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How to Answer Questions to Prove You Can Take Initiative


Looking for a job? Get ready to answer some tough questions. One of the categories of questions which interviewers like to focus on is “initiative.” Interviewers learn more from questions related to initiative than anything else they ask. The way you answer these questions will help the interviewer determine if you are a self-starter. A skilled interviewer will probe to find out if you were the force behind the action or merely a spectator. Be prepared to answer the following questions, as well as others like them, and you will have a successful job interview.

Question: What have you done at work that shows initiative?
The worst thing you can do when answering this question is to not have an answer or respond with something like: “I’m not really sure how to answer that question. I’ve done many things throughout my career as an engineer that shows initiative.” An answer like this indicates that you are unprepared and that in itself indicates a lack of initiative.

Start by thinking in terms of what you’ve done to save time or money, or increase sales or productivity. You need to convince the interviewer that you are a doer, someone who takes responsibility and gets the ball rolling. A good answer would be: “I was asked to come up with suggestions for increasing sales. Being new with the company, I had to quickly get my feet on the ground and initiate a plan. I discussed my ideas with my supervisor and got the go-ahead to start interviewing customer service reps and sales managers to get a feel for their perspectives. Within 30 days I had a proposal on my supervisor’s desk that resulted in a new method for tracking cancelled accounts, which was the primary reason sales had decreased.”

Question: What have you done about your professional development in the last three years?
This is a great question because it gives you the opportunity to share with the interviewer how you have kept up in the engineering profession. By doing so, you show that you know how to take initiative. A candidate who has little to say about professional development comes across as someone who has not kept up with the pace required in the business world. A weak answer would be: “I don’t have a lot of extra time to spend on attending professional meetings and reading trade journals because of my family obligations, but I think I’m fairly good at what I do without having to do those things.” Even an implied lack of initiative, much less a response as obvious as this, will hurt your chances for getting the job offer.

Question: Can you tell me about a recent project that you worked on that was fun and challenging?
Interviewers ask this type of question when they want to find out more about what gets candidates excited about their work. As a job seeker, it gives you another chance to share your successes with the interviewer. Many candidates find it difficult to list their accomplishments. They struggle to come up with examples of what they have done at work that is a measure of their success. One way to get over this barrier is to start thinking about what you did at work that was enjoyable, challenging, interactive, positive and made a difference. Write down a few ideas and start thinking about how you would answer a question like this.

For example: “One of the most exciting projects I was involved in was something I volunteered to do. I was offered the opportunity to find a way to reduce the level of scrap in our manufacturing plant. Although we sell scrap for profit, we still lose money when we have to do that. I started by talking to our vendors and from there came up with a proposal to monitor our stockroom better and get everyone on the manufacturing floor, as well as the warehouse, to do their part in a waste awareness effort. In one year my plan saved the company over one million dollars and I’ve been asked to work on other cost saving projects as a result.”

The worst possible answer you could give to this question would be something general or shallow such as: “There are many exciting things about my job, I just can’t think of anything in particular right now.” This answer is a real turn-off to an interviewer because it indicates a lack of preparation for the interview and is therefore a reflection on initiative.

Question: If your supervisor got sick and you had to step into his or her job for six months, what is the first thing you would do?

In answering this question, you definitely don’t want to make a joke as this candidate did when she said: “If I moved into my supervisor’s position the future of the entire company would be in trouble!” This candidate may have thought she was being funny, but the interviewer didn’t take it that way. If you like to joke around from time to time, the interview may not be the best place to do so. Some interviewers like a candidate with a sense of humor, but everyone responds to humor differently. Don’t take a chance of potentially turning someone off by trying to be funny or unconventional during a job interview.

A good answer would be: “Although I’ve never had that happen, I have had occasions when I was asked to fill in for my supervisor for a week or two when she was on vacation. The first thing I did was meet with the rest of the staff and found out what everyone was working on and who needed help. Together we developed a two-week action plan. The entire team pitched in and we all accomplished the things we needed to do to get the work done on time.”

Question: Tell me about a time when you surpassed all expectations by going the “extra mile.”

Imagine this: a candidate misunderstood this question and said: “I wanted to run a 10K race; it’s a goal I set for myself many years ago. I finished the race and ran an ‘extra mile’ because I was so excited that I finished.” On a serious note, a good answer would be something like: “Everyone was asked to do more with less resources. I moved to second shift because I knew my expertise with power plant work was critically needed there. Everyone pitched in and we made a smooth transition.”

In conclusion, initiative is critical for success in anything you do. If an interviewer can get a sense of what kind of employee you will be based upon how well you answer these questions, you either will be invited back for a second interview or you will never hear from the company again. Expect to be probed to determine if you are a self-starter or are someone who needs a lot of encouragement and close monitoring. Some people are bursting with energy and are eager to take on responsibility. Others don’t have what it takes. Many people are somewhere in between. It’s the interviewer’s job to find out if you can take initiative. People with initiative are self-confident and willing to accept a challenge. They are also easily bored with routine tasks. Self-starters tend to be more creative and look for opportunities to put new ideas into action.

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