After interviewing several Pittsburgh executives to determine the key traits they seek in potential hires and evaluate during the review/promotion process, the critical success factor most often mentioned was initiative.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines initiative as "the power, ability, or instinct to begin or to follow through energetically with a plan or task; enterprise and determination". Many employers look for initiative as a "must have" trait for every position they are attempting to staff. In addition, it is critical to demonstrate initiative to be promoted in an organization. A fantastic book that must be read by everyone in the workplace, "How to Be a Star at Work", written by Carnegie Mellon University professor and national consultant Robert E. Kelley, discusses "nine breakthrough strategies" you need to succeed in the workplace. Dr. Kelley's book is being touted by corporations across the United States as a "landmark" business book.

When discussing the nine breakthrough strategies necessary to succeed in the workplace, Dr. Kelley says "demonstrating initiative proved to be the most powerful work skills tool for bridging the chasm between the intelligent, average worker and the super productive, star worker. If you are starting out in a new workplace, you will quickly be judged on whether you go beyond your specific responsibilities and take initiative."

Mary Lee Palocsik, Senior Human Resources Representative from Bayer Corporation says, "In a fast-paced environment like Bayer Corporation, you would not survive without initiative. Initiative is a key trait we look for from the college-level through the experienced-level."

Joan Stein, CEO of Accessibility Development Associates says, "initiative is absolutely important in hiring decisions. Initiative shows energy and commitment. I want people with energy."

Many employers feel that this critical success factor is a rare jewel in today's marketplace. Several employers believe today's employees do not realize how valuable initiative is in being hired or promoted.

Let's look at some examples of initiative for the current employee seeking a promotion, or the student seeking his/her first job.

Do Your Current Job Well

Dr. Kelley in his book, "How to Be a Star at Work", talked about employees demonstrating initiative, and highlighted as one example, performing well in your current position. Too many employees today, have the "9 to 5" mentality and believe that is all that they "owe" to their employer. Clearly, those employees do not possess initiative or as Ms. Stein, the CEO of ADA stated, energy. Employers today are seeking individuals who want to do their job to the very best of their ability every day. This may mean working some overtime, including evenings, or weekends. For example, many Internet start-ups in Pittsburgh are offering terrific opportunities with lucrative stock options. These opportunities are never "9 to 5" environments. As one of Pittsburgh's CEO's stated, "Initiative is the number one trait we are seeking in addition to technical skills." Demonstrating initiative means doing your current job right the first time.

Going the next step.

Many Pittsburgh managers have a frustration level regarding the lack of initiative in employees, and cited "going the next step" as an example. It is critically important to do the job well. The key to success is going the next step. For example, if a new employee does not understand a software tool or application, will that employee read the training manual or refer to the on-line help facility, and attempt to solve this problem on their own, or will that employee constantly stop and ask for help to get to the next step? Additionally, if an employee is asked to conduct a presentation and feels weak in the speaking skills area, will he/she "freeze" when asked to do this presentation, or reference public speaking materials and go home and practice? To employers, initiative is "going the next step" without being told to do so.

Making a Difference

"What have you done in the past to demonstrate initiative by adding value to the organization," said Bill Grant, Vice-President of Employee Relations for Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, "is what we want in an employee." Mr. Grant said, "At Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, we are clearly looking for people who can and have made a difference. If we believe an individual does not demonstrate this initiative, we believe they will not add value to our organization." Employers will look at a college student's resume and ask, "what have you done to add value during your academic experience?" In addition, employers will ask employees seeking to make a job change, what they did to add value to the company or division in which they worked? Adding value or demonstrating initiative can be exemplified by helping achieve company goals, helping release a new product, or helping the company achieve its goal for United Way. Initiative demonstrates commitment.

Continuing Education

There is never a time to stop learning. Education can and should be a lifetime commitment. Initiative can obviously be achieved through completion of a four-year or graduate degree. In addition, an individual can continue his/her education by taking community college classes, classes via the Internet, or self-education through reading. American businessman E. A. Filene said, "When a man's education is finished, he is finished." When individuals at work demonstrate initiative, they will continue reading about the industry they are in for the rest of their life. Companies believe that employees will be at least "one step ahead of the pack" if they take the initiative to read about their related discipline such as, information technology, engineering, or human resources, as well as their company's industry area. What causes one employee in the business world to read the Wall Street Journal, The Pittsburgh Business Times, Forbes or any business magazine on a regular basis, and another employee to have zero interest in their area of expertise once they are hired? - initiative. For example, if you are reading this article, you are demonstrating initiative. You either are seeking a position, possibly evaluating a new position or want to improve your performance at work. If you want to know about employment issues and chose to read this column in - you have initiative.


An area frequently mentioned by employers when evaluating an employee for "initiative" is volunteerism. Many employers ask questions to a student about activities they were involved in while in school, such as sports, drama, or band to see if the student possesses that extra "energy". After an individual enters the workplace, countless opportunities become available to participate in external events that "give back" to the community, such as the United Way, Junior Achievement, The Epilepsy Foundation of Western PA, United Cerebral Palsy, etc. Employers seek employees who demonstrate initiative evidenced by the willingness to participate in external events. Involvement in activities or in charitable events while in school or in the workplace is one way to demonstrate initiative. Demonstrating initiative is the key to not only obtaining the first job - it is the key to success in the workplace. Initiative is the key to becoming a star performer.