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Doing What You're Told Only Makes You Average

Posted on25 September 2012 | 1 comments

You know the saying, “It’s better to be safe than sorry?” You know what’s better than being safe? Being extraordinary. People often make the mistake of thinking that doing all the tasks in their job description makes them excellent, even exceptional. But the job description is the starting point, not the destination. Great leaders (and top performers) are relentless in assessing current conditions and taking decisive, future-focused action. They don’t wait for someone else to tell them what to do; they make things happen.

Initiative is doing the right thing without being told. ~Victor Hugo (French writer)

Taking initiative can greatly improve potential for advancement, recognition and professional growth, yet many people sit back and wait for instructions. Here are a few thoughts on encouraging staff initiative:

1. Identify obstacles. Ask staff the question, “What is getting in the way of you taking initiative?” If time is an issue, help prioritize, remove or reassign tasks. For money concerns, assign a budget or identify alternative funding sources. If competency is a concern, identify training options. If experience is an issue, pair up with a coach or mentor for guidance in transforming ideas into reality.

2. Identify personal goals, strengths and interests. Most leaders understand employee strengths but have a lesser understanding of where people want to be–not necessarily what promotion or job title they want next, but what they hope to accomplish as a legacy in their career. Staff initiative, hard work and extra effort come easier when objectives align with personal motivation.

3. Celebrate small wins. Improving work processes, products, services, and systems that are a vital part of how the organization does its business often get ignored because they lack the attention and glory of big changes. But such initiatives are a great way to get noticed, build confidence and establish a skill set for bigger projects.

4. Remove the fear factor. Encourage (if not require) staff to try new things and cultivate an environment where staff can learn from both failures and successes. Provide a safety net to reinforce courageous actions and help people troubleshoot inevitable difficulties, setbacks and resistance. Adopt the Tom Peters mantra, “Reward brilliant failures and punish mediocre successes.”

5. Focus on culture. Peers and colleagues can either encourage or discourage staff from stepping up. Set the tone and promote a positive culture by visibly rewarding and praising individuals who regularly take action. Share examples that demonstrate initiatives that go beyond “BEST” practice and instead create “NEXT” practice.

6. Remove excuses. Bosses can and do choke off new initiatives and can seem unwilling to support new ideas. You must demonstrate support for initiative and encourage staff to fully prepare to present new ideas. As a leader, you need to clearly communicate what you expect, including

    • Research and data to support the idea.
    • Identifiable outcomes, benefits, risks and challenges.
    • Perspectives from a range of colleagues and constituencies.
    • Potential allies and partners who will support and assist in the implementation of an idea.
    • A realistic estimate of time, money and staffing requirements.

7. Be a courageous role model. Honestly evaluate your own track record in taking

initiative. Are your past attempts safe and incremental or are they balanced with a range of risk and reward? If you want to model initiative effectively, research opportunities—don’t over analyze—be courageous—move swiftly—and deliver results. Assess,

learn and refine as necessary. People will look to follow your lead, not just your words. They will do as you do, not just as you say.

To be successful, organizations (and leaders) need staff at all levels to think for themselves and take action without waiting for instructions. Irrelevance, isolation, and stagnation are real consequences that can result from lack of initiative. Leaders must help staff explore new ways to develop and execute transformative ideas so both individuals and the organization continue to grow.

Question: How is initiative rewarded in your organization?

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