Are you a five-tool employee?

Last week, a friend reminded me of a post I wrote last year called “the five-tool employee.” Seems like a good time to revisit the concept.

Last week, Dachis Group acquired Headshift. But we are always interested in speaking with talented professionals.

The people I want to work with are the five-tool players. In baseball, a five-tool player hits for average and power, runs the bases with speed and smarts, throws like a cannon, and fields like a safety net. Every hiring manager wants these players, whether it’s a role in a startup or a Fortune 50 organization.

In business, the five-tool employee is one who:

  1. Gets things done with results to show for their effort – no excuses for failure
  2. Accomplishes things that are remarkable – above and beyond what’s expected
  3. Exercises sound decision-making skills, acting quickly and decisively
  4. Communicates well and can convince others to act
  5. Deals well with ambiguity, makes order where others see confusion

Five-tool employees are rare and worth retaining.  They’ll have many chances to succeed, because they naturally create value for their companies and opportunities for themselves.

If you read the description above and sense an uncanny resemblance to yourself, drop me a line at I’m interested in hearing from people with interest and experience in business partner optimization, workforce collaboration, or customer engagement.

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  1. Have a question for you Peter Kim. So can you self proclaim yourself a 5 tool employee or does someone have to proclaim you as this 5 tool employee. The reason I ask is that I look at the list and feel I have those tools in my toolbox and have demostrated them time and time again, but sometimes #3 and #5 cause stress for the non-five tool employee. When doing #5 you have to leverage the heck out of #3. Sometimes #3 seems outspoken, fly-by-seat-of-ones-pants, decide w/o all facts, renegade to the non-5tool employee. So what suggestions do you have within #4 and #2 to convince or show #3 and #5 is what the company needs more of!

    Thanks for making the list and these are good social business role traits everyone should adopt!

  2. Hi Keith – I think someone who’s realistic can self-assess. It’s important to empathize with an external viewpoint that sets expectations high enough, rather than justifying answers based on niche examples.

  3. I believe that I am a 5 tool employee and, before I became self-employed, I was often sought out by co-workers to help with projects because of my talents. Strangely, I found that this set of skills was not been seen by my supervisors as a benefit, but as a threat. I’ve never wanted to be the “Director” or “Supervisor”, and turned down supervisory positions in order to have the ability to continue doing what I loved. I just want to do the best job possible and don’t need my name on a door to feel proud of what I’ve accomplished. If my organization looks good, I believe that I look good by association with the team in charge. I wonder how many other 5 tool employees run into this scenario?

  4. Lisa, you’re not alone – I received a couple of emails yesterday that echoed similar sentiment. I think part of this is human nature, part is legacy structure, and both show how current approaches are broken, especially for high performers.

  5. Peter,

    Was overlaying our desired employee traits on top of this list, and a lot of alignment. Two characteristics that we look for in our employees are two intangibles of passion (for what we/you do; to be better than you/we are today) and energy (to want to make things happen). Think your #2 (remarkable) is shorthand for these two.

    Thanks for these good thoughts.


  6. Peter, as I mentioned via Twitter to you, this post is more descriptive of what it takes to run one’s own business than of being an employee. As Lisa suggests, such people are perceived to be a “threat” in the workplace. The reason for this, I would argue, is because organizational culture cannot actually withstand this “perfect” employee. Most organizations would actually disintegrate if employees “acts quickly and decisively,” or provides “above and beyond” performance every time. Take, for example, United Airlines, as per Lisa’s example. If every employee acted “quickly and decisively” with *their own discretion*, the organization would no longer cater to the Elite travelers and perhaps even lose much of its profitability.

    The “5-tool employee” doesn’t really belong in a large organization. Instead, this person actually should be running their own business or not-for-profit agency. They are likely too autonomous for, say, a bank.

    But what bothered me about this post was that it creates a normative expectation that is simply unachievable for most people. Take Lisa’s example of customer service in United Airlines. When you (who has a great deal of influence) write a post like this, people read it, expect it of themselves and aspire to become this type of employee. When they are embedded in the real structure of their organization, they will be oftentimes stymied. They may blame themselves (perhaps what Keith is doing?).

    I would temper such a post with a recognition that not all organizations support a person’s desire to self-actualize in this way. Moreover, many of them actually discourage this kind of progression.

  7. Sam – thanks for the comment; this helps me understand your point of view much better than on Twitter.

    You are correct in thinking in executive terms; this post was heavily sourced from one I wrote in January 2007 on CMO characteristics. ( ) 18 months later, I added characteristics based on high performers (and low performers) who I had managed over the years.

    To your point about organizational culture not being able to withstand these employees, I say don’t hate the player, hate the game. I try to give my employees clear goals and expectations, while enabling them with the tools they require to get the job done well. If an employee can’t thrive in a company culture, they should probably find another place to work that better suits their skills. Regarding United Airlines, they’re not profitable at all and could probably stand to open up a bit. Surely you have “United Breaks Guitars” in mind – what if the people Dave Carroll had been dealing with people who worked in an organization with a Ritz-Carlton sense of employee empowerment instead?

    Being a five-tool employee doesn’t give everyone a McKinsey-like right to dissent. In fact, part of communicating well means knowing when to keeps one’s mouth shut. I may be misreading your direction on the definition of autonomy, but I don’t think great employees are always attempting to break organizational boundaries.

    I do think any employee in any industry at any level can possess five tools. Another way of describing these people would be “possessing a leadership point of view.” (I learned that from Professor Jim Clawson at Virginia, have never read “Who Moved My Cheese” BTW.) These people see what needs to be done and then go and do it. Notice I didn’t say they go and do things like a bull in a china shop, as you seem to imply. True leaders understand how to act effectively, in context.

    I agree that not all organizations desire loose cannon employees who challenge authority and act on whim. I believe all organizations desire five-tool employees who can operate effectively within corporate boundaries – question when necessary – and help the business achieve its goals. It’s up to companies to create an environment where these people can be effective.

    In my experience, it’s been extremely frustrating to manage employees who only possess two or three tools. As I build my current company, I certainly only want to hire and work with people who can bring all five to the table.

    Thanks for the thoughts – very valuable in helping me think through this issue further.

  8. Wow, I’m trying to see ANY downside of a candidate who can bring those things to the table.

    Re-read the list: “results oriented, outstanding, decisive, effective in communication, a strong leader, adept at extracting order from chaos.”

    [Ok, that’s actually a 6-Tool player, but we’ll spot them one. I’d take 5 of the 6 any day.]

    In fact, I write these attributes into every job description I’ve ever posted. I try to build teams that are action-oriented, seeking to move their organizations beyond the status quo. They embrace change. They innovate.

    They ask crazy questions like, “so why can’t we do that ?!”

    Anything less is to settle for mediocrity, and there’s no competitive advantage on that score card. I guess it’s about priorities.

    I’d rather play on teams that know how to win.

    Chris (@SourcePOV)
    Cary, NC

  9. Peter, I agree in principle with your search for the five-tool employee. As a former manager, and now entrepreneur, I was always in search of the 5TE. I wanted a team of superstars. But there were a few problems with this strategy. 5TE’s tend to always be in search of their next big challenge, and that wasn’t always with me. 5TE’s tend to command larger salaries. Big salaries aren’t practical in some businesses and sometimes the economics don’t work out, no matter how productive the employee. And finally, occasionally I passed over three and four-tool employees in search of the 5TE. Some times those threes and fours tend to be long-term, loyal employees who provide years of valuable service. What I finally decided was that the best formula wasn’t a full team of 5TE’s but a hybrid team. After all, the 5TE’s need someone they can teach and mentor.

  10. In his “Labor Day Manifesto for a New World”, John Hagel does a nice job of articulating why five-tool employees might struggle within their more traditional organizations – as described by Lisa Jenkins and Sam Ladner.

    NOTE: The posting is on his Edge Perspectives Blog at:

    For example:

    “(passionate creatives) experience deep frustration today with the institutional barriers that have been put in their way as they seek to more effectively achieve their full potential.”


    “We are profoundly frustrated by the daily obstacles that we encounter at every turn. We see all the possibilities, but experience firsthand the barriers that keep these possibilities far out on the horizon rather than within our grasp. {snip} We quickly learn that our passions are viewed as deeply subversive, rather than as treasured assets. As a consequence, many of us have fled these institutions and learned to build independent platforms that are more suitable for pursuing the work that we love.”

    Will the Dachis Group support Passionate Creatives with the transformation of their institutions? It’s pretty clear that they have already begun to attract a community of US

  11. Interesting argument in the comments on where five tools belong… in or out of large organizations. My view is that persecution, of the five tool employees of large organizations, stems from an apathy or comfort level (call it whatever-but it exists) afflicting middle management. Executives for the most part, were five tools at one point in time. They don’t stay in middle management very long before navigating upward. Leaving non-five tool middle managers in the position of “developing” up and coming five tools along with everybody else.

    We all tend to like people like us, so conflict is designed into this system.

    With middle management as a buffer, executive five tools have limited insight into the identification and development of high potential five tools. It’s difficult to jump the chain of command to get noticed without drawing negative attention to yourself… Not every up and comer can navigate a path through middle management, so some go elsewhere and others decide to try their luck on their own, as Lisa pointed out.

    The idea of an organization full of five tools should sound like a dream come true to any five tool, though. It does to me anyway. Analogous to playing at All-Star weekend in the NBA. Everyone respects what everyone brings to the table and real work gets done without it seeming like work.

    Count me in. 🙂

  12. This definitely reminds me of the Scott Adams idea of not being in the top 1% of a certain discipline, but spreading yourself to be in the top 10-25% of a number of different skill-sets…

    I think that there’s a generational gap in thinking in this way, though; boomers love the idea of a ‘career’ and a solid set of vocational qualifications, whereas those who come later are beginning to appreciate the value of ‘soft-skills’ (egads, I hate that phrase). The difficulty, as I see it, lies in discovering these skill sets early on. The myers-briggs and other batteries of psychometric tests are particularly bad at discerning skills like this. I’m cautiously optimistic that employers will begin to realise this and will be asking for more stories/narrative from prospective employees about situations they have been in and addressed (including failure!). That and the wider visibility of employees online should help organisations make decisions when hiring.

  13. I liked all pieces of Sam’s reply and agree with her. The issue we could be facing is that there is a so-called danger in setting our employees up for failure. We simply cannot expect “all” employees to possess these 5-tools. This is not like expecting employees to have a healthy, friendly environment, or expecting them to have excellent communication skills. The possession of “these” 5-tools (as explained in your post) are something much bigger and at a totally different level. I agree with Sam that reading this, employees may start to expect this of themselves, regardless of how much knowledge or experience they have in the field they are in. While some employees are natural and these traits come naturally to them, other employees may have to work on developing these and that may sometimes take years. I want to actually go to the extent of saying, that some employees/people may never be able to develop or master all these 5-tools, and I dont think there is anything wrong with that either. You will and should have all types of people in the team. Not everyone in a project team needs to be a team leader, not everyone needs to be an over-achiever. As a project manager, I can create a “dream-team”, but I have to be realistic. As a business owner, I can try to mentor my employees in this direction, but I cannot let them go, merely beause they dont possess “all” these 5-tools.

    Regarding your comment about you only wanting to hire employees with all these 5-tools, I think while you can look for the existence of some or all of these, and may be able to identify a few in a potential candidate, I am not sure how you can really identify all 5 tools in a potential candidate? Dont you think, some of these traits only become apparent when they actually start to work? I think you can definitely look for the traits in a potential candidate that give you a signal yay or nay, that this employee will be headed in the right direction.

    Also, the organization also needs to support these employees. I would be very interested in knowing how is it playing out in your organization, where all employees possess all the 5 tools.

    Great topic, btw.

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Being: Peter Kim