Ask any boss which employee in their firm really stands out as a star, and they will most certainly bring up the person who shows initiative. Everyone wants a hardworking employee who does a good job, but the person who goes beyond that and shows initiative is rare indeed (and seems to be harder and harder to find, as I often hear from leaders).

Joyce E.A. Russell (University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business) Joyce E.A. Russell (University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business)

Initiative is the power, ability or instinct to take action (to begin a task and follow through on it) without waiting for someone to tell you what to do. It means going beyond simply the “9 to 5” aspect of your job. It means taking the “next step” before being asked to take it. Getting in early, staying late, or looking for things to do when your own work is slow.

Whether you are a new employee at the firm or starting a new job in another part of your company, initiative is key. Most firms are explicitly looking for go-getters who can independently take action to get things done. And yet, few applicants talk about their strengths in this domain or realize how important it is in the workplace. Employers, on the other hand, are eager to hire individuals who want to keep learning and growing in their knowledge or skills. Think about the employee who takes additional courses or workshops in order to learn how to do their job better. This makes a positive impression on employers. Or those who volunteer to give back to the community. Those who do these things really stand out.

Here’s some idea on how to enhance your skills in showing initiative:
• First, make sure you are doing your best work in your current job responsibilities.
• Challenge yourself to try new things each week.
Thoughtfully assess how you can take on additional activities (or come earlier, stay later, train others, attend key department meetings, volunteer on committees, etc.).
Speak up in meetings to surface your ideas.
• Look for ways (and share ideas) on how to improve processes or ways of doing things.
Collaborate with colleagues to bring solutions to problems.
Volunteer for projects at work. It is amazing how much you can do to assist your firm and also give you new knowledge or skills to help you with a future job opportunity.
Observe others in your department to see what they do to show initiative. Do they volunteer? Mentor others? Assist the boss when he/she needs extra help?
Don’t wait. If you see something at work that needs to be done that you can do, then do it.
Think ahead to be preemptive about important needs the company or your colleagues will have.
Understand the company’s top priorities. You want to focus your extra help on important jobs for the firm, not irrelevant ones.
Ask questions. Show curiosity about how things work at your firm.
Find a mentor or someone to advise or help you in an area you want to improve in.
• If you are trying to get someone to do something, lead by example.
Find a project the company (or your boss) has really wanted to work on yet never had the time to, and see if you can do it. View the company as a team member or owner, not as “just an employee.”
Offer solutions. Don’t just bring up what the problems are. Look for answers.
Ask for feedback from your boss and co-workers on your level of initiative. They might also have ideas for how you could show more initiative on your job (that would bring value to them).

If you want to stand out and be seen as exceptional you have to show initiative. Do something extra each and every day. Because, as Will Rogers said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

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