You’ve seen multiple colleagues promoted ahead of you, despite your better job performance. You have received nothing but praise and great reviews, month after month, but still, career advancement eludes you. You don’t have time to delegate, and can’t take a holiday without being bombarded with questions only you can answer. Any of this sounding familiar?
Too often, hard-working, intelligent managers are passed over for promotions because they have struggled to make the necessary transition from their current role to a strategic leader for the business. In fact, they have become too good at their role, and therefore made themselves an indispensable part of their team, inhibiting both personal and team growth.
However, there is a solution.
Richard Jolly, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour in the General Management programmes at London Business School, writes extensively on the topic of indispensability in this article, which has served for the inspiration for this post. There are several ways, he writes, in which effective employees can make the transition from being an individual contributor to providing strategic direction to the business and the team.
It is, firstly, important to see the dangers of being indispensable, and see that effective managers are not “irreplaceable”. Then, it is key to see how the second half of your career differs from the first, and what that means for relinquishing control, delegating, and educating your team to open yourself up for career advancement.
Indispensable asset or a bottleneck?
Indispensability is typically thought of as a desired quality, a goal even. It indicates you are a valued, respected, and knowledgeable member of the team, and it typically ensures job security.
So, why is being indispensable so dangerous to your colleagues and your career?
Being indispensable can create a poor work environment for yourself and others. It means you are the only resource for certain questions and tasks, turning you into a bottleneck rather than an asset. It can mean work stoppages when you are away on holiday or sick leave. It can mean you are required to respond to every email, and attend every meeting. It can create a culture of micromanagement, unnecessary work, and bureaucracy. And in the worst cases, it can create a false belief that no one else is competent enough to handle the job.
Indispensability holds back your own career as well. All of the above scenarios put undue stress on you. Additionally, they create a serious incentive for your superiors to keep you in your current role indefinitely, as the cost of replacing you would be too high.
Therefore, you must resist the urge to be indispensable. Strong managers do not make themselves irreplaceable. Instead, they surround themselves with impressive people that can handle any task. A well-run team could get along fine without a manager. Fostering a situation in which you, as the manager, are nearly unneeded means you are freed up to move on to a new role and colleague can step in to fill your shoes. That will allow you to gain more and more fulfillment from your job, as I discuss in Love Your Work: Make the Job You Have the One You’ve Always Dreamed Of.
A change from the early stages of your career
Creating this environment is not the work of only a few days, however. It requires a change in approach to your current role, one that differs considerably to how you’ve approached previous ones.
Early on in your career path, your value to the company is determined by your productivity and efficiency. This is most easily measured by the volume of completed tasks. However, as you move up within a company, your value needs to shift from doing things to thinking about things. Effective managers provide strategic direction to a team who then executes strategy. Strategy is far less tangible than crossing of a daily to-do list, but it is no less critical and takes just as much, if not more time.
Less control, more trust
Becoming a strategic leader means providing guidance on projects, but relinquishing control over the details and process of production. Junior colleagues need to be given the opportunity to step up to prove they are capable of thinking critically, developing processes, and completing projects independently. The only way to know if a team member is ready to take on more responsibility is to step back and let them prove it to you.
Allowing this progression to happen doesn’t mean you will have less responsibility. You will still have astake in the final product, and its success or failure will still lie largely with yourself. However, you will be able to step back from the day to day tasks of the creation process, and put much more thought into the strategic direction of projects, and of the team as a whole.
Delegation lifts colleagues and yourself
Naturally, while shifting your role to become more strategic, the same amount of work needs to be done. To cover off the daily tasks that you’ve outgrown, delegation is key. An effective manager helps junior colleagues develop by giving them more responsibility. Determine what some of the first regular tasks were that you were responsible for when you began your current role. These are the obvious candidates for tasks that should be delegated.
Creating a sense of ownership is key to delegation. Make it very clear that after a certain point, your junior colleague is the first point of contact for the tasks or project. Ensure this is communicated throughout the team, and to appropriate external contacts, to make the change stick. You will soon find that requests that used to clog your inbox and chip away at your time are now being effectively handled by a colleague that is eager to step up to the new challenge.
Educate to delegate
The delegation process will inevitably fail without proper education. If you are the only person that can handle a task, it is likely not because your colleagues cannot do it, but rather they have not been taught how to do it. And, since you may be the only person that knows how to do things currently, the task of educating your replacement falls to you.
The most important part of education is follow through. It can be frustrating to train someone on tasks that are second nature to yourself. Your own learning curve when you were first trained is easily forgotten, and therefore it is quite likely that your colleague will not learn as quickly as you expect.
However, when frustration sets in, do not give in to the temptation to do it yourself. This is a short-term solution, but in the long run, it will leave you, yet again, indispensable. Instead, plan more time into deadlines to allow for training. Ensure your colleague is taking good notes. And challenge them to step up and work through their own issues with the tasks. They may develop new ways of doing things that creates efficiency and works better within their style of working.
Becoming dispensable drives growth
When you’ve effectively trained a replacement, delegated most of your daily tasks, and freed up time to start thinking strategically about the business, the next step in your career will be much easier. Getting a promotion won’t mean leaving your team stranded. The transition can happen seamlessly because you’ve already laid the groundwork that allows you to move on to more challenging tasks. You will be able to move from being a specialized individual contributor to a strategic leader that is guiding the group and driving the business forward.