Characteristics of a good small business employee

6 characteristics of a Good Small Business Employee

6 Characteristics of a good small business employee: why you need PACMAN employees

Every business owner wants to hire the right employee. But what are the key characteristics of a good small business employee?

Since 15 years old, I’ve worked for over a dozen small businesses.  I work in one now.  I’ve also worked in corporate America for several years.  But being an employee of a small business is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever attempted to do. And it’s one of the most fulfilling.

Throughout my journey in this market, I’ve gained a ton of wisdom.  I’ve also closely observed employees who were able to “cut it” and those who weren’t.  I myself have worked in both those categories!  Sometimes I was able to “cut it.”  Sometimes I didn’t. Small business hiring is all about the mysterious match between the small business work environment and the employee.

So what are some good characteristics of a good small business employee?

Working in a small business requires one to be like PAC-MAN.  One of my favorites games of all time (second only to Galaga…yes, I’m a child of the 80’s), PAC-MAN success is about observing the algorithm, plotting your course, eating the cherries, and eating the ghosts before they eat you.

In a small business, ever-shifting challenges, priorities, and issues are like the ghosts, with one exception: there is no predictable algorithm. Stuff just happens.  But sometimes you get a leg up.  Your intuition senses an opportunity and being the cherry it is, you grab it, and find a whole new path to exponential success.

I was asked several years ago to consult around helping a small business figure out whether or not the potential employees they were considering were going to be a good fit for their particular environment.  There are no surveys that I’ve found that seem to do this sort of thing.  So I resorted to a simpler start by defining key characteristics.

When I listed them out, the acronym appeared plainly:  P.A.C.M.A.N.  And I can say with a high degree of reliability that a person who is not operating with some level of sufficiency in one or more areas will eventually find himself or herself to not be a fit for the environment.  Training new people is expensive and painful.  So getting it right is key.

An employee missing one of the characteristics below will become like the string protruding from the carpet.  The normal stresses and strains of small business will pull on that string and threaten to unravel a whole section of carpet.  It’s always just a matter of time.

P is for Professional

Stuff gets rough in the small business.  Very rough at times, as a matter of fact.  If you’re a small business owner or manager, you know what I’m talking about.  And when things start going rough, professionalism can fly out the window.  Being professional is about maintaining a sense of inner and outer calm at all times.  Not because you’re trying to be something you’re not.  But because you’re calm-headed.  You understand that losing your temper or sacrificing your integrity shoots a huge hole in your boat and leave others with the bailout and clean up.

A person who has demonstrated a struggle to maintain professionalism in challenging circumstances is not a good fit in a small business environment.  They will cost you current and future customers and will sabotage employee relationships.

A is for Agile

Being agile is about being nimble and lean.  Priorities can and will stack up beyond your ability to complete them in a timely fashion. Being able to recognize which priorities are bigger than others is the first step to being agile.  The second step is being able to reorganize all the priorities as necessary, based on the shift. The third is knowing right where to jump in and start working.  Fourth, you’ve gotta work in a lean fashion, understanding where you can add the most value with the amount of time you have.

A person who has demonstrated a struggle being agile is not a good fit in a small business.  They will struggle with their attitude of inflexibility and task switching in order to complete priorities.  As a result, they will unwittingly subtract value from both the project, the customer, and the company.

C is for Context

Not cookie.  Sorry.  Contextual awareness is such a challenge with small business employees.  I’m still uncertain at this point in my life if it is something taught or caught.  Small business employees must possess an internal sense that guides them to think about the impact of a thing on all the other things around it.  People, chains of command, assets, technology, processes, cash flow, customer service, training, equipment and more are all interconnected.  A decision made in one area will impact other areas.  No action is made in a vacuum.

A person who has demonstrated a struggle with contextual awareness is not a good fit for a small business.  There are too few people, customers, assets, processes, cash flow, etc. to withstand too many poor decisions.  As a result, they will unintentionally dismantle things that have taken much blood, sweat, and tears to build.

M is for Moxie

Moxie is hard to find.  It’s about building up the nerve to take initiative, to take a risk on something.  Small businesses cannot withstand a lack of initiative.  It is a key characteristic required to identify something that needs attention, seize ownership of it, conceive of a plan, and step out in faith with a risk to handle it.  Moxie is about being courageously proactive, stepping over boundaries of fear or even taboo, and stepping into a fog of possibilities with a mindset of opportunity.

A person who has demonstrated a lack of moxie is not a good fit for a small business.  The small business has no time for clock-punchers, hourly-minded employees, or those who feel they must wait on instructions before taking an action.

A is for Adaptable

Adaptability goes hand-in-hand with agile.  Agile is about capability.  Adaptable is about attitude.  An adaptable person is flexible with shifting priorities and can also shift their attitude quickly toward new circumstances with a full-on, wholehearted mindset.  Their skills, talent, and heart all shift in unison to the task in front of them and they are energized to face it head-on.  They don’t feel bothered or deeply frustrated by the things that bother other people in such circumstances.

A person who has demonstrated a lack of adaptability is not a good fit for a small business.  The needs of the small business are unique and require an employee whose focused attitude can shift with the required changes the small business demands.

N is for Nosey

Being nosey is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it’s a good thing in the small business. Nosiness goes with moxie since a small business employee must be inquisitive about pretty much everything.  This contributes to the development of intuition.  I define this as the employee’s ability to “sniff” out root causes of problems or identify solid opportunities in the midst of many possibilities.

The employee working in a small business should combine moxie with nosiness by asking hard questions. Then they should ask why. Then ask others for help, and ask customers for more information.  Asking, asking, asking.  Small business owners and managers will probably get annoyed.  But they need to get over it. And fast.  Being nosey is often the sign that a person has an attitude of ownership.

A person who does not ask questions in a small business is dangerous and is not a good fit.  The small business is not an environment for people who just want to show up, check boxes, and go home.  Small business requires ownership-minded employees who are willing to poke around with questions and investigate problems, opportunities, and options. You can’t expect such a person to take action since they don’t know what’s going on. Employees can’t read minds.


Consider using the P.A.C.M.A.N. characteristics next time you do an employee performance review.

  1. Sketch out the characteristics on the left column of a piece of paper.
  2. Think of as many examples as possible from your previous experiences and observations of your employees. Write them down.
  3. Write down examples where their behavior or actions which may create problems or additional challenges that required your cleanup.  Be fair, though.  (If you believe you trend toward being a negative person, work hard to come up with positive examples.  If you believe you’re a generally optimistic person, look harder for honest examples of problematic behavior.)

In the end, these characteristics are not about whether an employee is necessarily lazy, dishonest, or irresponsible.  I’ve worked with many great people in small business who simply were not a fit for the environment.  The analyst in me has desperately wanted to quantify the problem.  Sometimes it wasn’t their fault.

Small business owners and managers can be very frustrating to work with for a variety of reasons.  But sometimes certain employees are just not wired in a way that makes them successful in the small business environment.  In such circumstances, act with nobility and assist the person in finding something that is a better fit.  Be earnest in genuinely caring for their future.  Treat them well and they will speak well of you and possibly recommend your next great hire!

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