“There are plenty of good idea men.  A lot of them are collecting tolls on the thruway as we speak.”  It is a rare individual who can be counted on for ideas and for action.

Over time, as I hired and led teams, I realized that while I loved to have people who were both idea men and action heroes, if I had choose one, I would always choose the action hero.  Creativity is much more common than initiative.

Initiative Is Rare

When Brainstorming Meetings Beat Me Down

There are few things that can suck the life out of me more than a meeting that generates no action items.  My dad, The Master of the Sword at West Point, used to say, “Meetings are what happens when people sit around talking about the things they should be out there doing.”

The most discouraging meetings I led were the never-ending brainstorming sessions. The premise of these meetings was to generate as many new ideas as possible.  I believed that all my people needed were new ideas.  If they had those, they would be off and running.

Over time, I got discouraged.  I would check in with people and realize few if any of the ideas we generated were being implemented.  These fantastic ideas that had everyone jumping up and down and excited in the conference room, were collecting brain dust now.

The inaction of my people was my responsibility.  I was the leader.  If they were not implementing the ideas we generated, it was my fault.  I had to make changes.

I either needed to begin hiring Action Heroes or begin creating them from the Idea Men I currently had on the team.

Hiring Action Heroes

I needed new blood on my team.  In the Army everyone was expected to have a “can do” attitude.  But in the civilian world, I realized that creativity was much more common than initiative.  The search was on.

Over time certain questions helped me to identify people with a natural tendency to take action.

Question:  Tell me about a situation at your previous job that made your job more difficult than it needed to be.

What I Listen For:  Do they tell me the actions they took (and the results)? Do I hear only the ideas for fixing it, or worse do they just complain?

Question:  Tell me about a time you got a good idea from a co-worker.

What I Listen For:   Are they humble enough to learn from others?  Did they beat that person with their own ideas?  I loved nothing better than using someone else’s idea and beating them with it.

Question:  Tell me about an idea someone had that did not work for you.

What I Listen For:  Did they try it once and quit?  Did they persevere until it worked?  Did the idea work for others?  Did they come up with a new idea, implement it and share it with others?

All three of these question are meant to uncover whether this person is action oriented?  Notice I did not add: “What did you do about it?” or some other prompt.

Beware of professional interviewers.  There are too many books and resources available that have taught people what they should say in an interview.  I want to hear people volunteer that they took action.

Action Heroes are always more interested in telling you about How they did something versus the idea itself.  They can’t help themselves.  They will also take the most mundane ideas and win with them.

Creating Action Heroes

I also realized that if I had people who were creative, structure was needed to turn their ideas into action.  Again that was my job.

At meetings, I learned to narrow our laundry list of 15 highly creative ideas, down to 2 or 3 that the team believed had the best potential.  Potential in these meetings meant they could generate the biggest change in the shortest period of time.  (These were quarterly meetings where short-term results were the focus).

Once we narrowed down the 2-3 best ideas, we made them specific and measurable.  We also added a time bound element to them.  Often, my Action Heroes would be invaluable to the Idea Men at this point.  Our ideas had now become true goals.

Goals that are Specific, Measurable, Action oriented, Realistic, and Time bound give much needed structure to my Idea Men.  It also gave me something specific to follow-up on after the meeting.

The Bottom Line:

I found that if I did not have a combination of creativity and initiative in each person, I needed to have that combination on my team.  The combination would bring out the best in each person.

My goal was to always have a team of Action Heroes.   Uncreative action will beat creative inaction in every business environment.  My goal as the leader is to be sure my team has both Idea Men and Action Heroes.  If I can get both traits in the same person, that is huge.  But if not, I will always prefer to have an Action Hero on my side.


Who do you know that is highly successful but low on initiative?  Who do you know that is highly creative but low on initiative?  Based on your answers, which is more important?