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Three Characteristics at the Core of Successful Employees

Gordon Ramsey has said, “If you want to be a great chef, you need to work with great chefs. And that’s exactly what I did.” This truth applies to everyone but particularly to leaders, regardless of industry. It’s especially relevant to managers when hiring employees and even when doing periodic reviews on long-time employees. Qualifications abound, but when it comes down to hiring or keeping an employee, how do you differentiate between an employee who will do or does the job versus the employee who works beyond expectations to improve the company, the process or products, and the people around them?

Carmine Gallo’s Forbes article, “Three Surprising Questions Apple Store Asks About Every Job Candidate” outlines Apple’s interview questions. And as with many of Apple’s approaches, the three discussed interview questions for me become a potential model in how to filter out the ordinary employees from the employees who can go beyond.

At Apple, Steve Jobs boiled down the model of successful employees into three traits:

  • Grit

  • Customer Service

  • Fearless Attitude

As leaders, how do we find these traits in our employees and encourage them? I hope to provide my experiences on what each of these traits are, how they manifest, and how they can be encouraged.


“Grit is the ability to perform under pressure, especially in “ambiguous” situations where clear answers might be elusive.”

Employees can exhibit grit when answers are demanded of them to which they don’t have all the information and must make a decision based on instinct, other knowledge, and sheer self-belief. This ability can often be revealed by probing questions with indeterminate answers during an interview or a meeting where decisions must be immediate. Once the employee has answered in a high-stakes, pressured situation, a leader can encourage grit by positively reinforcing the employee’s willingness or ability to answer, regardless of whether the answer was right or wrong. As they say, the worst decision a manager can make is to not make one at all!

Customer Service

“Has there ever been a time when a customer asked for something that you could not provide at the moment? How did you handle it?”

An employee’s demonstration of customer service often lies in their response to this question. Customer service isn’t about knowing everything and an employee who pretends or acts like they do are probably missing this attribute. Customer service many times requires us to seek solutions that exist but are perhaps unknown to us. Therefore, good customer service is the effort put into providing those answers. This trait can be encouraged by leaders continually asking open-ended questions of employees rather than giving them the answer. These questions often begin with “Why,” “How,” or “What do you think about…” and they are questions that set the stage for subordinates to discover their own solutions, which increases their competence, their confidence, and their customer service. This urges employees to search for solutions rather than reaffirming the expectation that answers will be given to them.

Fearless Attitude

“…Apple Store hiring managers want to know that a candidate has an opinion, can articulate it, and is willing to fight for it.”

According to Gallo’s article, “Jobs’ top executives understood that they had to treat Jobs with respect but that they were also expected to push back on his ideas and argue their points.” It is in vein of thought that leaders should expect employees to stand up for their ideas, even if it’s the leader who may appear to be shooting them down. The concept of standing by your ideas and being willing to go up against power is a resilience that stems from you actually believing in your idea. However, going up against power does not mean being inflexible or closed-minded, it is about how much you believe in your idea and how far you are willing to go out on a limb to make it happen. I often tell my employees to come to work with a purpose – to hold on to that one idea or value that you believe in and are continuously trying to achieve. You won’t choose your purpose then carry it in the front of your mind, rather, you store it in your core. Then, when times are difficult, desperate, or seemingly hopeless, that purpose emerges from the subconscious and is the thing that prevents you from giving up or, when facing pushback, keeps you from backing down. What separates successful individuals from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance. What you believe in and what you stand for is your purpose and it is essential. But purpose and belief sometimes needs to be cultivated, which is something every leader can do by welcoming creative constructive-conflict. Through promoting belief and purpose, leaders can ensure a pattern of fearlessness where employees will remain aspirational and principled the same way, hopefully, their leader are.


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