John Borrowman, CPC
Borrowman Baker, LLC
The world of work has changed, and not only because of COVID. That requires a change in the way you think about what it takes to get the fun and rewarding workplace we’d all love to have. The Art of Being Indispensable gives you a way to frame that change.
Bruce Tulgan, the author, took time to talk about his book.
In your book, you write about the sense of being in a no-win cycle at work, with everybody asking you to help on their projects and being frustrated by unclear lines of communication and authority. But hasn’t that always been the complaint? What’s different about now?
You’re right. But most people say that doing their job is a lot harder than it used to be. Most people need to collaborate with lots more people than ever before—up, down, sideways, and diagonal on the org chart. So, in addition to your direct boss and immediate teammates, you probably serve a seemingly unlimited number of “internal customers” at work.
The difference between yesterday and today is that siloes made the occasional collaborative work much easier and clearer. Everybody knew who they ultimately had to answer to. Most were able to simply keep their heads down and do their jobs within their own organizational reporting line, for the most part—their own team, department, or location.
Today, that’s all changed. The biggest workplace challenge is collaborating with so many people in so many nebulous relationships. The speed and complexity of work requires so many more interactions with people up, down, sideways, and diagonal.
Lots of people would probably like to be indispensable, to be a go-to person in the practice, but not at the cost of being swamped with work all the time. What do you say to them?
Exactly. You want to be a good team player. You want the power that comes from being a go-to person, someone whom others are always trying to go to for help. And maybe you’ve got some ego invested in your ability to deliver for others. So, of course, you want to say yes. You know that you can’t say yes to everyone and everything. If you try to everything for everyone, you end up doing nothing much for anyone.
Here’s the hard reality. Positive attitude, hard work, personal responsibility, and being great at your job are just table stakes. No matter how creative and tenacious you may be, you still have to do things by the book and follow orders. You cannot ever do everything for everybody. Overpromising may please people up front, but if you fail to deliver, that’s all they will remember.
So, what do you do? Start with knowing what’s required and what’s allowed. Know when to say no (and “not yet”) and how to say yes. Work smart by professionalizing everything you do and specializing in what you do best. And finish what you start. The busier you are, the less you can afford to be a juggler. If you’re always juggling, you’ll inevitably drop the ball.
Sure, you’ve made yourself indispensable at Company A. What happens if you move to Company B? Don’t you have to start over?
Being indispensable is all about how you show up and how you conduct yourself. It is all about how you work and how you treat people. It’s about adding value in every interaction.
No matter where you are and what you are doing, you should act like your reputation depends on it, because it does. Yes, you build up a reputation over time. Yes, that takes time. And yes, you have to play the long game. But you play the long game one moment at a time.
You seem to make the point that one reason go-to people are go-to people is they do the right things at the right times for the right reasons. What would be an example of that?
Stay aligned with the values of the organization and the mission; the priorities, ground rules and marching orders. The “right thing” is often situational. What is the best thing to do right now to make everything turn out better for everyone.
Approach relationships in terms of what you have to offer, not in terms of what you need or want. With every interaction, every decision, every action, ask yourself; How can I add maximum value? Always conduct yourself in a businesslike professional manner. Be the person other people don’t want to disappoint.
Establish clear ownership and timelines for concrete deliverables. Use reasons and arguments that rely on verifiable facts and solid logic, not assertions or emotions, to convince other people. Do everything possible to support and assist other people in the fulfillment of their part. What are all the things you can do to make it easier for other people to deliver?
What is it about being indispensable that makes it an art, do you think?
I think of go-to-ism as “the way of the go-to person,” which results in an upward spiral of mutually reinforcing real influence and mutual value adding in every one of your working relationships.
You might say that go-to-ism is both a philosophy of work and a way of conducting yourself at work. It’s a particular way of moving in the world—how you think and what you do. To really buy into the philosophy, you must believe in the peculiar mathematics of real influence.
That means playing the long game of serving others—making yourself incredibly valuable to the people around you, building goodwill and a positive reputation. All of which makes others want to do things for you and make good use of your time.
Go-to people are those who are most trusted by their colleagues to help them get their needs met on time, on spec, and in ways that improve their working relationships, or at least do not damage them. All of this adds up to what I call “real influence.” And real influence is not a zero-sum game.
That is why I say the math is peculiar. By relentlessly adding value in service of others, you systematically build value in the thoughts and feelings of others, thereby enriching yourself and everyone you deal with, which allows you to add even more value for others. And the upward spiral of benefit is without limit.
The Art of Being Indispensable is available at online booksellers.