Becoming an Exceptional Employee - The Parable of the Yams

How To Become An Exceptional Employee – The Parable of the Yams.

Being an exceptional employee pays off with greater responsibilities, higher salaries, and more frequent promotions.  Unfortunately, many people struggle to know exactly what it takes to become a really exceptional employee. 

For most managers, entrepreneurs and CEOs, having a great team is a critical determinant of business outcomes and an underlying contributor to success. As such, there is a real need for leaders to be able to vividly illustrate the kind of people you need as teammates.  

A vivid illustration of how to become an exceptional employee is a simple story known as The Parable of the Yams

A young man had the desire to work for a well-paying, prestigious company.  He prepared his curriculum vitae, did several interviews and landed an entry-level position in the company. He then turned his ambition to his next goal: a supervisor position that would grant him even more prestige and a higher salary. He completed the tasks assigned to him. He was always an early bird to work and would work late so his boss would see him put in the extra time. Five years down the line, a supervisor position became available. But, much to the young man’s dismay, another young man who had only worked for six months, was promoted in his stead. The young man was very disappointed and unhappy and so went to his boss for an explanation. 

His boss listened to his complaint and asked if he could do him a favour. The young man agreed and his boss gave him Five Thousand Naira (N5,000.00) and asked him to go to a particular market and buy some yam. He mentioned that the yam was needed by his wife.

 The young man agreed and went to the store and returned with the yams, receipt and change. His boss then asked him what type of yam he bought to which the young man responded that he did not know. He then asked him how much each of the tubers of yam cost. The young man’s response was that he was not sure. He however assured his boss that the change was accurate as confirmed by the receipt.

His boss thanked him and asked the young man to sit down and observe the following event carefully. He then went ahead to call in the employee who had been promoted instead of the young man and gave him the same task.   

He quickly agreed and went to the market. 

On his return, the boss asked, “What type of yam did you buy?” 

“Well,” he replied, “the market had many types: there were the regular yam, water yam and cocoyam. For the regular yam, they had the kind that is best for just boiling and the kind that is best for pounding. I didn’t know which type to buy. But I remembered you said your wife needed yams, so I called her.  She said that she was having a party and was going to make pounded yam, so I asked the seller which of all these yams would make the best pounded yam and that’s what I bought. I dropped the yams off with your wife at home and she was very pleased. 

“How much did the yams cost? the boss asked. 

“Well, that was a problem while I was at the market. I didn’t know how much to buy, so I  called your wife again to ask her how many guests she was expecting for the party. She said 30. I then asked the seller how many tubers of yam would make pounded yam enough for 30 people. Due to the quantity involved, I asked the seller if I could get a discount to which she obliged.  These tubers of yam normally cost Seven Hundred Naira (N700.00) each, but I only paid Five Hundred Naira (N500.00). Here is the balance and the invoice.”

The boss thanked him and asked him to return to his desk.

He then turned to the young man and before he could say a word, the young man rose, apologised and left.

 There is an obvious difference between the two young men even as they both performed the same task successfully. We can say that one of them went the extra mile, or that one paid attention to detail or that one was more efficient and resourceful.

However, it all boils down to one key factor – What is your source of motivation?

It has to do with the actual intention rather than just going through the motions. The first young man was motivated and driven by money, position and prestige while the second young man was driven by an intense desire to please his employer and a deep commitment to being the best version of himself. See the benefits of self-awareness and personal development here.

Anyone can be an exceptional employee if that is their true intention. But the real intention has to come from within. It does not come from external motivations such as money or position. It comes from a  desire to do the right thing for the right reason, with a deep-seated commitment to always do the best in everything you do. Exceptional employees are focused on helping others be more successful and, they inevitably, evolve into great leaders in the process.

Adapted from an article by Amy Rees Anderson.

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