Initiative for the non-initiated

Rage against the machine

An employee, at my old company, told me a story of his days in university (faculty) in Serbia. His professor asked the class to write a paper, but apparently as is/was fashionable at the time, included the foregone conclusion that the students were supposed to arrive at. So essentially he removed any free thought or initiative from the assignment.

But rather than follow the guidance of the professor, the student came to his own, different, conclusion and submitted the paper. For his initiative, he was singled, as the professor highlighted his paper and began to read it to the class. Unfortunately, though, the professor took this opportunity to ridicule the student and read the paper in a derisive and mocking tone. Humiliated and discouraged, the student quit the class and the university.

Even though he quit school and his initiative was diminished it was never fully extinguished. Fast forward some years later, this student, at a relatively young age, became a high level executive at a billion dollar US-based company, and is on track for even greater accomplishments. His success was in no small part to his proactivity and personal initiative, in spite of the efforts of his professor to discourage him


In many cases, initiative is discouraged in Eastern Europe. Young people are taught followership and not leadership. The goal is to find a “boss” and do what you are told. (1)

But this is the exact opposite of what you will need to build success, whether it is in a career, particularly US based companies, or a business. Initiative is the key to success. It is part of the Working naked values that I practice and preach.

Initiative is what separates the sheep from the goats and something we’ll be talking a lot about on SCRUMBUM.


(1) I don’t know if this is a legacy of communism or what. I do sense this is changing, but not fast enough.


Seeking opportunity – taking initiative in landing your next job

Everyone can show initiative

So you have no experience, knowledge or skills? You can’t possibly show initiative until someone “trains” you, right? Wrong.

You, more than anyone else, will need to show initiative, to get your first position, exactly because you have little training or experience. It’s called hustle. You can do a lot of little things to demonstrate initiative even without a lot of experience and really position yourself for success


PPPPPP – Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

Invest in preparation; all of the little things that will tip the scale in your favor when you are applying for a position and put you ahead of the competition.

  • Further your English proficiency in a demonstrable way
    • Enroll in a program or otherwise take classes
    • Get certifications, scores, grades or some other tangible proof of your proficiency
    • If you do nothing else, create a group of your friends and name it, and meet every week to speak in English and correct each other. Add the name of this “group” to your LinkedIn profile
  • Improve your English typing speed
    • Take online typing classes
    • Certify, verify your typing speed and put it on your resume. Do you know what your typing speed is in English? If not, you should find out and if it isn’t good, work on improving it
  • Invest in self-promotion
    • Update your LinkedIn profile and try post weekly in LinkedIn in English
    • Have a resume available for the job you want in English
    • Add all activities, groups, etc to your resume
    • Ask people for written references and/or if they would be willing to provide phone references
  • Don’t have a job, have extra time on your hands?
    • Volunteer for a group, charity etc. It can make your resume look better and add valuable experience.
    • Add this to your resume, LinkedIn profile
  • Read some books about business, success, motivation etc
  • Improve your US cultural awareness
    • Watch as many US TV shows and movies as you can. This will both improve your English and your cultural awareness, aptitude which will be helpful when engaging with prospective employers from the US
  • Teach yourself a skill whether it be coding, web design, network admin. You don’t need to go to school, take a class etc. With some dedication and hard work, you can teach yourself. Here is a story of one guy who did
  • Spell and grammar check your resume, then re-check and re-check and re-check. Then have other people check it
  • Create different versions of your resume for different types of positions
  • Create a cover/intro letter, one for each type of position
  • Follow people you are targeting for employment or networking on LinkedIn and then
    • Like their posts, without over-doing it
    • Then after a month, engage with some posts with thoughtful comments, validation of their posts etc. Continue this engagement through for the duration
    • Make sure to post content, yourself, that may resonate with people that may see it. A good way to do this is to share helpful articles you have read with some comments. “I found this to be a very helpful and informative article because it provided insights into improving my productivity that really worked!”
    • Then after another month, send them a well thought out connection invitation indicating that you have really benefitted/learned from their content on LinkedIn
    • Continue to post, engage
    • After another month, endorse them for some relevant skills – not more than 2-3
    • Then when you see a good opportunity to make a move, like seeing or hearing of a job posting at the company, reach out via a message to ask them to consider you, including resume etc
    • Note: For this to be done right, it takes a long time, so the best time to start is NOW.

Next step to success

80% of success is just showing up – Woody Allen

Now that you’ve demonstrated some initiative and are ready for an opportunity, it is time to lean forward.

Apply to all jobs that you can, availing all means e.g. job boards, your personal network, job fairs etc. It is critical to “pound the pavement” and not stop until you’ve secured a position

Expand your network. Volunteering, classes and LinkedIn are all good opportunities

Don’t wait for someone to knock on your door. Show up at theirs.

But the other 20% is important too

Don’t just show up with your hand-outstretched. Being proactive is …

  • Thoroughly gathering all available information BEFORE asking questions. Nobody has time to provide you information that is already publicly available
  • Don’t immediately ask to be trained. Unless you are applying to a training program, the employer will expect you to be trained, or at least to add value … that is why they will be giving you money for
  • Tailor your presentation to the requirements of the job. If the job requires travel, then you’ve got itchy feet. If the job asks for English proficiency, highlight the aforementioned skills and knowledge.
  • Take time to research the company and demonstrate your knowledge. People are narcissistic, they love it when people learn/talk about them and their company. It is a great way to build rapport and good will
  • Take the perspective that you are there to help them. Frame everything in terms of what you can do for them/the company. What value can you add? What impact can you make? How hard will you work? Remember, they are basing their decision on their own self-interest. You can think about your self interest *after* you have been offered the job
  • You can’t guarantee success but you can guarantee that you will put in more effort to learn and succeed in the position than any other new hires and that if you need to learn something, you will invest the time, before, during and/or after work to learn it. A nice trick is to say that, if hired, you will be the first one in and the last to leave

Things you must do

  • Always attach your resume. Remember, you will get one chance to send something in, make sure you send everything. Leave anything out, and you might not get a chance to include it
  • Include a cover letter
  • Always mention something you learned about the company and, even better, the person you are engaging with, ideally in a complimentary way e.g. “I see you are a graduate of So-and-so university. My uncle went there and I know it is a fine institution”. This is called an “ice breaker” and may get you to the top of the stack.
  • Indicate that you are happy to provide references upon request (this allows you to notify your references first)

Possible add-ons

  • Always indicate that you will be happy to interview, in person, or virtually any time, any place on short notice
  • Indicate that you understand that the person may be busy, but that you may helpfully follow-up in a few days via email, if you haven’t heard back. That means your follow-up email, and even a call won’t come as a surprise because you can say “I’m a (wo)man of my word, and, as I indicated, I’m helpfully following up! :)”
  • Indicate that you are so confident that they will be happy with your efforts, that you would gladly accept a trial period to demonstrate your worth, before full compensation and benefits are provided

In your interview

  • Bring multiple hard copies of your resume
  • Have written references available
  • Show up early
  • Be well dressed
  • Be pleasant and greet everyone you meet
  • Use a firm handshake
  • Send a thank you email within 1 hour of end of interview


As the knowledgebase worker economy continues to transition to more agile, more remote, more dynamic and more empowered, your classic micromanager is a dying breed, for good reason. Micromanagement gets a bad reputation because of the pernicious effect is has on retarding the growth and productivity of teams and if left unchecked, how it can calcify entire organizations.

But a phenomenon that I see all the time but is never mentioned, is the prevalence of team members who refuse to think, lead, share, strive, own and want to have their hands held when doing even the most trivial task. I call them microfollowers.

Oh, so they need training? But even when you answer their questions, walk them through tasks up to thoroughly training them on certain skills they tend to not internalize this knowledge and instead just constantly ask questions. Other traits of microfollowers include:

  • When they do tasks they are often of such poor quality that they require a dedicated QA just to get the results accepted to any minimum standard.
  • They tend to not RTFM, search for answers or otherwise show any initiative in figuring things out
  • They won’t follow instructions, when they are given
  • They constantly ask questions, but often won’t listen to or at least remember the answers
  • They never take initiative in general

These people have a philosophy that a superior is actually a line supervisor that will essentially manage them as if they were a machine, inputting instructions for every task, no matter how small or trivial. They also believe they are responsible only for the effort and not the results, so that no matter the output from their labor, the quality of it isn’t their responsibility. These ideas can be deeply ingrained and difficult to change, especially as people get older.

How to spot a microfollower

  • They ask an inordinate amount of questions, often without applying basic thought or logic. Many of the questions are non-sensical
  • They tend to repeat the same questions that they had asked previously, even a day or two before
  • They don’t tend to retain information. They forget answers to questions, responses to emails, instructions that they supposedly read
  • They never read instructions, procedures, guidelines on their own
  • They tend to make the same mistakes over and over again
  • They never take responsibility for their actions
  • If a mistake is made they always “Fuck down” vs “Fuck up”
  • They constantly complain that nobody has trained them and/or their training is inadequate, yet when trained, even formally, they tend to retain very little of the knowledge
  • They don’t take criticism well and tend to personalize everything
  • Micro followers tend to use loser-words

Where do microfollowers come from?

Unfortunately, schools and universities, particularly in Eastern Europe, specializing in graduating micro-followers. I wrote an article on one such case where, when a student attempted to lead he was basically kicked out of the college.

These students arrive in the workforce and they get paired off with micromanagers, and tethered together, they weigh each other down as their careers move at a snail’s pace, if at all, while their more nimble peers who learn to show initiative move ahead by leaps and bounds. Best case, by working long enough and gaining experience just through pure attrition, they somehow move up in an organization to themselves become micromanagers, and the cycle continues.

Can they be salvaged?

Some, and perhaps many, can. Early in their tenure at an organization, you can work with them and attempt to break them of these tendencies. We created a values statement specifically designed to empower and encourage people to show initiative. It is amazing to see the reaction, when people realize that they can actually step out and think for themselves; that they are powered to take the initiative and make their own decisions. In fact, some team members who started out as microfollowers became some of the best leaders I’ve ever worked with.

Sadly, others will resist this with their every being. After much back and forth, you may determine that this person will always be a microfollower and the only recourse is to let them go. There are many companies that will be happy to have such a person and assign them to a micromanager, who will be fulfilled supervising such a willing supplicant.

Radical concepts

The opposite of micromanagement is holocracy, where essentially everyone manages themselves. I don’t believe true holocracy is possible, but we came very close. Our values statement was meant to highlight the fact that we were free of schedules, fixed work locations and bosses.

Even though I was the CEO, my internal title, and that of my COO was “Facilitator”. That meant I was there to help people do their jobs, not tell them how to do them or do them myself. This only works if you have a company full of self-starters, ready and willing to take the initiative. Microfollowers need to be quickly identified and converted to microleaders, or encouraged to find roles in more captive-employment type environments.


No skills, No experience, No English … No problem!


We hired this guy at my old company, out of Serbia. At that point in my career, I wasn’t hiring anyone directly myself, as we had an HR team, and I was only working with people after they had been onboarded.

I happened to be visiting our office in Belgrade and this individual, let’s call him Yivko, to mask his identity, was always at the office, so for a few days, we spent a lot of time together. We’d go out to lunch, I would do all the talking, telling him about our work culture, giving him a lot of tips for success and telling a lot of jokes. He would laugh right at all of the punchlines, with perfect timing. But even so, I sensed something was off. So finally, I leaned over to him and said “You don’t understand a damn thing I’m saying do you?!”. And apparently, understanding enough of the question he kind of slumped his shoulders and said “No, Brian”.

Hiring retrospective

So later in the day I called our HR team and asked, exaggerating a bit “How the Hell did we hire this guy? He doesn’t understand a word of English!?”. Apparently, he had scored well on all entry level tests but done very poorly in English, but somehow that was overlooked.

Me: Where did you get this guy?

He was a refrigerator repairman

Me: Does he have any technical skills? Any testing experience?

No, not really

What do you want us to do with him? Do you want us to fire him?

Me: No, we can’t fire him. It’s not his fault that we made a hiring mistake. We’ll have to try and make it work. How is he doing, in general?

Well, his results are pretty poor

Me: Ok, he doesn’t speak English. He has no skills or experience. His work results are bad. Any other good news about this guy?

Well, he is a hard worker and he seems pretty motivated.

Me: How hard? How motivated?

Well, he seems to be one of the hardest working and most motivated guys we’ve ever hired …


Later in the week, I was in the office late with Yivko and he seemed a bit upset. When I asked him what was wrong, he conveyed to me that he was worried I was going to fire him.

Me: Why would I fire you?

Yivko: Because I can’t speak English (well)

Me: Are you working hard?

Yivko: Yes

Me: Ok, nobody is going to fire you

As I saw with my own eyes, this guy was coming into the office early in the AM, and waking me up as I was sleeping on the couch! And leaving late at night. And he had a 30 minute bus ride back and forth. I knew he was putting in the effort.

As I was reviewing his work, I also knew it was poor, but I noticed one thing that stood out. When I made a correction, gave him a tip and/or offered advice, he immediately internalized it and never repeated the mistake again. This seems simple and obvious, but I spent much of my day repeating the same things to the same people. With Yivko, that was never the case. Yes, he was making mistakes but they were new ones. This is a critical soft-skill that so many people lack. It really stood out and impressed me, not the least of which because it made my life easier working with him.

After I returned to the US, I continued to have conversations with Yivko

Yivko: Brian, my results are bad

Me: Are you still working hard?

Yivko: Yes

Me: Then don’t worry about it. Over-time your results will improve.

We had several variations of this conversation, for the first year of his tenure at the company, and then, he seemed to hit the inflection point with his work. Results started to improve, just as I had predicted based on the effort he was applying, his high level of motivation and his good attitude.

Finally, when he was really hitting high-notes consistently, we discussed the possibility of him getting promoted, and I agreed to that.

His promotion, to Level I, was later than some of his peers, as it had taken him longer, but, in reality, based on what he had learned and the sustainable pace he was developing, I predicted he would be in very good shape for his next promotion, down the road, to Level II. And that is exactly what happened.

Where is Yivko now

Where is Yivko now and how is he doing?

He is still at the company, doing very well.

He has been promoted 2x and his results consistently rank as at or near the best on our team of approx 12 support analysts.

The content he has written, in English, has ranked extremely high, and in many cases higher than native-English authors. He’s written articles that have gotten 100’s of thousands of visits, with more than a million in total, and tons of positive comments like these …

This is fantastic! I searched for days to find an answer to why my remote app couldn’t connect to my local DB. I followed your instructions and Eureka! It works perfectly. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Cheers Yivko, this has worked perfectly and saved me a lot of time.

Marko, thank you. One beautiful day, I woke up and found out that my databases in Visual Studio 2017 could not be accessed by the server. I found out later that the problem was due to the databases being translated to a newer format, namely the SQL Server 2017 format, while the server remained in the SQL Server 2016 format. For a whole day, I have been trying to install SQL Server 2017 LocalDB and recreate the MSSQLLocalDB file to no avail. It wasnt until now that I, thanks to your article, realized that the SQL Server 2017 installer did not install the LocalDB package, which I eventually downloaded and installed manually. Now everything works wonderfully, my databases and the server are working along together again. Cheers to you and keep on saving the days of us developers :D!

Thanks man, you saved my ass!

His articles were so good, we translated many of them into Spanish earning him the Nom de plume, El Yivko

His nickname in his team is “The Animal” because of his high-energy approach to his work and tasks.

The secrets to success

Ok, so how do we break this down. Why did Yivko succeed, lacking any advantages, where others, seemingly much more qualified and experienced, failed?

  • English? No (Although this is something that needs to be perfected over-time)
  • Hard skills? No (this can be learned)
  • Experience? No (this can be gained)
  • Education? No (what needs to be learned can be taught on the job)
  • Technical proficiency? No (this can be accrued via on-the-job training)
  • Motivation? Yes
  • Effort? Yes
  • Lack of entitlement? Yes
  • Attitude? Yes

I’ve hired people who spoke 4 languages fluently and maxed out on our tests who failed miserably, unable or unwilling to do the work. I’ve seen people with PhD’s come in with a sense of entitlement that they are owed everything without having to invest any effort, who invariably didn’t work out. I hired a tester with 10 years of experience who quit the moment I asked him to write a test plan for an app.

Yivko ran circles around all of these guys, simply because he was motivated. What he needed to learn, he learned. What skills he needed to acquire, he acquired. But there is no such thing as learning to be motivated or being able to acquire soft skills like a good attitude, helpfulness, dedication and commitment to the job. These soft-skills are things you need to learn before you get the job[1].


Sure, you like Yivko. He probably works 20 hour days for very little money?

In the beginning, yes, Yivko would work 10+ hour days, but we paid overtime for this extra work at 1.5x so we weren’t necessarily saving money (although often he wouldn’t put in for OT he worked). As he got better, his hours drifted down to a normal workday. He has gotten promoted twice and, for Serbia, makes a quite excellent living with the potential to continue to do even better.

Lessons learned

We can teach you hard skills i.e. testing, XML, SQL, writing, English, typing. But teaching soft skills like work ethic is much harder.

If you are motivated, you will learn all of the hard skills you need over time. If you aren’t, even if you have them, you won’t be willing to apply them to create success

I will take someone who is motivated, is willing to learn and work hard, has a good attitude and good soft skills regardless of their skills, education and experience, any day.


It does take a special organization that will allow people time to learn vs expecting them to hit the ground running on Day 1. We provided time and depth to acquire the necessary skills, mentoring along the way, and a supportive team with a vested interest in everyone’s success


[1] These are things I hope to teach via my employment incubator in Southern Serbia


Have gun, will travel – the true story of Dick Dunnington

Dick Dunnington volunteered (you read that right) for 3 tours of Vietnam, as a military intelligence officer, but wouldn’t breathe a word of what he did there, even though I asked him about 5x a day [1]. He worked hard his whole life and, not being able to have kids of his own, adopted two foster children. He was punctual, responsible and a man of his word. He lived precisely by the letter of his contracts.

Even though he was a warrior, he valued peace, character, integrity, and honesty (remember, those?). Even though he fought a war and lost friends, he wasn’t bitter. Even when he was laid off and out of work for 3 years, he never didn’t wake up at 6 AM every morning and fill his day with productive activities (he eventually bounced back as a consultant – see below).

His politics were as true as his character. We had similar backgrounds, in some ways, as I was a veteran myself, but different politics. Despite our different political persuasions, we ultimately agreed on the same candidate at the time. It was an era where people who disagreed could still talk with each other, and even, sometimes agree. Remember those days?

The big Boom, Boom

A funny story Dick told me once, was when his convoy was moving through some road in Vietnam and the kids, from a local village, who were standing along the road watching them, all suddenly put their fingers in their ears. It seems they were expecting a big Boom, Boom, a clear, albeit unwitting, indicator that they were about to roll into some trouble! 😉 The kids knew what was going to happen, the soldiers did too, but all the patrol could do was reach down and squeeze, in anticipation of the fireworks that would ensue, unable to stop, change course or turn around.

I’ve thought of that so many times at work. How many of us have been in the same situation? I call it “the Big Boom, Boom”

Out of luck, out of work

Dick, like seemingly 50% of Massachusetts at the time, worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). I thought he was old at 50 … oops, the same age I am now! If Dilbert was a human being, he would be it (and that is a compliment). He talked like what you would think a mathematician would talk like. Despite, these admirable qualities, Dick was laid off (eventually along with everyone else at DEC). Dick had a solid position in middle management and his pride and principles wouldn’t allow him to take a job for less than he had at DEC. So he was out of work for a year … then two … then three. Sure, he kept busy. He worked his land in New Hampshire with some heavy equipment he had, but three years is a long time to nurse your ego and turn your nose up to lesser opportunities. So finally, he realized it was time to change.


Wait, what was that little word? Ego? Opportunities? No, change. That is why I emphasized it.

• If something isn’t working, you have to change
• If you are tired of beating your head against the wall, you have to change
• If you have hit rock bottom and there is nowhere to go but up, you have to change
• If you are unhappy, unfulfilled, un[fill in the blank]ed or you simply want to grow and improve, you have to change

No change role play

You: Ok, change … I get it. Easy. What do I have to do?

Me: Really? Are you ready to do this? OK … take all the stuff you are doing now and do it all differently. Stop doing the things you are doing now. Start doing things you haven’t been doing. And for things you should keep doing, do them differently. That is all

You: Whoa … let’s not get crazy here. Sure, I want to break out of my current pattern, but I really have to do things differently? No, that seems a bit extreme. That’s a deal-breaker to me. Instead, let me just sit around a bit more and just hope things get better.

There is a great book that covers this topic really well. It is called “Who moved my cheese”. Go to Amazon, buy it, read it, internalize it. It will change your life. I’ve talked to people who I recommended that book to who I still hear from and thank me for the recommendation. It will take you about 30 minutes, to read it, including a coffee break. So if you haven’t done it, do it.

Change role play

Instead, let’s try this again …

You: Ok, I get it.

Me: Good. Let’s look at some patterns in your life that you can alter to create the foundation for more fundamental change. It starts with going to bed early, waking up early, getting out of the house (even if you have nowhere to go), eating right, detoxing from alcohol, sugar, crap food, drugs, computer games, porn, illicit sex, social media, excuses, self-pity, pride, self-deprecating thoughts, self-destructive behaviors, etc, and forcing yourself to engage in wellness activities like meeting with friends, exercise, reading. music etc.

You: Ok, I can do that

Me: OK, great. I’ll be checking on you to make sure you are! Once you have committed to that and we have the beginnings of a solid foundation, let’s plan the next steps to alter and improve the trajectory of your life.

You: Great, let’s do this thing!

Have gun, will travel

Getting some of these die-hard “older” guys to make changes in life, is a challenge, but that is what Dick undertook. He decided that at 50 years old, he would change his stripes and become a technical consultant. The only problem was that he didn’t know a damn thing about technology, except perhaps mainframes and other water-cooled computer systems.

Undeterred, he went down to the local bookstore and went to the technology aisle. As the books were arranged in alphabetical order, the first topics were for “A”. He grabbed the first book he saw which was on Microsoft Access. Bought it, took it home, read it. Then he bought a copy of Access, installed it, and started to apply the principles he learned from the book. Once he was comfortable, he hung up his shingle, “Dick Dunnington – Microsoft Access Consultant” aka “Have gun, will travel” – an old Wild West American TV show.

He introduced himself to various agencies who were more impressed with Dick’s presence and aura of professionalism and responsibility than he many years of experience with this technology (as he had none). Soon enough he was hired for his first consulting assignment at $40/hr, then his next at $45, then his next … By the time I met him he was at $50 and ready to level up again.[2]

In a few short weeks, Dick decided to get off of his backhoe, change his entire profession and approach, invest in doing the things he needed to do to achieve this transformation, and systematically move forward to execute his plan.


The last time I spoke to Dick he was complaining of too many people contacting him for work assignments. I commiserated with him and we both went about our lives. I always told myself that someday, when I had a little time, I’d write down some reflections of this man, who made such an impression on me.

Dick, if you or your kids, wife, etc. ever find this, I want you to know I appreciated your leading by example, and I always found inspiration in your story.

For others out there, if you are stuck in a rut, as we all get from time to time, perhaps you can also gain some inspiration from this story as well.


[1] He was under a bunch of security restrictions about his duties, missions, etc although I would have expected those to have eventually expired …

[2] These are rates from 20+ years ago

(p) Photo credit – https://www.metv.com/shows/have-gun-will-travel