is often a lone-wolf deal. Newsrooms are pens of lone-wolves, many of whom are out in the field (or work nites) with little interaction aside from gossip.
    Solo achievement lends almost nothing to these people’s “management” toolkit. Pacesetters and even stars I have seen are typically ignored, aside from generic praise. Someone who was a decent metro reporter or sports copy editor 15 years ago and was promoted has little to offer today’s pacesetter, who by definition is a multi-media whirlwind operating in a world unrecognizable to those with 1970s and 1980s formative years.

  • Key West Watch

    LOL. I remain in Rockford for a final Midwest winter. Will relocate this summer when the tenant’s lease expires. Come visit next September — after the hurricane season.

  • Jill Geisler

    Your reply is remarkably clear and helpful to me, as well!  Thanks!

  • Jill Geisler

    “Act like owners” is a terrific concept, isn’t it?  I think it happens when employees are treated with the same respect accorded to the highest ranking folks in the company. You can’t order people to think or act that way, but you can lead them to it by your actions as a manager. 
    Here’s a trophy to YOU for your kind comment.

  • Jill Geisler

    Linda!  So great to catch up with you, my friend.  You have helped nourish a remarkable number of high performers in your career, so I expect I could “borrow” more than a few ideas from you.  But if you are now in Key West, then I think I should somehow make that an in-person transaction. (Written from my home office in Wisconsin.)
    Best to you in 2012,

  • Jill Geisler


  • Jocelyn Aucoin

    What a great article, Jill!  So glad I came across this. As the community manager at WorkSimple, I’m really interested in the annual performance review.  I’ve learned that, across the board, it’s generally a dreaded process on both sides of the equation.  I love to see anything that helps that process along and this article definitely does that! Great!

    If you or your readers are interested in companies that are working towards these ends as well, perhaps take a peek at  We’ve developed a free platform for feedback and recognition. Pretty cool, I think.  

    I look forward to reading more from you, Jill!  Thanks again.

    Jocelyn Aucoin
    Community Manager, WorkSimple

  • Key West Watch

    Jill: This is one of your top 10 best; heck, maybe even the best. You picked exactly the best-and-brightest folks in the newsroom, described their strengths and offered tips for supporting them. One of the hardest appraisals to write is the one — year after year after year — of these 12 top performer styles. And, let me be transparent: I am just about to “borrow” with full attribution this approach.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent article and very thorough.  These are great principals to run any organization while encouraging your employee’s to get involved, act like owners of the company and get to know all aspects of your business.  Loved your article.  

  • madavis2u

    This was remarkably clear and helpful.