I know HR heads do an eye-roll whenever a manager comes to them wanting a “rockstar” employee for a new or to-be-filled role at a company, ➡️ 🙄, (uhm, what exactly does that mean?) but, I’ve actually been offered an opportunity to be a guest on a new TV documentary looking at this exact topic. (Full disclosure: not quite sure I’ve said yes to this just yet. Stay tuned.)
However, I wanted to stop and think about this for a moment — what really does it take, and what qualities are held by — the A+, kick @$$, rockstar, unicorn employee (AKRUs)?
I’m not saying I’m one of these by writing this article either. I think we always have room and opportunity to grow; I’m not perfect. However, I also have been a student of those who consistently go above and beyond, have passion for their work, and are known across a particular industry. And, I’ll go ahead and say it: the AKRU is also not for every organization, in every role, and with every boss either. It takes a very strong company culture and a very strong, wise manager to know how to care for and feed an AKRU.
So, then, what does it take to be an AKRU? Here are my thoughts, as an N of 1, that AKRUs hold in common:
- Intrinsically Motivated — Above all, this trait is what I think sets up and apart the AKRUs from the rest of your employees in an organization. If they believe their professional lives are tied to their raison d’etre, ikigai, or reason for being, there’s nothing you can do to tie them down or hold them back from being awesome at what they do, ever. No amount of money you pay them, perks you offer at work, or PTO, will ever motivate them. They’re already motivated to do the very best work they can, and honestly, this is one trait you can never fake. It’s either there, or it isn’t. Their work can be their borderline obsession — they’re thinking about it even when they’re sitting on a beach in the middle of nowhere. If you have an AKRU on your team, don’t ever hold them back, for they will depart quickly if you’re holding them down and quashing their intrinsic motivation. Or, if you want them to leave, just stifle this within them. They’ll be out in no time flat. Read Daniel Pink’s book Drive if you don’t know what I’m talking about around IM.
- Self-aware — AKRUs know who they are, their strengths, their values, and what they need to work on within themselves. A great test here is to just ask them about their personal values and the AKRUs will have several real stories ready and easily available to share with you. They’ll probably have a story or two about when their values were tested or compromised by former employers too….and note the keyword in that sentence: ‘former.’ (Don’t know your own values? Just google “personal values card sort or go here, print these pages out, cut them out, and then sort them. Then, think of the stories from your past or present that match your values and voila!)
- Creative & Resourceful — I’m not really a fan of the word “hustler,” but this is the spirit I mention this trait. An AKRU will know how to be creative to get things done. Necessity is the mother of invention. They also seek out the novel, weird, and unusual, both inside their chosen profession, and outside. Note that I’m also stating that cutting corners and compromising to get things done is NOT a line that the AKRU will cross, either. (Maybe that’s the part of the term “hustler” I am uncomfortable with — it connotates no boundaries.) They will still play by legal and ethical rules, and they will call out when others do not.
- Collaborates, but also can go solo — There’s something to be said for a person who knows when to be a member of a team, to lead a team, and when to go solo. This balance an AKRU can and often does master. BTW, the AKRU does not like to work with B- and C-level employees either. They’re on the hunt to work with other A-teamers. Just watching other AKRUs gives other AKRUs ideas and ways to level up. And they’re always looking to level up…
- Communicates regularly without the ask — One of my habits is a weekly report at the end of each week. It helps me wrap up the week and think about what I need to focus on for the following week. The AKRU will just automatically deliver this to his or her manager without the ask. It doesn’t even matter if the manager reads the weekly report, but it’s there if or when something goes sideways.
- Cautiously Optimistic — The AKRU balances keeping a project “real” with outcomes and a positive attitude. However, the AKRUs do not overpromise, underdeliver, and view the world with rose-colored glasses either. They are hesitant to put deadlines on paper, but when they do, watch out.
- Curious & Life Long Learner — Constantly asks questions, proactively seeks out learning opportunities and does not care if the organization pays for them or not. They’re in it to be life-long learners. They’re in it for the experience, and they don’t have any problem investing in themselves.
- Strategic — Big and Small Thinking — Anyone can purport to be strategic. It’s the AKRU who also knows that when thinking at 50,000 ft, there are also going to be a ton of implications in the weeds. They know how to balance the big picture with the devilish, dirty details, and oftentimes, it’s the dirty details that derail 99% of ‘strategic thinkers’ — they don’t think through the ramifications of big-picture thinking. AKRUs do.
- Adaptable/Flexible — Sh!t happens in companies. Overnight these days. Hour by hour, minute by minute. There needs to be a balance between routine and mundane business practices to keep things moving, along with the need to pivot if necessarily, almost instantly these days. Of all the AKRU characteristics, I think this one has been hardest for me personally (see, I’m not an AKRU yet myself) but I do think that the pandemic has taught me to loosen up a bit here. The world is unstable, and an AKRU can bring some stability just by being willing to pivot if necessary.
- Works outside the 4 walls of the org to improve the profession they’ve chosen — Just ask a potential AKRU what they do outside of their day jobs to sniff out this trait. Are they involved in a non-profit? Are they involved in a professional society or organization? Are they contributors there, or do they lead there? AKRUs are going to be leaders in something outside of their day jobs, because they feel professionally bound/obligated (and intrinsically motivated again) to improve whatever area or cause that they care about. It’s one thing to join an association, for example, but it’s another to be involved and serve the organization. AKRUs aren’t going to ‘just’ or ‘only’ do their day jobs throughout their careers.
- Inside Outsider — I think it was Peter Drucker who supported the concept of the inside-outsider, or someone at a company who leads and gets things done by connecting with others outside of the company. I quote that IBM study all the time that said for one employee having one outside company contact, the value of that contact to the organization was around $1000 extra dollars. Personally, I love connecting with people in different industries than my own. That’s how I got this potential TV show offer in the first place and the very idea that sparked this blog post!
- Trendhunter — AKRUs are obsessed with what’s next, and how to bring the better parts of what’s next to life, today. They don’t live in the future, per se, they just want to keep an eye on the future and then integrate the best of the future into today. They look ahead, lasso the best ideas, and literally pull the best ideas back into today. “Zeitgeist” is a word that they perk up and listen to… They also try to figure out how everything is connected. On the flip side, they also archive in their brains historical wins — they catalog success and understand what has worked in the past and bring it back to the party if it will create yet another win.
- On-time, Proactive, Gets Sh!t Done — As shared above, once that deadline or date is set, watch out with the AKRU, it’s going to be done. And, it might even be done ahead of schedule. Either way, it will likely also be done very well and without a lot of drama. They work hard (and maybe harder than they should) to honor their deadlines. That old adage about giving the busiest person in the room a task that needs to get done really is true with the AKRU. The hard part is getting the AKRU to say yes to the particular challenge or task, but once they say yes…stand back!
- Ownership Mindset — Much like intrinsic motivation, the AKRU is going to do everything in her/his power to act like an owner — a steward of the business. This is a great way to protect the business as well because an AKRU feels like their own personal reputation is also tied to the reputation of the business. On the flip side, if you’re running something shady or less than reputable and you have an AKRU on your team, they won’t be with you for long, as they do not want their own personal reputation damaged. They take reputation management very, very personally. This includes ownership of failures. They don’t have a problem laying on the sword if/when something goes south on their watch. Non-AKRUs will point the finger at everyone else when something goes wrong. AKRUs will own it, and take it as a learning experience for the ride.
- Keys to the Building — The AKRU also acts like they have keys to the building, and will often work outside of their job descriptions. They are the ‘swiss-army-knives’ of the organization — either creating cool new products or services, functioning in multiple areas, or stepping up and working on projects outside of the 4 corners of their original job descriptions.
- Knows Who to Bring on Stage When — AKRUs have a knack for IDing others in the org who get things done and know when to pull them into a project or a conversation. They don’t bug incessantly either. They bug… strategically.
- Grit, Tenacity — Angela Duckworth has this one right, and this is another trait that AKRUs and all employees have or do not have. Take her quiz to see how gritty you are, if you’re not sure.
- Honest, Respectful dissent, and Will sometimes p!ss people off — AKRUs stand their ground, especially when integrity issues are on the line. They’re not afraid to speak up either when things are going sideways. Welcome their gut dissent. Embrace it. If you surround yourself as a boss or manager with people that agree with you all the time, that’s a dangerous cultural precedent — no one person can be right and know everything all the time. Dissention builds great companies. Tension should be embraced. Last, prepare that the AKRU may from time to time p!ss off teammates. If there’s something the AKRU is firm on, try to understand why and where the energy is coming from, and if it’s well-founded, it’s okay if the others are PO’d from time to time. The AKRU really is doing it for the sake of overall good for the company.
- Seeks Challenges, and May burn twice as bright, but half as long — The AKRU can get bored pretty easily. They’re great at building things or saving the ship from sinking with their awesome problem-solving skills, but rote maintenance can be a slow and painful death for an AKRU. Realize that if you’re not challenging them, they will seek other opportunities to rise to a career challenge, and that may be outside of your organization. That’s okay. Don’t burn bridges with the AKRU either if or when they leave — celebrate them moving on and keep the fondness there, because one day, they might be back, or better yet, y-o-u might need something from the AKRU. They have long memories, and they can turn out to be your biggest advocates outside your company.
That’s it. Still don’t know if I’ll say yes to the TV show. But, at least I’ve put digital pen to paper on what characteristics I think the AKRU will bring to an organization, which I also think will be critical for organizations to understand if they too want to win in the future.
It’s not enough to hire employees who just show up these days. The world of work and business has become way too fragile, tumultuous, and radical not to have other leaders with you in the trenches who aren’t afraid to work hard, learn, evolve, and burn brightly. I argue every company that wants to win can win a little more easily if they have a couple of AKRUs on their team.
At least with the mental exercise: Challenge. Accepted.