By Allison McWilliams

Person working at a desk

Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

At some point, probably at many points, in your professional career, you are going to hear one if not both of these terms: “We want you to take initiative.” Or, “Be a strategic thinker.” They have been used with such frequency that they’ve become almost meaningless buzzwords, terms that get thrown around in the place of something else or when the user doesn’t know how to convey what he or she really wants to convey. More often than not they’re used in the place of “work harder,” “be better at your job,” “be smarter,” or, worst of all, “be someone I like more.” Great. How do I do that? And why won’t you just tell me that?

The latter question is one for another post. Here we want to think about how exactly one should “take initiative” and “be a strategic thinker.” Meaningless buzzwords or not, these are attributes that all employers value, and ones that will make you stand out from the less-strategic, initiative-less crowd. And it’s actually not that hard. Because it actually is all about working harder, being better, and being smarter.

Work Harder. When someone tells you that they want to see you take initiative, what they are often saying is that they want to see you step up and work harder. Sure, you do what is expected of you, you get your work done, and you probably even do it well. But do you go above and beyond expectations, do it consistently, and without looking for a round of applause every time that you do it? Do you seek out opportunities to improve processes and make your work more impactful? Notice I didn’t say “more efficient.” While sure, sometimes cutting out needless slack is an important step, you don’t necessarily get bonus points for getting your work done faster than anyone else. Indeed, many times this just indicates cutting corners and sloppy work. Focusing on impact means you’re focusing on the right things. Do you wait for someone to give you assignments, or do you identify needs and seek solutions to meet those needs?

Be Better. Sometimes both taking initiative and being a strategic thinker are euphemisms for being better at your work. Once again, you should take a step back to assess whether you are just meeting expectations or really exceeding them on each and every project. Meeting expectations is perfectly fine, as long as you never want to go any further in your career than where you are right at this moment. There is an old saying, “You need to dress for the job you want, not the one you have.” While true, it also applies to the work that you do. You can’t expect to get promoted if you’re doing mediocre work. Do you constantly have to ask people to show you how to do things, or to give you approval on your work? Do you sometimes let pieces of assignments or deadlines drop? Are people consistently having to come back to you to ask you to do things you’ve already agreed to do? Note, this isn’t about aptitude, or your ability to do your job, that’s a whole different issue. This is about capability, and your willingness to knock it out of the park each and every time. Typos are unacceptable. Making other people clean up after you isn’t going to cut it.

Be Smarter. Finally, when someone tells you to be a strategic thinker, they often want you to be smarter. Clearly you are a very smart person who has managed to get this job in the first place. Now, how are you using those smarts to improve your work and that of others? How often do you step back to look at the bigger picture of your department, your organization, and your industry? How often do you read about trends and opportunities that may be impacting your work? How knowledgeable and fluent are you on these trends and opportunities? If you were stuck on an elevator with the CEO would you be able to carry on a conversation? Do you regularly set goals for yourself and think in terms of vision and strategy? Do you think in terms of impact on people, processes, and outcomes? Do you actively cultivate relationships across the organization?

Work harder. Be better. Be smarter. Master these three areas and you will be well on your way to being a valued and valuable resource to your organization.