If someone were to evaluate your job performance tomorrow, what would they say? Would their review have more to reflect about you than just the numbers? It might be difficult to guess, not because you don’t do great work, but because your work is about way more than it used to be.
Your job is no longer just about you and the work you do alone. It’s also increasingly about how well you manage work with colleagues up, down, and sideways in the chain of command. Everyone is responsible for serving their clients, their bosses, and an endless number of “internal customers” at work. The collaboration revolution has transformed how we work together. It’s not going away. And in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s making everything that much more complicated.
I wrote my latest book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done, to help people navigate the difficult new realities of the high-collaboration workplace. I never intended it to be a guidebook for navigating job security in a post-pandemic world. I never could have imagined it. But what I’m hearing from my own clients every day is that the practices in this book are helping them to succeed even in the midst of such enormous uncertainty and change. To be clear, nothing I have written about speaks specifically to the business challenges of COVID-19: social distancing, furloughs, or even remote work. But what it does speak to are the essential elements of how to conduct oneself in the middle of a crisis. It’s about how to take control and ownership of the only thing you can take control and ownership of—you—while simultaneously dealing with so many factors outside of your control.
Now this doesn’t mean you should isolate yourself from your colleagues in an effort to regain control and focus. Rather, the key to becoming truly indispensable is adopting a service mindset. And it’s more important now than ever.
You cannot control what others want from you, need from you, or ask of you. No matter how much you may try to push them away, the reality is their own work requires collaboration too. If one person decides they aren’t going to pitch in, everyone on the team suffers. That’s especially true now that so many of us are working remotely, with limited support and resources.
Of course, the tricky balance here is to resist succumbing to burnout, or what I would call “overcommitment syndrome.” You don’t want to let anybody down. But remember that if you’re constantly juggling, eventually you’ll drop the ball.
With such high stakes, it will be tempting to say “yes” to everyone. Of course, you don’t want to let anybody down. If you’re like most, you will want to prove yourself to be a truly indispensable, go-to person, even under pressure. You’ll often be asked to go the extra mile. But the challenge is to do all this while avoiding overcommitment and burnout.
Now, that may seem impossible. Especially today in a workplace culture where overcommitment is so often rewarded and encouraged, establishing boundaries and being choosy about the projects you accept can feel like going down the path to certain career death. But what if I told you I’ve seen people do exactly that—establish boundaries around their time and mindfully choose which projects they accept—without sacrificing their jobs or careers? And what if I told you these people were considered the “go-to people” in their organizations?
What Makes Someone an Indispensable, Go-to Person?
Everywhere I go, I’m always looking for the real “go-to people.” In our ongoing workplace research at RainmakerThinking, I try to ask everybody: Who are your go-to people? And why?
Go-to people are the ones other people want to go to, over and over again. They are the people—at all levels—who show up on those “go-to” lists the most consistently over time. They are the employees most trusted by the most colleagues to help them meet their needs at work on time, on spec, in a manner that strengthens their relationship (or at least doesn’t weaken it too much).
I’ve been studying these go-to people for decades now. What do they have in common? Go-to people come in every variety, at every level, in organizations of all shapes and sizes, in every industry. There are as many different styles and stories as there are go-to people. And there are many wannabes and plenty of impostors.
The Tech Expert
You might think the indispensable person is the technical expert who has a relative monopoly on vital skills for key tasks and responsibilities. Of course, your ability to do your job is of the utmost importance. But that’s just the price of entry. Hard skills will get you hired, but they rarely will set you apart from your peers, at least for very long—especially these days.
I’ve seen a zillion cases where an employee is, by far, the most technically skilled at doing their job, and maybe even the best at getting important aspects of the job done, but they are still nobody’s first choice of somebody to go to, much less somebody to grant more responsibility or resources or authority. This is usually due to a gap in how that person relates to others, the management of themselves, or their workload.
Sometimes the technical expert or know-it-all is convinced he’s more qualified than everyone else and spends much of his time blaming and complaining about all the things that are wrong in the company, the management of it, the process, and personnel. He is so “qualified” that the only thing he can focus on are all the things out of his control. Nobody wants to work with that guy. In fact, most people would much rather work with someone who is not necessarily the most technically competent but who takes personal responsibility for his role and what he can do to make the situation better now.
The Yes Man
You might think the indispensable person is the one who always says yes, yes, yes to any request or proposition. But I’ve seen hundreds of cases where the person who says yes, yes, yes, to please you up front, isn’t able to deliver on the backend. Their overpromising causes you more problems than you had to begin with. And I’ve seen hundreds of cases of people who say yes, yes, yes who are honorable, responsible, and capable but become overcommitted and, therefore, start juggling too many competing priorities and inevitably start dropping the balls and getting burnt out and overbooked. Most people prefer to work with somebody who makes promises they can keep over somebody who promises the world but doesn’t deliver.
The Rule Breaker
You might think the indispensable person is someone who will do an end run around the chain of command and standard operating procedures—or even the rules—for you. But that rarely ends up going very well for very long. Most people would prefer to steer clear of trouble with the boss.
Who True Go-to People Are
You might think it’s the people who work hardest, but it’s not. It is the people who work smartest.
You might think it is the person who is the most creative, but it’s not. It is the person who masters the best practices and repeatable solutions.
Or you might think it’s the person who is really good at getting what they need from people. But, no, it is the person who is good at helping others get their needs met.
You might think it is the person who is good at influencing others so as to get what they need out of them. But, no, it’s the person who is consistently building influence with others by helping them get their needs met.
You might think it is the person who is great at juggling competing priorities. But it’s not. It is the person who focuses on one thing at a time and has a relentless focus on next steps and finishes what they start.
You might think it is the person who is the best at personal rapport building and internal politics. But it’s not. It is the person who is best at continuously improving the working side—not the personal or political sides—of working relationships. It’s about getting better and better at working together.
The real go-to person is the one who focuses on building real relationship power for the long-term, by focusing on helping other people get their needs met. It’s all about making themselves incredibly valuable to others.
Indispensable Doesn’t Mean Burnt Out
Maybe you are worried that it is impossible to do all this without destroying your health and happiness. But the good news is that being indispensable doesn’t have to mean being quadruple-booked all the time, never taking vacations, always being under-slept and overtired, always overwhelmed and juggling competing priorities.
In fact, the biggest mistake people make in trying to be indispensable is trying to do all that. It is a setup for failure and burnout. That’s how one succumbs to what I call “overcommitment syndrome” and later “siege mentality,” which makes you a definite “NOT-go-to person,” at least until you bounce back.
What do true go-to people—those who stand the test of time—really have in common? They have a special way of thinking about collaboration and conducting themselves in workplace relationships.
The thinking: they have a strong philosophical bias for service, which is precisely why they are not always available to everybody.
The conduct: they treat other people’s needs with great respect, so they do not make commitments they cannot keep.
True go-to people are relentless about ensuring communication alignment through structured dialogue in all of their key working relationships. They evaluate every opportunity—great and small—with real due diligence. They know what they can and cannot do; what they may or must not do; what they should or should not do. They know when NO may not be necessary, but it’s also not time for a YES. They know how to say, “Maybe, but not yet,” and “Maybe, but go back and fine-tune your ask.” When the time is right to make a commitment, go-to people know it is critical, when they say YES, to define exactly who is going to do what, why, when, where, and how.
They know people are their #1 asset, so they invest in relationships. They don’t let people down. They lift people up. And that’s why others want to lift them up too. No wonder people want to go to them over and over and over again.
The more valuable you make yourself to others, the more they will truly want to work with you, want to make good use of your time, want to do things for you too, and truly want you to succeed. When you have that, then you have real influence, the power other people give you because of the working relationships you’ve built.
The Credo of the Go-to Person
If you try to do everything for everybody, you’ll end up doing nothing for anybody. So how do you make yourself a go-to person—one of the true indispensables who stand the test of time? What makes it seem impossible is also the key to the solution. You must first fight and beat overcommitment syndrome.
There is no single credo of the go-to person that I have yet come across. But I’ve done my best to learn from those go-to people I have met and created my own.
Understand the peculiar mathematics of real influence. Gain real influence by building a reputation on serving others in ways that matter. That way, when you inevitably need something from them, they’ll be much more likely to want to work with you, make good use of your time, and contribute to your successful outcomes.
Lead from wherever you are. Start always from what’s required and what’s allowed. Align yourself and your people up and down the chain of command. You have to go vertical before you can go sideways or diagonal. Then drive alignment with everyone involved through regular, ongoing, structured communication.
Know when to say no and how to say yes. You cannot do everything, so you need to do the right things for the right reasons. Take other people’s needs seriously by tuning in to every ask and giving it your real due diligence. Every good no is about freeing you up for a better yes. Yes is where all the action is. Yes is your chance to add value and build the relationship. Don’t waste it! Every yes deserves a plan of action and focused execution.
Work smart. Sure, but what does it mean? It means not trying to only work in your area of passion and strength because that’s just not realistic. It means, whatever you do, professionalize it. That means learning best practices and repeatable solutions and creating job aids so that anything you do becomes one of your “specialties.”
Finish what you start. Of course, your to-do list is ever growing and never ending. The key is not learning how to juggle better. If you are always juggling, eventually, you’re bound to drop the ball. How do you become the person who gets things done? Break work into smaller chunks and make your “do not disturb” zones larger. That’s it. Smaller chunks of work and bigger chunks of focused execution time. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Yes. But remember that for every bite, you need time to chew and swallow. Bite, chew, swallow. How much of the elephant can you eat in each sitting?
Get better and better at working together. Complications are bound to arise. Things might not necessarily go according to plan (no matter how well you plan). Resist the urge to point fingers and blame. And remember to light a big fire under every thank you. Make it a habit to celebrate every single contribution, do after-action reviews about how to improve together (instead of pointing fingers), and look around the corner together to plan ahead and make the next opportunity to work together go even better.
Promote go-to-ism in your organization…or keep it a secret…but you won’t be able to because people will notice. Be a go-to person. People will notice. Find go-to people wherever you need them by being an amazing customer and being the best at helping people help you. And build up new people whenever you have the chance. Invest in people. Invest in relationships. That’s how you build real influence, the power you have when other people want you to succeed because you help them succeed. And upward the spiral goes.
It is the way of the go-to person. I call it “go-to-ism.” Who knows? Maybe it will become a movement. Connection is the key. Don’t allow the uncertainty to close you off. Don’t put up your defenses. We all need one another, now more than ever. Build authentic working relationships based on a service mindset steeped in real authority. That’s how to ensure we all get through this together and generate momentum for great things to come.