We’ve all heard stories of job interviews gone horribly wrong and as much as we allow ourselves believe that, ‘Well, that’ll never happen to me!’ there will be instances in life when fate throws you a curveball.
While some interview questions are meant to throw new applicants off guard, one that’s gotten even the most experienced candidates scratching their heads is being asked: “give me an example of when you showed initiative”.
Being asked to give an example of how you showed initiative is, perhaps, the Miss Universe of all interview questions. It’s vague, confusing and open to interpretation; sort of like being asked to solve world peace. But the ability to nail this question is what will separate you from the pool of other candidates. It’s also the employer’s way of differentiating the exceptional from the mediocre.
Taking initiative is a quality that’s valued by the most successful companies. It’s what drives productivity and creates disruption. So, it only makes sense to hire candidates who strongly demonstrate this kind of behaviour. It’s also meant to measure; your overall confidence, your ability to identify and solve problems, your reaction to highly stressful situations, your creative thinking skills and your ability to assess your own work performance.
How to Answer the Question
There’s no one way of answering this question since most applicants have different backgrounds and varying levels of work experience. What’s important is to pick a scenario that highlights your ability to think on your feet and find solutions to a problem - and one that’s most relevant to the company you’re applying to. For example, if you want to work for the New Yorker then it’s best to share an anecdote from when showed initiative writing for the school paper, rather than the time you volunteered at a pet shelter.
When constructing your answer, make sure to also include these elements:
- Your previous place of work or employment
- A specific instance where you showed initiative
- How your initiative impacted yourself or the company
How you answer will largely depend on your current work status. For instance, a recent graduate will obviously answer differently than, say, a tenured manager.
To further help you, we’ve outlined some possible scenarios and included a few examples on how to best address this question, should you ever have the misfortune – err, we mean – opportunity to encounter it.
When Applying for an Internship or a New Job
Becoming an intern has many advantages: you get an inkling of the basic job requirements, you find out if you’re a good fit culturally, not to mention the fact that it also increases your chances of being part of the company. It’s because of these reasons why getting an internship has become such a competitive process.
While highly unlikely, there are some instances when you’ll be asked this question, especially if you’re competing for an internship in prestigious companies like Disney or Netflix.
When I was still studying at (insert name of university), I was working on my thesis which involved writing a piece on a writer who had recently passed away. But I couldn’t find more information about her online. So, I reached out to a newspaper who published her obituary and the editor was kind enough to arrange an interview with her relatives. My professor praised my initiative and the writer’s family reached out to thank me for the article I wrote. That’s when I realized just how powerful storytelling can be and that’s why I want to intern for (insert name of company) which I believe is the best when it comes to telling stories.
In this particular example, the applicant was able to successfully share how their initiative helped raise awareness for the school but at the same time emphasize their desire to intern for the mentioned company. Always remember to end your answers with a strong and powerful statement that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.
When Applying for a Lateral Movement
When you’re applying for a lateral movement, it’s important to show why you would be a good addition to a different department. To make sure you stand out, let your achievements shine rather than oversell it. After all, there’s nothing worse than hearing an applicant drone on about how talented they are.
When I was an assistant editor for Empirical Press, I was tasked to help promote the new book of Joyce Carol Oates. Our main objective was to engage younger readers and at the same time work under a limited budget. To help amplify our campaign message, I created the hashtag, #ShowUsYourOates and encouraged fans to post photos of them with their favourite books of the author. It was a hit and I was praised by my editor for spearheading a successful but cost-effective marketing project. The Twitter campaign was also recognized by Spikes Asia, which gave the company its first silver award. Given my background and this experience, I believe I would make a great addition to the marketing department.
When drafting your answer, construct it in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re too full of yourself. In the example above, the applicant still ended their answer by giving credit to the company for winning the silver award, rather than to themselves.
When applying for a Managerial Position or a Promotion
Applying for a promotion can get tricky (and sometimes awkward), especially if you’re competing with a colleague. Avoid getting thrown off your game by calming those interview jitters and practising what you need to say. Also, pick an example that best exemplifies your leadership skills – be it spearheading an award-winning project or encouraging your team to do better despite low employee morale.
When I was an associate producer for BBC, we received reports notifying us that a known terrorist had been successfully annihilated by the government. Other programs from different channels started airing the report despite not securing double confirmation. By using my connections, I was able to track another source who could confirm the report’s accuracy and it turned out that the news was false. We were the only channel that didn’t have to issue an apology for that day. I believe having a calm presence of mind and taking that extra step to secure double confirmation is what helped strengthen our credibility with the viewers. I also believe that my actions show I’m ready to take a more senior role in the organization as executive producer.
When applying for a leadership position, your answer must demonstrate how your initiative helped the company. Be confident and direct with how you phrase your sentences without bragging. After all, a true mark of a leader is someone who knows actions speak louder than words.
Whether it’s your first or tenth interview, it’s important to keep preparing by constantly learning and doing your research. And if you encounter a question that you don’t quite know how to answer just remember to breathe, relax and remember your practice.
How would you answer this tricky question? Let us know in the comment section below.