Oswald Letter

What Makes an “Employee of the Year”?

Last week I wrote about the importance of employee recognition and described our company’s version of the “employee of the year” award. I got to thinking about our most recent award recipient and what set her apart from her peers. What was it about this award winner that caused her coworkers to nominate her and made her worthy of such a distinction? She must demonstrate attributes that every employee could learn from. If not, she wouldn’t have been recognized as being the “best of the best” by her colleagues and management. So what makes a great employee?

Kim MesecherOur employee of the year for 2009, Kim Mesecher, was an incredibly deserving candidate. In fact, her contributions during the past year made her a clear winner of the award. But Kim isn’t new to the company or someone who was recently promoted into management. Kim has been with the company for more than 16 years.

You might be asking yourself, “How is that after that many years with the company she’s just being recognized now?” Well, one answer is that the award has been around for only three years, so she’s had limited opportunities to be the recipient. But I’d also tell you that Kim had an exceptional year in 2009, and the reasons for this are interesting and also educational.

You see, Kim was presented with a number of changes in her job during the past 18-24 months. First, the person to whom Kim reported changed. As anyone who’s gone through it can attest, it’s tough to break in a new boss. Kim had to gain her new manager’s trust, adjust to a different style, and help educate him about her job function since he’d joined the company from outside the industry.

As a credit to both her and her new manager, Kim flourished under his leadership. She adapted very well to his style, and her influence and role in the company grew as a result. She was given more autonomy, maybe out of necessity, but she made it work and became a big contributor to the company.

The next thing that occurred was that her job description changed drastically when the department she managed was divided into two. Some people might take this as an opportunity to step back and breathe a sigh of relief as 50% of her duties were taken away. Others might view it as a demotion or a lack of confidence in their abilities. Of course, it was neither, but Kim responded as I knew she would and as any manager would hope. She jumped in to help train and be a crucial resource for the newly hired colleague who took over the management of half of her former duties.

The company was able to bring in a person with more experience in this specific area, but still benefited from Kim’s knowledge of the employees and understanding of the company and its products. She became an invaluable resource to the new manager and made herself more valuable to the company at the same time.

These weren’t the only changes that Kim encountered. Kim, as well as all of us at the company, experienced  the sudden and tragic death of a colleague. We are a small company and needed to quickly fill the management gap that was created. We turned to Kim. She had the capacity as the result of the change in duties described above, and was a proven manager in the company. Kim gamely took over the management of a small department where her technical experience was limited and did a great job of managing the group. She proved that a good manager is a good manager. She relied on the technical expertise of the people she inherited, but stepped right into the management role and kept everything running smoothly.

So what’s to be learned from Kim’s experience? First, as a manager, making sure you have people in the right position is critical. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins said that you not only need to have the right people “on the bus” but also need them in the right “seat on the bus.” We knew that Kim was the right person to be on the bus, but we discovered that by putting her in the right seat she could make even greater contributions. Even after more than a decade and a half with the company, a change in “seats” proved to be beneficial for her and the company.

There’s also a lot that can be learned from Kim for every employee. First, it’s important to remain flexible so that you can adapt well to change. Kim was faced with a great deal of change in her job during the past couple of years and embraced it instead of fearing it.

That leads me to the second thing we can all learn from Kim. She had confidence in herself and her manager that the changes would work out for her and the company. The employee/employer relationship is one that requires trust on both sides if it’s going to work. In the end, both sides want the same thing — for the individual to be successful to the benefit of the organization. Kim trusted that this was the case and was confident enough in her abilities to know that she could make a valuable contribution.

Finally, Kim also demonstrated the importance of servant leadership. So much of the contribution to the company and the reason for her being recognized was a result of her willingness to put the company and others before herself. Whether it was supporting a newly hired colleague, helping educate her new supervisor, or taking over in a pinch, Kim put others first and, as a result, was recognized as being the greatest contributor to our company in 2009. We can all learn a lot from Kim Mesecher.