5 Reasons Admins Do Not Take Initiative and How to Overcome Them

May 7, 2020 | Career Development, Communication, Innovation, Leadership

taking the initiative

“Initiative is doing the right things without being told.” ~ Elbert Hubbard

Taking the initiative is one of the most liberating and rewarding parts of being an administrative professional.

You overhear your executive promising to send a document to a colleague by the end of the day. You have that document waiting for him after lunch. You have an idea for streamlining a process and a documented plan for implementing it. So you share your process and plan at the next staff meeting. Your company is looking for ways to save money and reduce expenses. So you renegotiate supplier contracts. You create a better tickler system for annual renewals. And you beta test a new expense tracking software.

In some cases, you may have run your plans and ideas past your executive first.  In other cases, you took action because you had the confidence you needed to proceed. 

Initiative is going above and beyond the status quo. It’s not coming up with ideas alone. It’s implementing those ideas to make things easier or more efficient for you and the people around you.

Knowing when and how to take initiative can be fantastic for your career. It helps identify you as a self-starter. It tells your manager or executive that you don’t need a ton of supervision or handholding. And it will put you top of mind when opportunities for leadership roles or promotions arise.

But taking initiative is not easy for everyone. It can be difficult to put yourself out there. You may fear that you are overstepping your bounds or coming on too strong.

Here are some reasons you may be hesitant to take initiative and things you can do to overcome them.

1. You’re afraid of making mistakes.

The Problem: You have great ideas but lack the confidence to implement them. What if you mess up? What if your executive gets upset? If you do not have the best track record in this area, your manager is hesitant for good reason.

The Solution: No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes – especially if they are trying to do anything of importance.

You are going to make mistakes. Even big mistakes. So here’s what you do when it happens:

  • Admit your mistake as soon as possible.
  • Determine what you can or should do to fix it.
  • Get to the bottom of why the mistake was made. Were you tired? Stressed? Rushed? Did you fail to follow the proper process because you weren’t paying attention?

Once you have followed the above steps, it’s important to create new habits so the mistake doesn’t happen again. If your mistake affected your executive or colleagues, apologize. Communicate what you’ll do to prevent the mistake in the future, and move on. There’s no need to beat yourself up over it. Mistakes happen for everyone!

2. You need a better system for task completion.

The Problem: Your executive will not trust you with bigger projects if you can’t deliver on small tasks. If you drop the ball or don’t follow through on small things, he or she will be hesitant to let you take on bigger tasks. Your executive may not be confident that you have a good enough system in place to get things completed on time.

The Solution: A bullet-proof system for tracking tasks or requests through to completion. Your system must identify:

  • How requests come in (verbal request, email, mail, meetings, etc.).
  • Where you input them for tracking and follow-up (Outlook Tasks, project management tool, etc.).
  • How you create a plan for completion (sub-tasks with start dates and due dates).

With a good system in place, missed deadlines will be a very rare occurrence. And your executives know this, too. They may not know HOW you do it, but they see and experience the results of your system. And that makes all the difference when you want to show initiative and add something to the list.

3. You don’t understand the management and/or work style of your executive.

The Problem: Your Myers-Briggs personality type is different than your executive’s. He likes a big picture overview (Intuitive), but you give him lots of details (Sensing). Or she prefers lots of details (Sensing), but you only give her a quick overview (Intuitive). He is very deadline-driven and prefers routine and structure (Judging). But you leave things to the last minute in case you find a better solution (Perceiving).

The Solution: Communicate in a way that matches your executive’s personality type. Yes, adapting to another person’s preferences can be difficult. But the reward will be an increase in your executive’s trust.

Understanding more about your executive’s personality type (and your own!) can pay off in other ways, as well. For instance, you’ll be able to identify tasks that they struggle with, but you would excel at. How about email management? Meeting agenda development? Board retreat planning? This is an opportunity to take initiative. Start a conversation about you handling these tasks instead!

4. You and/or your executive struggle to communicate effectively.

The Problem: If you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to be doing and when it’s expected, it’s hard to hit the target. Your executive may not be good at explaining their ideas to you. You may not be good at pulling the missing details and expectations out of them. If both are true, it’s a recipe for disaster. The more you miss the mark, the less your executive will trust your abilities. And the less likely you’ll be able to take action on things without their permission.

The Solution: Routine communication is the key! Make time for regular check-ins throughout the day or week. Again, personality type and communication styles will dictate how this takes place. It could be a formal one-on-one meeting or extra time set aside at the monthly team meeting. It could be status reports via email, or an informal five-minute chat at the beginning and end of the day. It doesn’t matter how it gets done. What matters is you’re communicating in a way that makes sense to both of you and on a regular basis.

As an admin, it is your responsibility to establish and maintain these touchpoints. Don’t wait for your executive to ask. Take the initiative to schedule routine communication yourself. And once you have, make sure you’re prepared and organized so neither of you is wasting the other’s time!

5. You and/or your executive project bad experiences with others onto one another.

The Problem: As humans, we are wired to protect ourselves from things that hurt us. It’s a natural and healthy response. But sometimes we project past experiences with one person onto another, unrelated person. Unfair? Absolutely! Yet that’s why some executives resist letting their assistants take more initiative. If they’ve had a bad experience, it can impact their decisions with you. And if the same is true for you, you may not realize you’re projecting onto your current executive. Neither is helpful!

The Solution: Do your best to put past hurts and poor experiences aside. Although it’s easier said than done, it is possible. Make a conscious choice to focus on the here and now. Remember, you can’t always control the situation, but you are in charge of how you react to it!

What if it’s your executive projecting their past experiences on you? If you suspect this, engage in a crucial conversation to get to the bottom of it. They may not even realize they are doing it. At times, you’ll feel like you’re part psychoanalyst, part mind reader. That’s normal for an admin! Learn their styles and preferences. Get a feel for how they handle stressful situations. Do they want your help, or would they prefer to deal with their frustrations alone?

When I was a corporate admin, I had an executive tell me he appreciated my ability to know when to push and when to back off. Small things like this are crucial when it comes to getting your manager to trust you!

Above all, be realistic about what you can take on. Don’t neglect your existing duties trying to play office superhero. I guarantee you it will have the opposite effect!

Taking Initiative Can Boost Your Career!

For every reason you can find not to take initiative, there are two that prove why you should. Don’t let excuses rule your career! Strive to show your executive they can trust you when taking the initiative. That’s when you’ll become the admin they can’t imagine their professional life without!


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Julie Perrine, CAP-OM, is the founder and CEO of All Things Admin, providing training, mentoring and resources for administrative professionals worldwide. Julie applies her administrative expertise and passion for lifelong learning to serving as an enthusiastic mentor, speaker and author who educates admins around the world on how to be more effective every day. Learn more about Julie’s books — The Innovative Admin: Unleash the Power of Innovation in Your Administrative Career and The Organized Admin: Leverage Your Unique Organizing Style to Create Systems, Reduce Overwhelm, and Increase Productivity, and Become a Procedures Pro: The Admin’s Guide to Developing Effective Office Systems and Procedures. 

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