Even though the theme, workforce, is not our yearlong focus in Distribution Center, I still find the topic one of unending fascination. It’s not surprising that we have a regular stream of stories that I hope are helpful on this topic.

The one characteristic I suspect we sometimes overrate is the issue of intelligence and of being “smart.” There is some measurement for the former (we call it an Intelligence Quotient or I.Q. test) and for the latter, what or who is smart is our subjective judgment; which I suspect is often decided depending on the situation.

If we’re in the car and discussing certain public relations or editorial tactics, I can probably sound reasonably intelligent. If the car suddenly stalls and you need my mental muscle to figure out the problem, I suggest you call for a tow truck. In this instance, I’m a dummy.

We unconsciously and informally, I suspect, categorize people on how “smart” they are depending on the circumstances. It usually starts with vocabulary and sometimes the manner or enthusiasm they exude when speaking about topics.  It helps being informative. In more demonstrative occupations, let’s say a carpenter or an engineer, we look for someone with more encompassing spatial analysis. I think you catch the drift, but let me share an unwelcome truth. For the clear majority, we fall into the bell curve of intelligence. That means only a very small number of people reading this are really smart (from an I.Q. perspective) and the same number are, well, really less smart. Sorry if you have a high opinion of your brain power and kudos to you if you don’t think you’re that smart. (You probably are because you’re in the normal bell curve.)

I would argue that the employees you want to hire or retain are those who demonstrate the “other” I-word: initiative. Just as grit, which I’ve written about before, is a central component of success, initiative is the characteristic that moves a company or a project forward. 

I once had a paid intern who was struggling with a computer issue. She turned to me and asked for help. I couldn’t solve it either. And then she said those magic words that every boss wants to hear: “Don’t worry. I’ll figure it out.” And she did. While she did ask for help, she took the initiative to resolve the issue. Unsurprisingly, she left me for a major international company and much more money.

The other issue is that proven intelligence is no guarantee that you succeed in some towering way, nor does it guarantee a successful career.

I once wrote a story about the valedictorians of various high schools. One fellow, as I recall, actually became a rocket scientist for NASA. Another became an office manager for an insurance company; another was a stay-at-home mom. All No. 1 when they left high school.

I once interviewed the president of the local MENSA (the high I.Q. society) chapter in a major Midwest city. I asked this smart fellow what he did for a living: He was a mail carrier. Obviously, nothing wrong with that, but it’s probably not the occupation you would suspect for someone at the very high end of the I.Q. bell curve.

What I’m suggesting in the sphere we call “the working world” is that when you’re appraising a candidate for a job or a promotion, it’s not the chatter that seems impressive, but the initiative that provides the idea and the follow-up that really matters.

I believe that initiative is one of the most important characteristics that sets one person apart from many of one’s peers. The second is to follow through on the idea. Over the years, I had dozens of people say they were going to write a book including a few even wanted to team up with me. Only one or two actually did.

The other benefit of an employee with initiative is it prevents you from always being the smartest person in the room. You need ideas and action from others.

I know because in my world, I am the smartest person in the room. I’m also the ONLY person in the room (and office). That’s why I love hearing ideas from others.

I’m further suggesting that the next time you’re hiring, a good question might be: Tell us about two initiatives that were your ideas and what became of them? When you evaluate candidates for that next job, don’t be too overwhelmed by candidates who sound smart. Review what initiatives the candidates proffered and which ones followed up to a conclusion.

Uncovering a talent for initiative and following through in your hiring and retention practices just might make you a tad smarter too.