The Hill Life: Taking Direction

Last weekend, I joined the Women’s Congressional Staff Association at their Summer Leadership Conference. During our panel discussion, someone asked us what separates a good staffer from an exceptional staffer.  It’s an excellent question, and I thought it would make an excellent topic for a Hill Life post.

The best answer to the question came from Pepper Pennington-Natonski, Rep. Webster’s Chief of Staff.  She made the point that an exceptional staffer is someone who can perform tasks competently with minimal supervision.  As she pointed out, as a COS, she doesn’t have a lot of time to answer questions or repeatedly give a staffer direction on how to complete an assignment.  Being able to hand off a project to another staffer and know that it will get done, and get done right is a big part of what makes a staffer indispensable.

I agree completely that one of the most important qualities in a staffer is the ability to work well solo.  But I also think that being accountable and able to accept constructive criticism are probably the most important qualities that a junior staffer can possess.  Because when you’re on the lower rungs of the ladder the ability to accept responsibility for your mistakes and learn from the criticism that your superiors give you is how you make the jump to legislative aide, press secretary and beyond.  Too many young staffers want to argue with their boss or give excuses for why things went wrong when just taking your licks and promising to be more diligent in the future is often the best course of action.

Even if you don’t work on the Hill, I want to hear what you think. What quality distinguishes a good employee from a great one?  

Leave a Reply to KC · cancel comment


  1. Shannon says:

    I would say the ability to anticipate. A good staffer does what is asked. A great staffer takes the extra step without being asked. For example, a good staffer books a meeting. A great staffer does some research and pulls together the necessary materials for the meeting before being asked to do so.

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  2. CH says:

    I read an article recently (will add the link if I can remember where it was) on the most important qualities for succeeding in today's workplace. Being able to self-start and requiring minimal direction/supervision was the highest on the list. The article noted that people who can only do what they're told are the most expendable workers in any business.

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  3. Anne says:

    Keep in mind that young staffers are going to have some questions when they're learning new tasks but there is a way to ask the question so that the supervisor doesn't get too annoyed. Rather than saying “I don't know what to do” present what your understanding of the assignment is and ask for confirmation.

    Don't be afraid to ask questions when you need to, just be smart about it.

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  4. KC says:

    I agree with Anne. Wouldn't you rather take a few moments to answer a few questions rather than getting a project that is done completely wrong?

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  5. CB says:

    To add to Anne and KC – I don't mind answering a question; I mind having to answer it a second time because you didn't write down the answer or just plain forgot.

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  6. Jennifer says:

    I think t depends on the industry. At my current job, everyone is constantly checking and rechecking each other's work, it is part of the nature of my job and the culture of the firm that everything we do is constantly being edited to avoid mistakes. In my job the best quality is attention to detail and being able to collaborate on everything, because everything we produce will be worked out by at least 3 different people but still has to look like 1 cohesive report.

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  7. Nancy M. says:

    I work in a lab with grad students, professional scientists and all sorts of interns. What separates the good from the bad interns that I train is if they take notes on what I tell them to do. There are so many details, and if you're not taking notes, you're not going to be able to replicate the work on your own. I'm so surprised at how many kids I train that won't take notes, even after I ask them to!

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  8. Anne says:

    To add to the advice about taking notes…Never go into a meeting whether formal or informal without a notebook and pen.

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  9. Shannon says:

    I'd even suggest carrying a small notebook and pen wherever you go in the office – you never know when someone will ask you a question or give you a task, and writing it down means you won't forget as soon as you return to your desk.

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  10. APW says:

    Another quality that separates the average staffers from the exceptional ones, is the attitude that no task is too large or small. Taking initiative and being a self-starter is wonderful, however a staffer should never have that attitude that a task is “beneath them.” There are less desirable tasks in every office, but if a staffer accepts them with the attitude that they are giving one-hundred percent effort and attitude, I am much more willing to give them more difficult tasks in the future.

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  11. CH says:

    Anne, I don't think anyone is trying to say that you should never ask questions or request clarification. There's a huge difference between asking a question vs. waiting to be told what to do, and then doing only what you're told without ever going above and beyond.

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  12. BG says:

    I would say the willingness to do ANY assignment given to you; going beyond the call of duty; and asking for work to do rather than just sitting there hoping someone will come to you with an assignment. That is what I did when I was starting off as a temp in my office, and in doing so they offered me permanent employment.

    June 20, 2012/Reply
  13. Lolo says:

    I work for a bridal designer with multiple brands and i always come across employees and interns that are not willing to stay pass 5pm or come in 30 minutes early. Dedication is important, my job is 24/7 and i need to support team members to do their job, do not ask dumb questions. I 'm a firm believer that there's such a thing as a dumb question, a question that has already been answered. Also do not fight me about a plan of action to get the task done. if you have a better and more efficient way, just do it show you it works.

    June 20, 2012/Reply