Too often people of all generations wait around for someone to notice them, help them articulate their gifts, tell everyone how amazing they are and provide opportunities for them to shine. Well, they might just end up waiting around forever.

And that’s a shame, because they could be coming up with innovative ideas to bring their companies through these challenging times – if they’d only raise their hands.

This occurred to me while listening to an outstanding panel called “Turning Ideas into Value” at the Executive Leadership Conference. The speakers were discussing a young man, Dave, who had an idea, took full responsibility for implementing it and, in turn, opened the doors for major innovation in his organization.

“Why can’t organizations provide a space for more people to think outside the box and implement, like he did,” asked one audience member. Another added: “Leaders need to take notice of the ideas young professionals are coming up with and encourage it more.”

This ideology is so disempowering – for two reasons. Somehow we have come to think that: A, only young professionals should be sought out for innovative ideas, and B, all innovative ideas are a direct result of some incredible leader’s influence. First, young professionals aren’t the only ones driving innovation. And second, all big ideas are not a direct result of spectacular leadership. Dave did not wait for some leader to say, “It’s OK to contribute the best you have to offer now.” Instead, this individual made it happen.

Sure, we need more great leaders. But what we really need is more individuals leading themselves. Why leave your fate in the hands of someone who may not care if you succeed – especially if you’re not showing initiative? Great leaders love those who take responsibility for their futures, who step up and say, “I’ll do it.”

On my panel at the same event, Mr. Robert D. Childs, senior director of “I” College at the National Defense University, says his greatest leadership challenge is finding people willing to step out of the crowd and into more senior roles. “I see their abilities, but I usually have to help them see how great they are. I’d like to see more people simply step up.”

Perfectly put! There are a million opportunities waiting for you to step up. But here’s the catch: it’s unlikely someone will hand one to you. Even if you fail – if no one cares about your idea or it doesn’t work out – you’ve shown initiative, and that’s a step forward. So don’t wait for someone to tell you what you’re capable of. Go ahead and fail forward.


  1. Brainstorm. Block out 20 minutes a day to think quietly (with zero distractions) about ideas that could add value to your company or solve an existing challenge. Do this for one month and you’ll be amazed what you uncover.
  2. Be yourself. Leaders are hiring you for all the things that make you special, different and “weird.” They don’t want everyone to be the same, at least not smart companies. Be yourself; authenticity is respected and sought out by smart employers.
  3. Be consistent. As Zig Ziglar puts it, “While the tornadoes and hurricanes get all the publicity, it’s the termites that do the most damage.” Small, consistent steps – or ideas – forward make the biggest impact. That said, repeat steps one and two over time, and then tell me about your success!

 Ziglar also says, “You don’t have to be good to start, but you have to start to be good.” So what are you waiting for?

Rock on!

Misti Burmeister, Washington Post best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers