What’s the difference between an average worker and a super productive, superstar worker?

October 9, 2020

According to “How to Be a Star at Work”, a highly-regarded book written by Carnegie Mellon University professor and national consultant Robert E. Kelley, the difference is initiative. In his book, he breaks down 9 breakthrough strategies that you need to be successful in the workplace. Dr. Kelley advises that “demonstrating initiative proves to be the most powerful work skills tool for bridging the chasm between the intelligent, average worker and the super productive, star worker. If you are starting out in a new workplace, you will quickly be judged on whether you go beyond your specific responsibilities and take initiative.”

Many employers agree that employees that are able to demonstrate the ability to use their own initiative are more likely to be considered for promotions and receive rewards and recognition earlier on. It is an incredibly sought after and valuable skill that is not so easy to find. Initiative refers to a person’s ability to initiate and assess problems, situations and projects independently. It’s often recognized in employees who consistently go above and beyond the core duties of their role or present solutions to problems with minimal direction or input from others. By demonstrating the ability to utilize this skill, managers are able to confidently delegate work and trust that the work will be carried out to a high standard without too much managerial involvement.

Let’s take a closer look at a three examples:

Taking accountability for your own professional development

Of course, it is perfectly acceptable for you to request professional development and training opportunities from your employer. However, it’s easy to demonstrate initiative if you provide your employer with as much information as possible around your longer term career aspirations, any courses, qualifications, resources that you are aware of that would relate to your desired area of professional growth. It’s not enough to complain about the lack of professional development or just to ask for it, if you haven’t given much thought around the type of growth and the resources out there. Having all of the information to hand, in addition to being able to explain how it will add value to the company will only increase your chances of being offered the opportunity to do so.  

Making a difference by adding value

In most workplaces you wouldn’t survive without the ability to apply initiative. Most employers are looking for the soft skills as well as the technical ability to do more than “get the job done.” It is true that the typical 9-5 job still very much exists but those that are resistant to going above and beyond rarely survive the fast-paced, nature of most successful companies. It’s become more of a common interview question as employers are placing such strong emphasis on trying to seek out people who can help play a critical part in helping their company accomplish it’s short and long term strategic objectives. They’re now asking exactly how you can add value and what you’re really bringing to the table.

Thinking outside of the box

It’s a common phrase, but realistically how many people can actually do it? It’s normal to start a new job and not fully understand the software and/or systems for example. The difference between an employee with initiative and one without is the one without may sit there and freeze unable to complete their assigned tasks until asked what the problem is whereas the employee with initiative may seek out the answers using the system handbook, their induction documentation or by asking questions. Employers nowadays appreciate inquisitive employees! Asking questions demonstrates your desire to learn; it shows that you are genuinely invested in understanding how the company works and you want to be great at your job so don’t sit in silence, seize the opportunity.

The big question is – can ordinary people apply the same basic strategies naturally adopted by superstar workers and develop initiative? I think so. The traits are not difficult to spot in those employees that stand out. Hard work can trump talent when talent doesn’t work hard.