Career Coach: Don't wait to be asked; take some initiative

Recently I was talking to a group of senior executives about leadership. I asked them the question "what do you most want from your employees at work?" So many of them mentioned initiative. I probed further to try to understand what exactly they meant and why it was so important for employees to show initiative at work.

They lamented that so many employees just wait around for someone to tell them what to do. So when they see an employee who offers to help out before being asked, it really stands out. Some leaders said that taking initiative is one of the most important factors when considering someone for career advancement in the company.

It's not just about helping out the boss, but anyone who looks like they could use help. For example, a co-worker is trying to finish a project and seems harried and another employee sees this and offers to pitch in - that's initiative. Other ways you can show initiative are:

• Ask colleagues "is there anything I can help you out with today."

• Take on those boring projects or tasks that no one else wants to do. Be the first to volunteer.

• Let your boss know that you are ready and willing to take on more challenging tasks. But first, make sure you do an excellent job at your own tasks.

• Try to figure things out on your own without constantly asking others how to do something. Read the manual or look something up online to learn as much as you can before having to ask someone what to do. Managers are often really busy and don't have a lot of time to explain things in detail so if you can look things up.

• Work extra hours to make sure you have mastered how to do something.

• Be on the lookout for how to improve what you are doing. As Victor Hugo said, "Initiative is doing the right thing without being told."

• Offer suggestions for ways to improve processes at work. Volunteer to follow through with your ideas.

• Offer ideas for how the firm can save money and reduce costs.

• Come prepared. Show that you did the reading to be well-informed before you meet with a client or offer a suggestion. In those slow periods at work, read up on things, take training classes, or look for ways to get more informed about the firm and its businesses.

• Show persistence when faced with obstacles or difficulties in getting something done. A person who shows initiative rarely has a defeatist attitude.

• Check out Bob Nelson's book, "1001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work."

In addition to showing initiative at work, you may also be asked about how you have shown initiative in a job interview. Be prepared to answer this question. First, think about what an employer is trying to learn about you with this question. They really want to know if you are able to identify opportunities to make improvements and then followed up on those, if you came up with your own ideas and were able to implement them, and what the end results were. I've known some students who have done incredibly well answering these questions because they were very active in their programs by creating new clubs or programs when they saw needs or gaps. The same goes for employees who spotted opportunities to improve customer relations and then came up with ideas and shared them with management.

If you are one of those employees who can show initiative on the job, you will clearly stand out. As Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, once said, "There are three types of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened."

Which type of person will your colleagues and bosses say you are?

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Joyce E.A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She can be reached at

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