Could self-starters really blow your mind?

Alpha managers tend to hire self-starter employees because there are 5+ good reasons to hire them.

Managers from startup entrepreneurs up to as famous as Steve Jobs have even been quoted about hiring self-starters.

If the self starter trait is crucial to the role you’re hiring for, ask this set of job interview questions to identify genuine self-starters.

But there are 2 particular situations where self-starters need to dial down the “let’s get on it now” work ethic.

If your work environment and the role you’re hiring for could benefit, try to hire self-starters.


Can self-starters actually be toxic instead of amazing?

In some work situations, self-starters might actually do more harm than good. Or at least be a little annoying.

I can think of 2 situations when a self-starter should dial it down. Do I think self-starters can be toxic instead of amazing?

YES, when they start before they really should

One of the 5+ reasons to hire self-starters is this: you will rarely see them twiddling their thumbs waiting for you to say “do this”.

Most of the time, that might seem like a good thing. But that’s the exact opposite of what you’ll want for certain complex tasks…

When a task requires waiting for data from essential sources or multiple stakeholders before proceeding further.

Sure, waiting might slow things down but that could preserve the integrity of that particular task. You don’t want sloppy results.

By bypassing these sources and people, your self-starter can cause these 2 headaches issues for you:

  1. Potential errors from starting workflow before getting solid data
  2. Relationship risk – annoying coworkers or other departments 

For example, imagine this self-starter surgeon working in a hospital

You rush to the local hospital’s ER to find your mother on a pre-op bed. The paramedics picked her up after she had solid fall at the gym.

The ER nurse on duty tells you it’s a complicated injury with bone involved. How on Earth? Was mom doing cartwheels in Zumba again?! 

The newly trained emergency surgeon is eager to operate now. Would you know it – he’s a self-starter.

But the orthopaedic (bone) specialist usually adds their insight for such cases. The surgeon wants to start before that happens.

Would you feel confident with him starting without expert input?

So how would you handle the self-starter in such a situation?

Set solid boundaries. That could mean telling them about the non-negotiable conditions for working on critical tasks.

You could say to the self-starter something like:

I like how you get on tasks with a sense of urgency.

But in these particular situations, I need you to wait for input from the assigned sources or people.

These people can be in our team, in other departments or expert outsiders. Sources can be data from our software.

With their input, our process gets a higher level of integrity. That way we can be certain we are producing solid work. 

Are there any other times when self-starters need adjusting?

YES, when they start everything, but finish almost nothing

Self-starters don’t only need to start without compulsion. They need to complete the job. They often need to be a self-finisher too.

The last thing you want is an employee who starts one task with gusto, but halfway switches to a newer one only to leave the first one to gather dust.

For example, imagine this self-starter in a marketing team

Let’s call our self-starter Sarah. You are her direct manager, a marketing manager in a small but growing software company.

Since she’s been a solid performer for years, you give Sarah the freedom to act on projects that call for her expertise. 

She’s currently writing content for a website refresh project. But then she hears about a new print ad opportunity.

Being a self-starter, she jumps on the opportunity and gets started without waiting for you to bring it to her.

Fast forward a few weeks, she’s spread herself extremely thin by continuing to take on more tasks.

By the time you learn about all the tasks she’s doing, she misses the non-negotiable content deadline for the website refresh. Uh oh.

How would you handle the self-starter in such a situation?

What Sarah did above is pile up her workload to do it all in parallel – she was working on multiple projects at the same time.

Self-starters can easily get caught out by an inward feeling of “I need to work on this opportunity now!” 

Like a multi-tasker but with a longer timespan. Not 3 tasks at that very second. More like working on 3 projects in a week.

In reality, her kind of work – and most professional work – has limits of how much can be done in a span of time.

So you should coach self-starters on the the following points:

  • “Focus on only one major job” or project at a time
  • “Prioritize your work backlog” using a combination of most urgent to least urgent and biggest impact to lowest impact and 
  • “Don’t take on new jobs unless…” you’re absolutely confident you’ve got mental and physical capacity to handle it

Self-starters can add real value to your team, but keep the above thinking in mind to continue getting the best from them.


What did Steve Jobs think about self-starters?

If you want the short answer to this question, here it is: Steve Jobs loved self-starters.

The best evidence of this comes from when he was a young startup CEO in the 1980s. It was early days for Apple Inc. 

When he was interviewed around this time, Steve and his team gushed over hires who acted like a typical self-starter.

Steve Jobs’ main takeaway quote from that interview was this:

The greatest people are self managing… once they know what to do, they’ll go figure out how to do it.

Here’s a more ground-level perspective from one of Apple’s senior employees at the time, Andy Hertzfeld:

“We sat [job candidates] down in front of [the Macintosh prototype]… We wanted them to get real excited, and then we knew they were one of us. 

For senior front-line employees like Andy, excitement for the work wasn’t enough to hire someone. New hires were expected to contribute without being guided at every step:

We all knew what the computer should be and we just went and did it.

Hiring such people became part of the company’s culture. It might be the fuel Apple needed to move fast and compete against big players.


How to double down on hiring amazing self-starters

So you want your next hire to be a self-starter. After all, you’ve heard they can add value to your team.

How would you react if a job candidate told you this:

“I work well in ambiguous situations with little direction. I won’t just bring problems; I’ll bring solutions along with them.”

Try to hold in your excitement for just a minute. Sadly, some people will tell you what you want to hear, so they can get the job.

Not everyone who says they are a self-starter will be one

Hard to blame them. It’s a tough world, but that doesn’t help your cause if they don’t follow through on their self-praise.

So how can we double down on the amazing (read: genuine) self-starters from our hiring options?

Behavioral interviewing can help work out who really is

Behavioral interviewing will help you explore key moments in your interviewee’s past work experience.

The idea behind this technique is simple. People act or behave according to their worldview, which will often guide their future actions.

In essence, you’re working out someone’s personal culture by looking at how they acted in a past situation. 

Your job is to work out if the interviewee’s past actions reflect what you’d expect from a self-starter. So…

Ask these behavior-revealing questions at your next interview

Below each question, I’ve covered how a self-starter would answer the question and how a not-so-self-starter would.

Tell me about a time you faced a critical problem at work. What immediate steps did you take? How did the problem get solved?


Studied the situation and solutions before seeking help. Or even better, they found a solution on their own.


Reached out to their manager for help early on. Translates to “it’s the manager’s job to fix problems”.

How do you keep up with new developments in your role?


Reads books, completes courses or attends events out of own interest. Without employer telling them to.


Does bare-minimum in this area. Waits for HR or their manager to sign them up to required courses.

This role entails [important goal]. How would you achieve it?


Thinks concretely, breaking goals into milestones. Mentions specific people and resources to call-in.


Dawdles with fluff talk. Mentions clichés like “doing what it takes to get the job done.

Think about a work situation where you hit the ground running. At some point, obstacles ground progress to a halt. How did you deal with that?


Felt frustrated, but calm enough to seek the right guidance, resources and help to overcome obstacles.


Felt helpless in their situation. Almost instinctively went to their manager to fix the problem.

The interviewee might fumble their answer; don’t ring alarm bells yet! 

Don’t assume that the candidate is hiding something is they hesitate to respond or don’t seem as confident as before.

They might not have experienced such questions in past job interviews. I’d get stuck if I had to process that and deal with nerves!

So if that does happen, tell the candidate with a reassuring voice, “Take your time. We can sit in silence while you think.”

If you have a rushed interview and can’t ask these questions, try this instead. Call up referees and ask them candidly:

“How much supervision did this ex-employee of yours need to do tasks? Can you elaborate on specific instances?”

One last thing about hiring self-starters

Not every genuine self-starter will suit your needs. Some will come with a lot of industry experience. Others will be beginning their career.

Let me highlight this point with a quote:

There are benefits and drawbacks to hiring each level of experience. 

Someone who fits the bill as self-starter and who has experience in the industry… may try to shake things up with management and cause problems.

An inexperienced self-starter… may need more time than your team can commit to, learning the ins and outs of your business model.


OK, the final point about self-starters (I promise)

Famous entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs knew that self-starters are only effective if they are led well. 

They need to know and embrace the team’s common vision of what needs to be done to create value.

Like a guiding compass of sorts. You need to know which way the ship is sailing to know how to keep it on course.


What do famous managers like about self-starters?

Here are 5 quotes from famous (at least in their industry) managers.

They share their thoughts on hiring people with self-starter qualities…

The founders of Basecamp, a popular software company Jeff Bezos invested in, wrote about about self-starters with a twist. According to them, self-starters are like “managers of one”:

When you’re hiring, seek out people who are managers of one… These people free you from oversight. They set their own direction. When you leave them alone, they surprise you with how much they’ve gotten done.

Basecamp,Hire managers of one

This next manager needs no introduction. Steve Jobs was a huge proponent of self-starters in Apple’s early days:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. 

Steve Jobs

At some point in your life, you may have been told to read the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. He said that people who feel they fit in their role will often act like self-starters:

If you can hire people whose passion intersects with the job, they won’t require any supervision at all. They will manage themselves better than anyone could ever manage them. 

Stephen Covey

David Ogilvy’s name is renowned in the advertising world. In fact, some would consider him to be the grandfather of modern marketing. He was founder of one of the biggest ad firms ever. His take on self-starters:

Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it. Look for people who will aim for the remarkable, who will not settle for the routine.

David Ogilvy

Our last quote comes from someone who wasn’t a manager himself. But Jim Collins had to get in the mind of famous managers to write the best-selling books, Good to Great and Built to Last.

This is what his encounters with high performing managers taught him:

The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake. The best people don’t need to be managed. Guided, taught, led–yes. But not tightly managed.”

Jim Collins


5+ reasons you need to hire a self-starter

At some point in your career, you might have read or heard someone calling themselves a self-starter.

Maybe you’ve been told you should hire such people onto your team.

But what’s so good about self-starter employees? And how can they contribute to your team achieving a huge alpha?

Here’s how hiring self-starters can benefit you


Self-starters start work without a nudge

They don’t need you to tell them to start working on a task – they’re on it! The opposite of employees who do bare minimum.


Self-starters don’t need to be spoon fed

You don’t need to give painstakingly detailed step-by-step instructions before they feel confident with the task.
They’ll dive in and ask for guidance if they get stuck.


Self-starters might cause healthy competition

Their just-go-and-do-it attitude might rub off on others in the team. You can expect to see others imitating their burning desire to “get on with it” and maybe even a little healthy competition.


Self-starters take up less of your time

They often know what to do next or at least find out on their own. You’re less likely to end up in “do this… now do this” back-and-forth. More time for strategic work… like your golf swing 😉


Self-starters do their homework

They are less likely to make you say, “Bring me solutions, not just the problems!”. That’s because self-starters will often work out potential solutions before presenting a problem to you.


Self-starters will take calculated risks

They’re confident enough in their abilities to act on the best information available at the time. They refuse to sit and wait for more data because that can make the work fall behind.


Self-starters are less resistant to change

They have a curious mindset is the spark for their action. They see change through this lens of curiosity. This makes self-starters more likely to be open to innovations in their role and workplace.

Self-starters sound like certain movie characters, don’t they?

Self-starters are like every strong protagonist who manages to come out on top at the end of movies.

They investigate out of curiosity – without waiting for anybody’s say so. They devise solutions on their own. They take calculated risks.

Such movie characters don’t wait for divine intervention or bide their time like supporting characters do.

The end result of their actions: beyond satisfactory performance.

What this means for you: productivity beyond a simple “satisfactory” grade.

This scenario shows how self-starters stand out from others

Setting up the scene

You manage a large team, which you’ve split into two sub-teams. Each is run by a supervisor who reports to you.

One of these supervisors is a typical self-starter. Let’s call him Don. The other, not so much. Let’s call him Ted.

You’ve been given a critical project by the CEO herself. She wants you to run a bake-off between your 2 sub-teams.

Ted is waiting for your word to get the team rounded up. Don’s already found out the project’s specifics and briefed his team. 

Let’s see how they both act when the project kicks off…

Ted waits for you to advise him about assigning tasks. Meanwhile, Don has started assigning tasks and runs it by you in the next meeting.

Don gets advice from specialists on his team on pressing problems then asks for your take. Ted brings you the problem to solve. 

Ted’s people sit on their work until told to continue – just like Ted. Don’s people start the next task while they wait for feedback.

Ted keeps going around in circles based on what people are telling him. Don looks at the ongoing situation and makes calculated decisions.

Now, Ted’s no villain. But can you see that Don’s methods would increase work quality with less of your involvement?