Initiative refers to the ability to do things that need to be done without being asked. If you have initiative, you’re going to look for ways you can improve things and take action.
People with initiative are desirable employees because they have good work ethic, look for ways to ensure everything is running smoothly in the office, and are low-maintenance employees.
As a result, you’ll often find that potential employers will ask in interviews for examples of when you have taken initiative in the past. They want to see a clear, specific, and personal example of how you step up and go out of your way to do things – without being asked!
- Cleaning up a mess without anyone asking you to do it.
- Restocking an empty shelf as a supermarket employee even when it’s not your responsibility.
- Vacuuming the floors at work when you have no other jobs to do.
- Asking around for the information you don’t have rather than waiting for someone to approach you.
- Letting your boss know you want a promotion rather than sitting around and waiting for a job position to come up.
- Volunteering to take the lead on a project at work or school
- Approaching someone you have your eye on to ask them out on a date.
- Starting a petition about a social issue you strongly care about.
- Joining a volunteer organization to make a different in your community.
- Visiting a friend in mourning to see if you can do anything to make their life a little easier.
- Being the friend who keeps the group in touch after high school.
- Organizing a family reunion so you all stay in touch every year.
- Cleaning your house before it gets filthy.
- Cold calling potential customers to sell products and start your business.
- Stepping in to diffuse a tense situation rather than standing by and watching an argument happen.
- Fundraising for a charity or non-profit organization to help them do good in the world.
- Cooking dinner for your family or roommates to show them that you care.
- Walking the neighbor’s dog while they are out of town because you can see it needs exercise.
- Shoveling snow from sidewalks in your neighborhood to keep everyone safe.
- Donating blood or plasma regularly even though you don’t have to.
- Helping a stranger carry their groceries to their car when you see they’re having trouble.
- Identifying a problem at work before it arises and taking action to avert the issue.
- Setting up security cameras around your home before, not after, a break-in.
- Emailing after an interview to follow up and show your potential employer that you don’t just sit around and wait.
- Suggesting a new workplace policy if you see the need for better standards at work.
- Identifying a new innovation for your workplace and implementing it to increase productivity.
- Putting your hand up to take minutes at a meeting when no one else offers.
- Approaching customers before they ask for help so they don’t feel frustrated and have a good experience in your store.
- Contacting management to let them know something is wrong rather than just assuming someone else will do it.
- Taking night classes to advance your career.
- Approaching your professor for clarification on your homework task rather than just not doing it.
- Starting a business if you can’t get a job rather than complaining about the job market.
- Starting a savings fund so you won’t find yourself low on funds in retirement.
- Applying for multiple jobs rather than assuming you’ll get the first job you interview for.
- Organizing a date with your husband or wife rather than just assuming they will do it.
- Surprising your partner with flowers on their birthday.
- Taking couples therapy to address problems in your relationship before they become big issues and cause you to get a divorce.
Related: Examples of Being Proactive
How to Show Initiative for an Interview or Resume
1. Prepare a Special Presentation
Most people who interview for your job will turn up and, simply, answer questions the hiring committee asks. But a person with initiative will turn up with something extra to wow the employers.
One thing you could do is prepare a special presentation, like pretending you’re giving a pitch on Shark Tank or preparing hand-outs that demonstrate exactly how you will help solve the problems being faced by the company right now.
By taking the initiative to do something above and beyond, you’re not just telling the employers that you have initiative. You’re showing it in your actions, which is far more powerful!
2. Send a Follow-Up Email
The quintessential way that people show that they have initiative to employers is by sending follow-up emails. This shows that you’ve not only performed in the interview, but you’re also the sort of person who takes the steps to follow up and build relationships.
In your follow up email, you should clarify questions or give extra details that support things you said in the interview. If you saw that the hiring committee was really engaged on a particular topic, you could also follow up by sharing something interesting about the point that you were discussing.
3. Apply for a Job Even if it Isn’t Advertised
As an employer, I’ve employed many people who have reached out to me via email with ideas about how they can solve issues in my business.
These people don’t wait for jobs to land on their laps. They go out and find ways they can be helpful! This level of ambition always impresses me.
To start, you could make a list of the top 5 firms in your city that you’d love to work for. Email the hiring committees and let them know you’re available! Sell them on why you’d be a valuable asset to the company, and what you can do to solve their problems!
Cold calling may be annoying, but you can’t deny that the people who get on the phone and reach out to you have taken a great deal of initiative!
4. Ask Follow-Up Questions (Before They Ask You!)
In most interviews, the hiring committee will ask follow-up questions at the end of the interview. They may, for example, ask the dreaded question: “do you have anything else to ask us?”
If you don’t have additional follow-up questions to ask, you’ll appear like you don’t have initiative. Someone with initiative will jump forward and ask questions like: “what are the problems you’d like the future employee to solve in the workplace?” and “what opportunities are there for leading projects in the department?”
Use this follow-up questions section to craft questions that someone with initiative would have. In other words, ask questions that show your ambition and willingness (even eagerness!) to find ways to add value in the workplace.
5. Show you’re a Go-Getter
A lot of people straight out of college apply for jobs, but far fewer come to a job interview showing they didn’t wait to start getting involved in their career interests. The most impressive college grads have volunteered or taken up internships to show their enthusiasm for their career choice.
Shyness, fear of failure, and lack of self-confidence are central reasons people don’t take initiative. And it’s common that people are too shy and nervous to get involved in volunteering.
Nevertheless, there are some great benefits of joining volunteer organizations. You can make contacts and meet friends, but just as importantly, you can demonstrate in a future interview that you have shown the initiative to get involved in your community!
How to Show Initiative at Work
1. Clean Up a Mess (Without Being Asked)
One of the simplest examples of initiative is seeing a mess and cleaning it up.
Some people will walk straight past a mess without cleaning it up. They may have seen it and not thought it was their responsibility, they may have ignored it to try to avoid the responsibility, or they may have seen the mess and it didn’t even cross their mind to clean it up.
Neither of those scenarios show initiative.
An ideal employee would be someone who saw a mess and instantly bounced into action to get it cleaned up. They don’t look for people to blame. They don’t find ways to avoid responsibility. They see a problem and go straight to solving it.
2. Restocking an Empty Shelf (Even if it’s not your responsibility)
Stocking shelves is a very common responsibility for people in their first job. I remember my first job in a retail store, it was part of my job to restock the drinks shelf.
Sometimes, I would see that the chips shelf was empty. Even though it wasn’t my job, I would take responsibility to do the job because it was something that needed to be done. I did it not because it was my job, but because I knew that I was a part of a business so I should do anything I could to ensure everything gets done.
Similarly, seeing a row of drinks missing means I should take the initiative to add some more drinks to the shelf. This might require a little multitasking, such as adding the drinks to the shelf for 5 minutes during a lull in customer service.
3. Vacuuming the Floors if There’s Nothing Else to Do at Work
This is story of a time when I didn’t show initiative and it set a terrible first impression with my new boss.
I once worked as an assistant in a ski school. It was the first day of work and I had just finished organizing the classes for the school and send the kids out to ski. I went inside and sat down for a moment’s breath.
My boss, at the most inopportune moment, pointed to me and said “Chris … what are you doing? How about you vacuum the floor?”
In this instance, my boss had made a judgement: I don’t have initiative. She also showed me what I should do in a moment of downtime. I should look around for a task to do. The one lesson I learned from this situation was that when there’s nothing else left to do, you can always get out the vacuum.
4. Letting your Boss Know you Want a Promotion
This is another example of a time I lacked initiative. My friend and I both worked in a retail store and (personally) I felt I was a harder worker.
But it didn’t matter how hard I worked. I lacked a certain type of initiative: I didn’t ask for a raise or a promotion! I expected my boss to notice my hard work and reward me without any questions.
My friend, on the other hand, got several raises (which he didn’t tell me about until years later) because he told his boss: I need more money. He ended up getting a promotion faster than me as well, likely because he would nag his boss about it.
In this instance, I lacked the initiative to ask for what I wanted. Instead, I was passive and simply expecting things to land on my lap.
5. Asking for Help When you Need It
Sometimes, people think that asking for help is not initiative. But asking for help shows that you’re taking steps to improve.
For example, you could imagine two people. One person knows that they’re an average employee, but instead of trying to get better, they put their head down and home they’re not noticed.
The other employee knows they’re not doing a great job so they go to their boss and ask for some advice. They might as “what is there that I could do to help the team some more?” or “can you give me some feedback on an area for improvement in my work?” These sorts of questions demonstrate that you’re active and engaged in seeking self-improvement.
How to Show Initiative in your Personal Life
1. Clean your House!
Sometimes you walk into someone’s house and it’s filthy! You ask the person why they don’t clean and they just say it’s not a priority.
In my family, it’s my job to clean the house every Friday. If I don’t do it, I’ll be getting a tap on the shoulder and I’ll be told that I’ve been lazy! If it reaches this point, I’ll know that I haven’t taken any initiative this week.
A person who cleans their house is clearly someone who takes the initiative to ensure they live in comfort and cleanliness. In fact, you need a lot of initiative to simply remain clean and healthy.
2. Be The Friend Who Keeps In Touch
Everyone has had the experience of losing touch with friends. Maybe you had wondered why they didn’t bother to check-in with you to keep in touch. But, they may have thought the same about you!
So, every friendship group needs a friend who makes sure everyone stays in touch.
I have one good friend who is excellent at this, and I admire her for it. She will message me monthly to check-in, no matter how long we’re apart. This makes it so much easier for us to keep in touch and whenever she comes through town, I’m excited to see her. She’s inspired me to make sure I choose five people who I’ll always text to check-in on and not let too much time has passed.
3. Start a Petition
People who start petitions are often the people who are passionate, have the initiative to do something about things that everyone else is thinking and worrying about, but not doing anything to solve!
For example, you and your friends might be complaining about the lack of recycling services in your town. You might all think that it’s wasteful for the town to just bury everything in a pit.
While all your friends complain, you might be the person who ends up putting together a petition, sharing it on social media, and getting all the signatures. In this instance, you’re the person who’s not only identified a problem, but went to the effort of doing something about it.
4. Approach Someone you Have your Eye On!
An example of initiative in your personal life might be approaching a guy or girl you fancy and starting a conversation. It’s scary and risky, but it’s the only way you’ll get to know them!
Perhaps you have both been interested in one another for a while, but neither of you had the initiative to approach one another and start the conversation!
In this situation, the fact of the matter is that the only way to know whether you’ll get along and be a good match is if you make the first move. If it doesn’t work out, then at least you know.
I wouldn’t use this example in an interview though – perhaps stick to school and work examples!
These are only a few of the countless examples of initiative. There are many more out there. The best way to show initiative is by giving examples of when you have taken responsibility for something and acted on it without others asking you to.
While the above examples are great, the best ones are ones you have come up with personally. Think about a time when you have taken the initiative to do something – it can be anything, no matter how small.
If you can show initiative, you’ll be well on your way to becoming the type of person that others look to for leadership. Remember, initiative is all about taking action and not being afraid to put yourself out there. So go out there and show the world what you’re made of!
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.