Train Your Student Employees

Taking the Initiative Module

Take Initiative 

Initiative is the single attribute that always sets you apart from others. Honing this skill can benefit your entire career journey. When you take personal ownership of the organization’s success, you will make a difference to the organization and your colleagues. 

Step 1 – Learn

Read about the politics of initiative and review how-to steps to propel your success on the job.

Step 2 – Taking Action

Brainstorm ways to take the initiative in your current job.

Step 1 – Learn

Introduction – A Story of Initiative

You arrive at work at your scheduled time at 7:30 am at the campus Bistro Coffee House. On Monday at 7:45 am, the manager had an emergency that kept her from coming in to start baking the pastries for a dean’s 8:00 am meeting. Upon arrival, you realized that the manager’s work had not begun, and it was too late to bake the pastries. So you walk to the campus cafeteria and buy some bagels and donuts from your own money for the dean’s meeting. Everything goes off without a hitch. When your manager arrives, she is impressed and grateful for your initiative (and pays you back).

Do you take the initiative on the job?

Initiative has become increasingly important in today’s workplace. Employers in every business area want to hire people who look for solutions without waiting to be told. In short, it can set you up for future success in the workforce.

But what is Initiative? And how can you develop it?

What is Initiative?

Taking the initiative is not about merely meeting your job requirements. It is not about looking busy when work is slow. It is also not about wasting time on busy work that is not productive.

Initiative is about taking responsibility for your work and going the extra mile. You show initiative when you act without being told what to do, persist in the face of inertia and difficulty, and see your idea through to a successful conclusion. Instead of being about “What am I required to do at work?” it is an attitude that says, “How can I best help my supervisor, colleagues, and department be the best they can be?”

By nature, initiative is:

  • Self-starting and proactive means you do not wait to be told what to do. You do not wait for problems to arise; you try to prevent problems from happening in the first place. If you know something needs to be done at work, do it if you can. Be sensitive and aware when you’re on the job.
  • You see a paper cup in the hallway outside the department’s entrance. It’s not your job to clean the hallway. Do you walk past and leave it or pick it up?
  • Persistent: This means you do not give up when you encounter obstacles to completing your work.
  • At the front desk, students kept asking you the same questions. So you create a Frequently Asked Questions sign. But it did not stop the repeat questions. Do you try something else or forget about it?
  • Curious: How do your unit and the rest of the organization work? Asking questions is a great way to show that you genuinely want to understand your job. If you do not know something or understand how some aspect of your unit functions, ask about it.
  • Just make sure you remember the answers. Have a pad of paper or file and jot down notes to yourself when you get the answers you need to remember them later.
  • Imaginative: Pretend that you are the owner/manager of your work unit. What would make this operation better? How can you make it better? Is your idea a temporary fix, or will its impact be lasting? Primarily if you are serving other students, always offer suggestions for improvement from your point of view.
  • “I think students might like to be able to get this information on the web.”
  • “I created this PDF document that answers a common question we get. Is this helpful?”

To identify where your initiative is needed, focus on what’s important:

  • How can you and your unit provide a better customer experience?

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and consider what changes your customers want. Who else could you be serving? In what other ways?

  • How can you support your team members and your supervisor more effectively?

Look for problems to solve in terms of workplace procedures and policies. Think about what is getting in the way of your unit’s productivity. What aspects of your work are frustrating or annoying? What minor problems do you have now that could turn into more significant issues in the future? Start with small ideas that are easy to implement, and your colleagues will learn to trust your judgment.

You may have witnessed this when a colleague (or perhaps you) identified a flawed process and proposed an innovative solution.

Proceed with Caution

Initiative is about proposing change. People who show initiative encounter resistance and setbacks, so tune in to what is going on around your efforts. It is beneficial to know how to read other people’s emotions. You may need to slow down and give your co-workers a chance to buy into your ideas.

For instance, you might say, “ I notice that sometimes we cannot answer the phone in three rings. I quickly called our Cisco IP Phone system staff, and they think the new call-waiting feature might help us with that. Would you like me to check it out further?

Your idea might involve you taking on someone else’s role. If your initiative threatens someone else’s job, do not do it.

When taking the initiative to solve a particular problem at work, ask yourself, “How can I help solve this problem?” One obvious answer is that no one has devised a solution. Another is that your colleagues are now aware of how much the problem impacts the success of your unit.

“I suggested a solution to my supervisor on how to rearrange our workspace for better flow. My supervisor commended my efforts and said, “We have other plans for that space in the future.” I got the message and never brought it up again, but I scored points for taking the initiative.”

Check your ideas for viability. Brainstorm your ideas of improvements with colleagues to get their take on it. If necessary, research to find out if others have tried your idea. Consider the costs and risks associated with the concept. If the costs and risks are small, you might want to take action on your own; however, if the costs and risks might be high, prepare a plan to present to your supervisor and get approval before proceeding. You can develop a reputation for initiative and good judgment – an invaluable combination!


When you face challenges in your personal life, you take the initiative. When you take the initiative to be helpful in the workplace, the rewards are great:

  1. Job satisfaction
  2. Increase in pay or responsibility
  3. Promotion/Recognition
  4. Job security

You can develop your ability to take the initiative in your role as a student worker or intern. Where can you practice right now?

A recent poll of executives asked, “What do you feel is the best way for employees to earn a promotion and raise?” 82% of the respondents were top of the list: “Ask for more work and responsibility.”

NEVER play video games, visit social media apps like Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram, or do homework in the office. ALWAYS find ways to contribute and add value to the job.

Check out more information on leadership and taking the initiative in the workplace.

Taking the Initiative, The Options Are Endless

Step 2 – Learning Activity – Think About It