By Bruce Tulgan
If you are like most people, doing a corporate job successfully is a lot harder than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. You’re likely working from home, but traditional office pressures remain: meetings with your direct boss and immediate teammates; serving “internal customers” at work, and fielding requests for help from colleagues — many of whom you might not even know.
You want to be one of those indispensable “go-to” people, so you probably say “yes” too often. You always owe too many things to too many people. Juggling so many commitments, you’ll soon start dropping balls. It’s just a matter of time. You feel as if you are always in danger of disappointing somebody.
Meanwhile, you’re forced to rely more and more on people you cannot hold accountable. They also probably say yes too often and sometimes end up disappointing you.
As you and your colleagues get more and more overcommitted, the chances of things going wrong, for all of you, start increasing. Delays become inevitable. Communications slip through the cracks. People misunderstand each other or lose track of specifications. As more things go wrong, everybody has more delays and mistakes to deal with, so everybody’s overcommitment just keeps getting worse.
Being a ‘go-to’ employee
It is a true conundrum: Trying to become indispensable too often means stretching yourselves beyond human capacity so that you end up succumbing to overcommitment syndrome, which makes it nearly impossible (for anybody) to be truly dependable, much less indispensable.
That’s why there are so many would-be go-to people who don’t succeed, so many wannabes, imposters, and most of all, sometimes or episodic (and sadly, even former) go-to people.
Since I founded RainmakerThinking in 1993, I’ve asked hundreds of thousands of people (we lost count at a half-million), in organizations of all shapes and sizes, “Who are your go-to people?” I’ve been studying, for decades now, the go-to people who appear on those lists most consistently to figure out what sets them apart.
You might think that go-to people must be technical experts with sharp skills for important tasks, responsibilities, and projects. Of course, go-to people must excel at their jobs, but there are plenty of technical experts nobody wants to work with if they can help it.
Another misconception is that go-to people are steamrollers who won’t take no for an answer, or sly organizational politicians who use flattery or grease palms to get things done. Some might think go-to people are rule benders who are always willing to end-run the chain of command or find a shortcut or a workaround. In fact, most go-to people are not steamrollers or slick politicians, and they avoid getting tangled up in unnecessary trouble.
When ‘no’ leads to ‘yes’
True go-to people understand that, first and foremost, that they must consistently fight and beat overcommitment syndrome or else they can never stand the test of time. Their reputations for consistently delivering for people, helping them get their needs met on time on spec with a good attitude, comes by not doing everything for everybody. ‘
Rather, they play the long game, one moment at a time, by doing the right things for the right reasons, every step of the way. Here’s how:
1. Start with what’s required and what’s allowed: Go-to people know they have to align up the chain-of-command before they can work things out at their own level with their colleagues.
2. Every good “no” leads to a better “yes”: Go-to people know that every time they say yes, they follow through with action and focused execution.
3. Work smart: Learn best practices and repeatable solutions and use job aids. Anything a go-to person does regularly becomes a specialty they do quickly and well.
4. Get one thing done at a time: Even as their to-do lists grow, go-to people don’t attempt to juggle. They break work into smaller chunks and give themselves bigger “do not disturb zones” — meaning the time to focus on getting a job done.
5. Maintain relationships: Go-to employees know that working smart and getting the job done is all about relationships, so that even when a project falls apart, your work relationships stay intact. For that to happen, go-to people avoid pointing fingers. Instead, they review and then plan ahead so that the next opportunity to work together will go better.
Bruce Tulgan is the founder and chairman of RainmakerThinking, Inc. and author of The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done. (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020)