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How to make yourself dispensible at work

Ever been overlooked for promotion? Did someone less talented and lazier than you get it instead? If so, you probably think top management has missed your many achievements, or some devious politics are at play. In fact, you have probably just made the mistake of not learning to adapt, as you become more senior in your profession.

Richard Jolly is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and he says, that at some stage on the way up the greasy pole of success, most managers have to wrestle with a paradox that, unless properly addressed, can mean their brilliance does not earn them just rewards.

At first, it’s straightforward. You show your technical expertise and commitment to the cause and become a star performer. If you are a city trader, work in advertising, sales or law, you have such good client relations, that if you were to be sacked, you could probably take them with you. Well done; you have become indispensible.

Particularly when times are tough, like now, this is excellent news; isn’t it? Maybe; well up to a point.

These motivated individuals soon move into managerial positions and have to overcome the curse of their knowledge. When you have developed a skill to high level, it has become automatic for you, but you now have to supervise people for whom these things are not as obvious and you realise that, actually people are a problem, your problem.

Managing people can be like driving your car behind a learner driver; frustrating. This is the curse of knowledge; you know how to drive and the learner, by definition, does not. Helping people at work to develop skills that have become automatic for us, requires learning some basic management skills.

Once you have picked up these basic skills and your team is operating to a high level, it is natural to want further promotion. This might be tricky. You ask the boss what your future holds and you are heaped with praise, but told you are too important where you are to be promoted; you have become indispensible. How do you square this circle?

An effective executive needs determination and control, to deliver quality output and exceed expectations consistantly; to be an over-achiever. Companies love overachievers, they need over-achievers, but they want them where they can best deliver for the company.

Your desire for control is a problem; you need to delegate. At first, delegation can feel like losing control, delegating to someone less experienced takes up valuable time and it might just seem quicker to do it yourself. This is a mistake.

As you gain in seniority, the quantity of work you are responsible for, obviously increases and there is a limit to what one person can achieve on their own. By focussing on the tactical issues, where you have the expertise, you will spend less time on the broader strategic issues, that will help you and the organisation develop.

Richard Jolly has a phrase for this dichotomy; he says: “When you are fighting off the alligators, it’s hard to remember you were trying to drain the swamp.”

Fighting alligators feels good; you are busy, you can measure your achievements, you’re in demand and feel productive. However, as you get more senior, success is determined less by what you can ‘do’, and more by what you ‘think’.

Emails and meetings can both be enemies of the successful manager; it is important to allocate the majority of your time to your key priorities, rather than micro-managing, which these two encourage. One useful tip, if you feel you spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with emails, is to set aside a specific time of day to deal with them, rather than responding to one as soon as it arrives.

Most meetings are inefficient and attended by the wrong people. Jolly suggests using a simple digital clock, which you can download on a laptop or a smartphone. You input the number of people attending your meeting, and their average hourly cost to the company. When the meeting begins, you press ‘start’ and the software will tell you how much this meeting is costing your organisation. The results will be sobering.

Prince von Metternich was a 19th-century Austrian statesman, who categorised his officers in two dimensions; how smart they were and how hardworking. He said the dumb, lazy ones were easy to deal with – sack them. Stupid but hardworking could be very useful, but needed to be supervised properly. Smart, hardworking ones were useful for junior positions, but he paid most attention to the smart, lazy officers. They know what needs to be done, but don’t want to do much work, so they take short-cuts and are creative.

Managers need time to think and the main obstacle to this is something Jolly describes as, ‘hurry sickness’. Symptons of hurry sickness include:

-When microwaving something for 30 seconds, you have to do something else while waiting.
-You eat at your desk, while checking emails.
-You get a buzz just from catching a plane or a train.
-You hate the time it takes for your computer to boot up, so you keep it on.
-You are glued to your smartphone.
-You frequently interrupt the person you are talking with.
-You do something else on a telephone conference.
-You press the ‘door close’ button in lifts repeatedly.

The problem with this type of sickness is that you find it nearly impossible to take time to just think. Anxious over-achievers are needed in a company, but they tend to end up bitter and twisted, as more thoughtful and lazier managers get the plum jobs.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but indispensibility can count against against you and the way to succeed may, in fact, be to become dispensible. A manager needs confidence to say to his boss; “My team is working so well, they don’t need me any more. I’m ready for my next challenge.”

This confidence comes from having identified and supported one or several individuals who could step into your shoes as you move up. Too many managers see themselves as solitary, heroic figures and they probably won’t have have any plans for succession in place. It takes a self-aware manager to surround themselves with people who are incredibly impressive.

Charles de Gaulle said: “The graveyards are full of indispensible men.” The wish to appear indispensible is strong, understandable even, but dangerous. It can paralyse companies and stall careers.

The cure is delegation, helping employees become self-reliant and confident. Authority and resposibility need to flow down an organisation and accountability needs to flow up its hierarchy. This is not abdicating control; you are still responsible for tasks you have delegated.

Jeff Immelt, General Electric’s CEO, said: “The four most important words in business are ‘What do you think?'” He believes every employee wants a boss who: believes in them and their potential, defines a clear and challenging task, locates the task within a broader organisational context, is available for advice and coaching, is supportive and provides adequate resources for success. The boss should also give feedback and rewards and the space to learn and develop.

A manager who wants to avoid the paradox of indispensibilty needs to step back from day-to-day tasks and think. The manager should create an environment where others can grow and be held responsible, he should fight the instinct to control. Alfred Sloan, who ran General Motors from the 1920s to the 1950s, said: “The most important thing I ever learned about management is that the work must be done by other men.”

That is not just a business skill, it is the way to build a business.

Nigel Phillips

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