Personal Initiative

Looking for Members to Join your Startup? Hiring those with Personal Initiative is the Key to Success

During college, I worked at a startup and interviewed potential new members, but I had no idea what kind of questions to ask. Was I supposed to be looking for someone with free time who could dedicate hours of work? Someone passionate about the mission of our startup? Someone who could think outside of the box? I wish I had been aware of the evidenced-based practices to help me with this endeavor. If you are reading this, you might be in a similar position where you have to assess a person’s potential, either as a new hire or current employee, and you are looking for answers! When you first created your startup, you were a small group of individuals who came up with an innovative idea. But now the operations have increased and you are actively recruiting members and preparing for launch. There are over 3 million startups (Nisen, 2014), which means more competition, as it is unlikely all 3 million will succeed. However, you can help your chances of success by being intentional about who you decide to bring on board. It is likely that you are looking for someone who is flexible, creative, dedicated, and willing to put in long-hours with no immediate payment or benefits (due to limited funds). The individuals you are searching for are are high in personal initiative (PI). 

A member of an organization who has personal initiative: (1) acts in ways consistent with the organization’s mission, (2) demonstrates long-term focus, (3) is goal-oriented and action-oriented, (4) is determined during setbacks and barriers, and (5) is proactive (Frese, Fay, Hiburger, Leng, & Tag, 1997). These set of behaviors are particularly important for entrepreneurs and startups. While working with another startup, I came across a member who was passionate about the mission of the company and she remained part of the organization despite the fact that she moved out of the area for a job that could pay her. Furthermore, she proved to be one of the most effective and efficient workers by checking in with her members often and always assigning them tasks that were interesting to them and/or re-working projects to fit their needs. This member was demonstrating personal initiative! All entrepreneurs are confronted with unpredictable and shifting environments exacerbated by work overload, thereby requiring employees to be flexible in their duties and methodologies (Baron, Franklin, Hmieleski, 2013). This milieu of constant change and innovation increases the need for all members to demonstrate personal initiative (Frohman, 1999).

Recently, I began helping a startup called Ulzi; their goal is to reduce the occurrences of sexual assault by leveraging the community by means of a mobile application. When I asked the founders what kind of people they wanted to bring on their team, they described someone with personal initiative. When interviewing potential members, they were most impressed by those who were passionate about the mission, wanted to be part of the organization for the long-run, capable of setting goals and creating paths to accomplish those goals, clever while working through challenges, and able to perform assigned tasks without having to be managed. Without knowing, they have been searching for workers and volunteers who demonstrate PI behaviors. 

Research supports the concept that people who demonstrate personal initiative more assertively engage intimidating situations, adjust well to stressors, and are more likely to excel in entrepreneurial environments (Frese & Fay, 2001). Take for example, that individual mentioned earlier, despite a big move she remained committed to the company, overcame long work hours, and became a true champion of the startup. Frohman (1999) found a connection between PI and innovative thinking, thereby further supporting the idea that PI is particularly important for those working in startups. I have seen this kind of persistence before, for example, a leader in a company asked a member to create a promotional video, with no further direction. It was up to the member to storyboard the video, solicit input, watch other videos for inspiration, and then pitch the idea to the team. If the team didn’t like the video idea, it was back to the drawing board. The members who were capable of absorbing the feedback, gleaning some direction, and then starting the video creation process again, were the ones with PI.

When startups begin growing in size, they must become less product-focused, and more people-focused (Blank, 2017). This may sound counterintuitive as the launch date approaches because of the temptation to kick your workers into high gear and demand more out of them. However, this is a critical time when the startup must begin focusing on the people ultimately responsible for its success or failure. One of the first questions one should ask is, “Are we hiring the right people?” This is where it is important to hire people with personal initiative. If you want workers who are willing and capable of developing creative solutions, working through obstacles, and accomplishing tasks with little direction, then consider finding those with PI. While Frese, Fay, Hilburger, Leng, and Tag (1997) have established a survey tool used to assess personal initiative, below are a few interview questions adapted from this survey which may be used to gain additional insight on potential new hires and their personal initiative behaviors.

Interview Questions Relating to Personal Initiative

  • Please provide an example of a time where you actively attacked a problem during a job-related task.
  • In what ways have you used opportunities to attain your goals?
  • Please provide an example of a time when something went wrong, and you needed to find a solution. How did you go about this? How long did it take you to develop a solution and then act?

I suggest using these questions coupled with in-depth follow-ups during an interview to gain greater insights into one’s personal initiative capabilities. Research has shown that personal initiative can be cultivated (Glaub, Frese, Fischer, & Hoppe, 2014), however, it is less time-consuming and less expensive to start with someone who already demonstrates PI qualities and behaviors—and in the startup world, time and money are everything! When asking these questions to a potential new member of a startup, one should be looking for someone who attacks problems early, fast, and without direct orders from a leader or manager. It is important they provide concrete examples of goals they have set, obstacles they have overcome to accomplish those goals, and ways in which they have applied this skill in multiple contexts. We can best predict future behaviors by the kinds of behaviors they have shown in the past. Look for someone who describes finding a solution by considering multiple perspectives on an issue, consults others regarding those findings, and then quickly takes action to resolve the issue. When an applicant is found who employs such behaviors instinctively, they will likely be a great new member for your startup. Bring them on board and watch them work hard and inspire others!


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