Five tests for spotting initiative

By Ted Pollock, Management Consultant

Choosing the right person to do a job is one of management’s recurring challenges. But, how do you separate the doers from the daydreamers? Here are five questions to ask about any potential “doer.”

Does he present problems or solutions? “My former assistant invariably came to me in the middle of an assignment to tell me about a difficult problem he had run into. He proposed no solution, not even a poor one,” recalls a vice president of manufacturing of a business machines company. “In other words, he was asking me to use my time thinking of possible solutions.

“The woman I have now also brings difficult problems to my attention, but she offers a possible solution or two. Usually one of her solutions does the trick. However, even when none of them has sufficient merit, they start me thinking about other answers.”

Listen carefully the next time a subordinate brings in a problem. If he also brings a reasonable suggestion or two, you probably have a doer in your office.

Does he use available resources? One of the most frustrating experiences in assignment giving is to have the assignee return again and again for help he could have obtained elsewhere.

If you find yourself responding in some of the following ways, you can be almost certain you are dealing with a non-doer:

  • “But the answer can be found in the file on this matter.”
  • “My secretary could have told you about my schedule for next week.”
  • “That point is covered in the minutes of the meeting.”

On the other hand, if your subordinate rarely comes in with questions while while working on a project; if he gets as many preliminary answers as possible; if he has made it his business to learn your point of view-keep him in mind for important assignments in the future. He knows how to do his job as well as how to give you more time for yours.

Does he know the facts? Watch for the subordinate who always is first with the answer.

The vice president of a paper manufacturing company had several people of approximately equal rank reporting to him. From time to time, he would ask them to bring in recommendations on various matters. Invariably one of them came in to report ahead of the others.

It soon became apparent, however, that the speedy subordinate habitually neglected his homework; his recommendations rarely squared with the facts. The vice president concluded that the fastest man was the one he could rely on least. The doers took time to study the facts. They were somewhat slower but considerably more sure.

If, in making far-reaching decisions, you rely to some extent on the recommendations of others, choose individuals who show great respect for facts.

Are his reports in proportion to results? A doer usually lets his actions do most of the talking. Dalliers, dawdlers, and daydreamers learn to camouflage their lack of achievement in torrents of words.

The head of a large editorial services company asks for oral reports in these terms: “Please skip all the background, the plans you made, the strategy you followed, and the hopes you have. Just tell me as succinctly as possible what you have accomplished so far.” If the answer is “Nothing,” the time can be constructively spent in suggesting what the subordinate should do. If, later, the results are still invisible, it’s time to put someone else on the job.

A written report may tell a great deal about the reporter. If it is clearly a long-winded picture of a negligible result, take a careful second look at the reporter before assigning him another task. He may be excellent at writing reports, but mediocre in the runs-batted-in department.

Does he get discouraged easily? When a subordinate is talented at explaining why tasks cannot be accomplished, he may be the fellow who can’t accomplish them.

If an individual shows signs of discouragement at the first obstacle he encounters, look out. He is going to need more encouragement than you have time to give him.

As a rule, doing goes hand-in-hand with a positive attitude. When the salesman thinks he can sell, his chances of making the sale increase. When the traffic manager is determined to find cheaper routings, he won’t give up until he has done so. Whatever the mission, the person who believes he can accomplish it is more likely to do so.

This should not be construed to mean that a doer is an irrepressible optimist. But he does size up a task with a view toward completing it. That gives him a decided advantage over the person who finds almost every task difficult and every difficult task impossible.

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