It’s a question that rears its ugly head time and time again during interview situations, “Can you tell us about a time when you showed initiative”. As far as most people are concerned they may as well be asked, “can you tell us about a time when you breathed?” such is the vagueness of the inquiry.
The real danger with questions like this one, is that they are so obscure, open ended and regularly posed that there is a very real temptation to simply answer it with the first situation displaying the remotest level of initiative that pops into your head, just to get it out of the way and move on to the ‘real’ issues.
A small but potentially catastrophic error (from the perspective of your job search at least). As we have asserted precipitously here at TheEmployable, everything at an interview has a purpose, nothing is redundant and by assuming that the question is merely a formality you risk your prospect of employment sinking like the proverbial lead-filled balloon.
To avoid this sad situation from coming to pass it is vital that you spend time preparing a number of different experiences that you have had in previous employment which will ensure that in the almost inevitable event that this question is asked, that you will have a clear, well reasoned, detailed and (most importantly) impressive story to tell. If you are applying for your first job and do not have any previous professional experience, you can take an example from your work experience, a group project or a skills-related extra-curricular activity.
It’s best to approach this question by weeding out what the interviewer is actually asking. They aren’t, as you may think, remotely fascinated with the day-to-day details of your previous employment, but instead are presenting you with the opportunity to demonstrate these things;
- That you are proactive in your attempts to improve the way that you / your employer operates
- That you are capable of identifying problems/issues
- That you are capable of coming up with new ideas
- That you are capable of implementing your ideas
- That you are capable of evaluating your own performance
(If you are very clever with your answer though, it can also demonstrate your creativity, intelligence, dedication and loads of other great transferable skills too).
How to structure your answer
It’s important to remember that in this case you are essentially telling a story and as such, your answer needs to have a well considered structure which ensures that it hits all of the points outlined above. Here’s a very basic rundown of the things you should be aiming to cover;
- where you were working at the time
- in what capacity you were employed
- what the issue or problem was
- how this issue/problem had a negative impact on the business / employees / customers etc
- what you suggested/implemented as a solution to the problem / issue
- how this had a positive impact on the business
So, following this basic structure, you might end up with an example that goes something like this;
“Well, I was working for The Employable burger joint as a member of the front of house team and when the Spring university semester finished, I noticed that the number of diners had decreased by about 20%. I approached a few of my friends (who worked in offices nearby) and were potential customers, to ask them informally what kind of burgers would get them to come through the doors. I took their suggestions to my boss and he decided to offer a new range of lunchtime burgers aimed specifically at the large number of office workers in the area. Within a month, the number of diners had risen by 25%.”
Obviously your own answer will be a little more detailed, but the key here is to make sure that you don’t go off on a tangent. Remember always that the employer does not need to know everything about the situation, only the basic facts, if you try to squeeze in more information than is necessary, you could end up confusing them.
Selecting your examples
Since this is an issue which surfaces so often in interview situations it is a really good idea to have a few ‘stock’ examples which can be manipulated to suit the question, no matter what form it takes. You should try and select situations which cover as broad a range of working environments as possible, so that you have the best chance of choosing one which relates to the role you are applying for.
Aside from this, here are a few more tips which should help you to select the best situations;
- Make sure that the problem you select is sufficiently serious for its resolution to have a significant positive impact on your employer
- Make sure that your example shows your initiative, creativity and dedication and not irresponsibility, impulsiveness or an inability to follow instructions
- Do not choose a situation in which you will have to speak negatively about either your boss or your co workers – this could suggest to the interviewer that you have a problem with accepting authority or working as a member of a team.
Hopefully these tips will help you the next time you are faced with the interview question “Tell us about a time when you showed initiative” and if you have an upcoming interview you might like to check out some of these recent posts.