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How to use your initiative at work

You’ve probably heard a lot about using your initiative – in fact, it’s become a bit of a buzzword lately. It’s also one of those terms that can be quite hard to pin down.

This is a bit of a problem, because the ability to use your initiative skills is really important to employers – in a recent survey, they rated it their fifth most sought-after skill! This post helps you understand just what is meant by “using your initiative” so you can hone your skills, and we also provide examples of showing initiative at work so you can speak confidently about it in interviews.

'Initiative means being the person to come up with ideas - often before being asked'

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What is initiative?

Initiative is related to the word “initiate”, or “start”, which is a good way of remembering what it means, because using your initiative is all about getting things started under your own steam. If you hear words like “self-starter”, “self-motivated” or “proactive” – which are favourites of employers and often appear in job descriptions – they’re all connected with initiative.

Simply put, using your initiative means being the person to seize an idea and get it off the ground – often, before it's been asked for. This makes it as much a way of thinking as a skill, which is good news because it means it’s not difficult to pick up – as long as you have the determination.

What does initiative look like?

Because initiative is quite a vague quality, it can be difficult to imagine what it looks like in practice. It’s not like communication or IT skills which are easy to visualise – it comes in a number of guises.

The traditional example is taking leadership of a group situation: being the person who steps up to lead the team and knows how to get the most our of everybody else. This is an example of initiative, but if the idea of being a leader sends you weak at the knees, don’t worry, you’re not a hopeless case.

You might be the quiet member of the group who looks at things in a different way, or is always mindful of the bigger aim you’re all striving towards. Confidence does play a part. You’ll have heard the phrase “acting on your initiative” – for initiative to have value, it’s as much about putting things into practice as coming up with a new idea or approach.

Why is it important to employers?

Think about it from the employer’s point of view. Would you rather have an employee who does their job well as long as they’re told exactly what to do and when to do it? Or would you prefer someone who understands the wider purpose of their role, and who thinks of ways they can improve their work and puts them into practice?

Employers love to see initiative skills in a candidate because it means they’ll strive to do their job better by thinking of new and creative approaches. As a young person who may have less experience than other candidates, showing that you know how to use your curiosity, creativity and drive can be a good way to set yourself apart from other applicants, since initiative can make up for a lack of hard experience.

Do I have initiative?

Initiative is not really something you have or don’t have – it’s something that you demonstrate. You may use your initiative skills all the time, or you may have shown it at some times and not others.

You’ll find that initiative comes more easily to areas of life you’re passionate about. This is one of the reasons you should think carefully about what you want to do in your career, because you’ll naturally perform better when working towards something you care about.

Perhaps if would help to look at some examples of using initiative skills. Think about your home life. Are there clubs or societies you’re part of – an amateur dramatics group for example, or perhaps a sports club, or a band or orchestra? Do you ever have an idea you’re so excited about you want to tell everyone about? If the answer’s yes, you’re an old hand at using your initiative skills!

How can I get better at using my initiative skills?

Maybe you don't think you have any ideas to share. You're happy with the way things are and you'd rather just leave the hard stuff to other people. Well, next time your at a club or society, or doing a group project in class, try thinking about the bigger picture – what is the aim of what you're doing? When you think this way, it's often easier to see a better way of reaching it.

If you have plenty of ideas but confidence isn't your strong point, the only solution is practice. The more you try sharing your ideas with the group, the easier it will become – especially when you see that people's response is usually to listen rather than point and laugh. Give the small-steps approach a go – try sharing your next idea and see what happens.

How do I demonstrate my initiative skills to employers?

In job applications and interviews

Initiative skills are cropping up more and more on job descriptions, and if this is the case, you’ll need to mention it in your cover letter or application form. And you’ll almost certainly get the chance to talk about it in person in your interview.

As with any skill or experience you’re required to bring to a job, it’s vital to provide concrete examples of using initiative rather than simply stating “I have initiative” – not least because simply stating a fact doesn’t exactly show that you’re adept at seizing opportunities, which after all is part of the claim you’re making. A strong example of using initiative in a job application is like a piece of evidence, and is often the starting point for a conversation in your interview.

When it’s not a requirement

If you’re not given the opportunity to talk about your initiative skills, it can still be helpful to demonstrate to your employer that you’re curious and creative and have the drive to improve yourself and the way you work.

If it’s relevant, show your initiative skills in your answers to other questions by using examples which demonstrate your initiative when talking about other skills. Only attempt this if it seems natural to do so – don’t compromise your answers to the questions you’re being asked.

Be a self-starter

There are more practical ways to demonstrate your initiative skills to a potential employer. For example, phoning up an employer and asking for an interview is an effective way to show you’re a self-starter – if done in the right way.

You’ll need to be prepared to talk about what you can offer, and make sure you’ve done your research and can show that you’re interested in the field of work you’ll be going into. If you can pull it off, you may well impress the employer with your verve, and prove that you would make a valuable addition to the team.

Even if they don’t offer you a job, you might get a work experience placement which will enhance your CV and – if you prove your worth – could lead to a job offer later on.

Examples of showing initiative at work

Since employers love initiative, it's really important to be able to talk about when you've demonstrated it yourself. Since half the struggle is recognising initiative in yourself and others, here are some examples of showing initiative at work:

  • You work in a shop and notice certain products sell best at particular times of year. You create a display for seasonal items by the checkout and come up with a rota for what to display when.
  • Your colleagues struggle to set up the laptop and projector before the team meeting. You know how, so you go and set it up before the next meeting.
  • After the meeting, everyone drifts back to their desks. You see the room is a mess so you tidy up, stack chairs and make sure the room is as you found it. 
  • You work in a call centre and notice you there are certain queries that come up again and again. You create a cheat sheet for you and your colleagues.
  • You work for a charity and you and your colleagues are each stuffing envelopes with various fact sheets and leaflets. You realise it would be much quicker to create a production line and organise your colleagues to do this.

Now you've got those creative juices flowing, keep up that initiative by finding out how thinking like an entrepreneur can help you excel whatever career you end up pursuing.

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