Great Employees Complete the Task (Behavior #5)

Deadlines are important to people, even when seemingly set somewhat arbitrarily.  “Say what you’ll do and then do what you say,” I heard this bit of advice many times in my career.  When you reliably complete tasks on schedule, it enhances your credibility with the boss and builds your reputation as a Great Employee.

When I was a teen, my father expected me to cut the grass during the summers.  The expectation was the job would be done on the designated day before he arrived home from work.  Like many teens, however, I sometimes found myself unwilling to get off the couch.  The rationalizations for this laziness varied from “it looked like it was going to start raining” to “I spilled gas and didn’t want to risk starting a fire.”  In other words, they ranged between lame and pathetic.  When dad saw I hadn’t done the work, he would say nothing and simply go outside and do it himself.  Eventually, I began to realize this was impacting the way my father saw me – making me look like a lazy teenager (which was true).  My rationalizations were just excuses I gave myself for not getting the job done.

Eventually, I changed my ways and started getting after the grass.  I was amazed when a relatively short time later, my folks invested more trust in me in other areas.  Surprise, there was a direct link between my ability to get the lawn work done and the amount of leeway they were willing to give me.

Bosses, subordinates and the “trust thing” work much the same way.

What is meant by “completing the task”

Getting the job done is more than making a superhuman effort today on the current “emergency,” and then sliding back in to past bad practices when you aren’t recognized, rewarded, or simply feel lazy.  Trust in someone’s ability to deliver the right results on time is something that is built up over time.  The pattern is what’s important rather than just a singular event, something many employees fail to recognize.  And it takes only a single negative experience to counteract many good ones.

Consistency counts

In my experience, a single failure can offset at least ten positive experiences in the category of task completion.  And while this judgment may seem a bit harsh to the average employee, Great Employees recognize that bosses often hang their own reputations and futures on the commitments made by their subordinates.  A track record of reliably delivering what you promised when you promised it is exactly what your boss needs, and anything less is a potentially devastating embarrassment for both of you.

Be confident you can deliver

Many employees have a tough time pushing back when the boss is making unreasonable demands, but if you want to make sure you build your reputation as a “task completer” sometimes you’re going to have to do so.  Truth be told, most bosses haven’t done your job, and often don’t realize what they are asking for is difficult or maybe even impossible.  Don’t fall in the trap of always saying yes.

I once had an IT professional reporting to me that was perpetually overly optimistic on the completion dates for his projects.  In fact, I used to joke that once a project was “99% complete” at least in his estimation, we were close to half way done.  While this individual had many other positive qualities, I absolutely couldn’t rely on him to complete tasks on time.  Eventually, I was forced to bring in an outside consultant to scope projects and offer a second opinion on the effort needed to complete them – a significant added cost and a managerial time drain.

The professional in question would have been much better off giving me a pessimistic completion target date, even though I might have initially reacted to this in a negative fashion when I first heard it.

Offer extraordinary effort when really needed

Every employee needs a little reserve capacity because the time will come when those reserves need to be put to use.  Almost every job has highs and lows, and your boss appreciates it when have the ability to flex through these things without her intervention.  Keep some gas in your tank for when you need to put in extra effort to meet your deadlines, and it will enhance your reputation for reliability.

I once had an employee that loved to golf.  Whenever he could escape the office early, he could be found on the golf course getting in nine holes before dark.  I never resented these early departures (unlike a few of his peers) because when I needed him to pull out all the stops – travel, weekend work, late nights – I could count on him to get the job done.  Great Employees get more leeway from the boss because they can be counted on to perform when the pressure is at its highest.

Speak early when you can’t make it happen

As a boss, there are few things worse than the employee that continues to reassure you she will get a project done on schedule, and then ultimately fails.  This behavior often happens when an employee who desperately doesn’t want to disappoint holds onto a slim but unlikely hope that a miracle will rescue them.  When that doesn’t happen – which is usually the case – they damage their own reputation and often inadvertently deliver a blow to the reputation of their boss, as well.

Projects or other tasks that are in danger of failing to meet their deadlines MUST be brought up well before disaster strikes.  Sometimes the boss has alternatives not open to the subordinate (like assigning added resources, or authorizing outside purchases that will help in the completion of the task).  At a minimum, however, the boss needs to be able to warn her boss of potential problems.  Yes, it might negatively impact one’s reputation, but only a smidge compared to an outright failure.

Why the boss needs you to be reliable

Bosses have their own “task completion” records to be concerned about, and as they usually don’t perform the actual work themselves, they rely on their subordinates to properly (and most often, conservatively) estimate progress and make deadlines.  When an employee demonstrates an inability to reliably complete tasks assigned, it causes their manager to second guess everything they say.  This soaks up managerial time and causes friction between boss and subordinate.  And despite intervention, an unreliable employee will often still fail to bring their projects to a successful conclusion.

I had a bright subordinate once that simply couldn’t seem to hit his own due dates for new product introductions (admittedly one of the tougher targets to reliably deliver).  This resulted in wasted marketing expenditures, backpedaling with distributors, and lots of apologies to my boss.  Despite the employee’s obvious intelligence and creativity, I was only too happy to let him go during a cyclical downturn.

What a Great Employee should do

Great Employees promise workable deadlines and then they deliver.  A Great Employee will refuse to take on a project if the deadlines are overly aggressive or if the project seems too risky, a behavior that might annoy the boss at the time but protects everyone over the long haul.  The Great Employee will also sound alarms early if tasks appear to be at risk of heading off track, giving the boss time to react. Whenever possible, the Great Employee follows up warnings of possible problems with proposals for working around the issue.  Lastly, the Great Employee can be found kicking in the afterburners when extra effort is what is needed to get a project across the finish line.

Can you take “completing the task” too far?

Two areas are sometimes problematic for Great Employees where it concerns reliably completing tasks.  Some prospective Great Employees simply bite off more than they can chew, loading up on task after task until they hamper their ability to deliver results on time.  This comes from a well-meaning desire to give the boss what she needs, and is sometimes accompanied by an inability to assess each new task in the context of what the subordinate already has on his plate.  I’ve seen this scenario play out numerous times in the past, and it generally leads to a frustrated and overworked subordinate who is letting things slip through the cracks.  It is much better to ask for help under these circumstances than to continue on past the breaking point.  Bosses don’t want their star subordinate to quit or have a nervous breakdown.

The second problem area is similar, where the subordinate is simply overly optimistic about the amount of time needed to complete a job.  Most bosses won’t expect complete perfection when taking stabs at delivery dates for a complex, long-range project, but systemically underestimating (for whatever reason) creates problems for the boss further up the managerial chain.  Best to under promise and over deliver, than the opposite – regardless of how much the boss pushes for more faster.


Great Employees deliver results when they say they will with few exceptions.  They are appropriately conservative in their estimates of time required to complete projects and other tasks (without going overboard) and push back when the boss inappropriately pushes them for too much.  On those rare occasions when the Great Employee misses a deliverable, they provide their boss plenty of warning and spare no effort in an attempt to get as close to the original targets as possible.  Lastly, the Great Employee recognizes that their reputation for completing the task is directly related to their boss’s reputation, and makes all efforts to protect both.