The Limitless Value of Initiative

A consultant, who works out of her home office, used a software security service as part of her internet package.  After upgrading to a fiber optic system, the software wouldn’t work.  As the problem repeatedly recurred even after reinstalling, she called her internet company’s helpline.

While she shouldn’t have been too surprised given the technical nature of internet services, the young man who answered her door appeared all of 17 years old.  Greeting him politely, she began to explain the problem, but he interrupted, simply asking where the computer was.  As she pointed to the stairs, he leaped ahead of her, bounding energetically up and into her office.

With one hand flying across her keyboard, he absent-mindedly reached over with the other and turned on her window air conditioner.

“It’s hot in here,” he said.   Nonplussed, she watched as he entered the operating system shell, punched in some commands, rebooted several times, and presto!  Security system on!

Rummaging in his gear bag, he mumbled that the modem needed upgrading.  “No charge, due to your hassle,” he said.  He then dialed his customer’s number and, as her mobile rang, he said: “Add my number so you can text me and let me know if the fix worked.”

Quick, confident, and technically adept, this young man was worth his weight in gold for his organization.  Though young (and presumptuous!), he knew the value of initiative and therefore, left behind a very satisfied customer.

Certainly, some customer relationship coaching could have smoothed the rough edges on this self-starter. But there are two key takeaways from this story:

  1. Some people naturally take the initiative and for workers who wish to advance, this trait will almost guarantee success. Considered a competency of emotional intelligence, initiative derives from confidence, ambition, drive, enthusiasm, and resourcefulness.   While employee screening can help detect candidates who possess this ability, those without it can cultivate initiative when organizations realize its value and provide the support and encouragement necessary for it to flourish.
  2. Allowing employees unfettered initiative is not recommended, especially in small businesses with less margin for risk.  However, with a focused job description and defined boundaries, employee initiative can replace layers of management and oversight, increase productivity, enhance innovation, and improve customer satisfaction.

Empower Your Employees to Take Initiative

To help employees cultivate initiative, organizations must enable prepared workers to share ideas and take responsibility for implementation, while eliminating roadblocks.  Owning decisions that result from taking the initiative will develop confidence, leadership, and a willingness to take risks.

While a natural tendency exists to fear failure and eliminate risk, companies that incentivize idea generation and reward risk-taking are more creative and innovative than those that don’t.   Blocking initiative through burdensome levels of permission excludes the opportunity to spontaneously increase customer satisfaction, fix a process, or stop a problem from occurring. Red tape also stifles natural leadership and discourages “rule breaking,” a precursor to innovation.  So, find a way to reward good ideas, improvements, and experimentation.

Of course, don’t set your business or your employees up for failure; ensure that ideas are suited to your mission and achievable.  Tasks should be matched to capabilities and include resource-support.  Remember the famous Ritz-Carlton example?

To encourage initiative and allow for spontaneous action, Ritz-Carlton’s “ladies and gentlemen” can spend up to $2,000 to repair a poor guest experience.  Today, the hotel’s Service Values support employees to be “responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests,” “to create a unique, memorable…experience,” and to “own and immediately resolve guest problems.”  Initiative does not happen unless companies create the environment in which employees feel trusted and empowered to make decisions within the scope of their responsibilities.

In summary, with the new crop of young workers like Gen Z who have grown up circumventing conventions using technology, company managers and leaders would do well to leverage their natural abilities to see a challenge and quickly find a solution. By creating an empowerment framework aligned with the overall mission, your employees will enjoy having the freedom to take the initiative to look for opportunities, think critically, adapt, and then follow through.