I’ve been reflecting on what makes a good employee, a good student, or even a “good soldier.” One variable I think makes a tremendous difference is the willingness of an individual to take initiative to get things done. And, borrowing, and modifying the use of the term “lean in” from the 2013 book by Sheryl Sandberg entitled, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” I suggest that leaning in is about taking initiative. As an aside, apparently there is a debate about the use of the term in this book in a gender driven context. So, without discussing the book, which I have not read, and without going into the gender issues, it occurs to me that Magnus’ best employees have been those who took initiative, in one way or another. In thinking of collaborating with employees, and discussing issues at staff meetings, or as we have discussed previously, during debriefings, the employees who made the most positive contributions were those who physically, and otherwise, leaned in. They were not leaning back in their chair, trying to be invisible. The same was true in college and graduate school. Those who attempted to fly under the radar and not be noticed, not be called upon, and not speak during class, or, back to the workplace, to try to just “do one’s work” without drawing attention, cannot be said to lean in. Taking initiative is more than raising a hand in a classroom or speaking up during a staff/planning meeting. But, that is a start. Beyond that, it is volunteering to accomplish something. It is a willingness to be noticed, perhaps to “stick one’s neck out,” and offer a suggestion, a solution, or to help finding one. Flying under the radar is not the way to advance one’s career or to help the company. Helping the company by taking initiative is, on the other hand, an excellent way to test oneself, to determine what one is capable of doing, and to get noticed while doing it. I’m not talking about grand accomplishments necessarily – no moon shots. Stepping up to fix minor things and to take the lead on projects or small tasks; those things matter. Personal confidence is built by succeeding when taking initiative. And, taking initiative does get noticed, and rewarded.
People vary on the personality dimension David refers to as taking initiative. Some people are on the lower end of the spectrum, and are colloquially referred to as “slackers,” while other people are on the higher end of the spectrum, and are often referred to as “taking charge,” “leaders,” and “dependable,” among other things, while most people fall somewhere in the middle. As with most things in life, the majority of the people who fall in the middle of the initiative spectrum are “average,” with those on either end considered as either below average or above average, depending on which end of the spectrum they fall. Employees, of course, are people and as such, they come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. Over the decades David and I have owned Magnus, we have had the gamut of employees on many dimensions, including initiative taking. Some of our employees have been comfortable sitting back, waiting to be told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. These employees have, for the most part, been able to perform most aspects of their job at acceptable levels, as long as David or I provide them with instructions they can follow in a rather literal fashion. Most of our employees, as expected, have been in the mid range of the initiative dimension. These employees take initiative sometimes, and appropriately, while, at other times, they lack the self assuredness required to forge ahead with a demanding task. They have, generally speaking, done well working for David and me because Magnus has a team approach for all of our work and it is rather easy to direct our employees in the proper direction. There have been few, in fact, very few, employees who possess a “take charge” approach to performing the majority of their job duties. (Fortunately, for David and me, we have the pleasure of employing one of these employees at the time of this writing. Her name is Megan and she has been the subject of a previous post.) When we have the benefit of working with someone who takes initiative, it provides a value added component to our research team by allowing David and I to do our jobs without micro managing others’ work. Although taking initiative is never a guarantee mistakes won’t be made, the absence of taking initiative is, in my view, a mistake in and of itself because it requires me to take time from performing higher level work to empower an employee to perform his or her work. Taking initiative is a positive asset that will always be recognized at Magnus and in almost all employment situations.