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Taking the Initiative

As a leadership coach, one of the issues that I hear about from my clients at the GS-14/15 level of the federal government is the lack of opportunities to demonstrate their capabilities and competencies through new and meaningful projects, tasks, or assignments. Often they will express their frustrations by saying that their senior manager does not delegate significant projects or meaningful tasks or that agency management provides meaningful assignments to other employees instead. My clients aver — and probably rightfully so — that effectively demonstrating their specific capabilities puts them in a favorable position to contribute even more to the agency’s mission, either through gaining a promotion or obtaining increased authority and resources to achieve performance goals.

While wearing my executive coaching hat in these situations, I ask my clients powerful questions in an effort to spotlight some key distinctions for them, such as:

– What is the benefit of waiting for someone to “give” you something?
– What is the difference between “being given an assignment” and “taking the initiative”?
– What is it to be undaunted?

The answers to these types of questions frequently open up some amazing possibilities for my clients as they reflect on their frame of mind and mull over their various options.

With this in mind–and assuming you are not currently looking to change jobs–here are some ways you might consider for taking the initiative to gain additional developmental experience:

1) Redesign your current job. Ask your manager for opportunities to restructure your current job to take on new assignments and challenging tasks. Sometimes managers assume that you’re already busy enough with your current workload or simply forget that you might indeed be ready for new challenges. Don’t go into this meeting empty-handed. If your boss comes up empty with possible new tasks or assignments, have one or two ideas in your back pocket.

2) Look for assignments outside your direct office. Your boss might have nothing to offer you, but others within your organization might have a burning need for assistance where you can contribute and demonstrate your abilities. These potential temporary assignments could include task forces, one-time events, and short-term projects.

3) Volunteer for a career-related project outside your organization. If your organization has nothing to offer you in the way of a developmental assignment, don’t sit around waiting for something to magically appear. Try to find new challenges and opportunities within your area of expertise or your industry. Consider gaining additional writing experience by blogging about topics that are of interest to you. Seek out leadership roles in professional associations or create your own group of like-minded souls. If your goal is to demonstrate to your current managers that you have the right stuff, volunteer to work on something that they cannot help but notice.

4) Seek opportunities outside the workplace. You can also consider leadership opportunities beyond your current job, career, or industry, such as positions in community groups, school boards, religious institutions, sports teams, and social clubs. In this domain, the sky is the limit.

If you decide to move forward with one of these options, be prepared to deliver. If your current family responsibilities and work/life balance doesn’t allow for you to volunteer for an additional project or assignment with a sizable workload, don’t do it. Assess the amount of time and energy you have to contribute and your ultimate goals for seeking these new challenges before making a commitment. When done right, you’ll be amazed at what you can learn in these types of developmental experiences.

So, any other suggestions for taking the initiative?

Scott Derrick is the Director of Professional Development at the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit professional association of career federal executives. The views expressed here are his own.

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Another idea I have is “to let your interest be known.” It’s one thing to have a hidden desire to do a bigger project or work on something in particular (I’d love to run the HR redesign). But by actually being open about it sometimes it helps a lot. Others will hear about opportunities and spread them to you. Others will recommend you for positions. And maybe your boss just doesn’t know how interested you are in a certain role and will help you get there.

K. Scott Derrick

Steve – Yeah, great point. In letting your interest be known, it’s probably important to be strategic in how you express that interest…whether you start directly with your boss and work outward (like ripples created by a pebble thrown in a pond) or whether you broadcast it widely (like a megaphone). That might depend on your personal style, the attitude of your boss, the culture of your organization, and your ultimate goals involved.

Don Jacobson

Great post, Scott!

Another simple thing all employees can do to get additional projects and responsibilities is take ownership of fixing problems they see. A lot of people site back and wait for management to fix a problem when, in reality, management may not even be aware of the issue. If you see a problem and have an idea for fixing it, take the problem and solution to your boss–and make it clear that you are willing to implement the idea if they will just give you the green light.

My first boss in the Foreign Service wrote in my work requirements that he wanted me to “take a hard look at the entire operation and make recommendations for improvement.” I took it as a mandate and ran with it. He gave the lead in implementing most of my ideas for improvement. I have put the same mandate in the work requirements of most of the officers who have worked for me since then, and I also encourage officers who don’t work for me to approach their work as if they have such a mandate.

As Bob Stone wrote, “If you work in government, you’ll see things that need doing. You can choose to stay out of trouble, or you can ask yourself, ‘If not me, who?'”


K. Scott Derrick

Hi Don,

Hear, hear! Some employees do not seem to realize how much influence they can have. It simply takes a little initiative. Thanks for your contribution…and your leadership!