Thursday, June 24, 2010


Making Yourself Dispensable

Last week I heard an interview with Seth Godin in which he mentioned the need for employees to make themselves indispensable.

In the context of academic administration, I have to disagree. In fact, in many ways, making yourself dispensable means you’re doing your job well.

As an administrator, I’m working with smart, creative, extremely independent people -- both faculty and staff -- most of whom have very pronounced ideas as to how things should be done. They have a full range of personalities, including the flaws, and varying vantage points on the college. Most are generally well-intended, as they see it, even when their unspoken ideas of The Good conflict with each other’s.

If I try to centralize all wisdom in myself, I’m wasting valuable resources. If I try to wheel-and-deal my way to importance, I’m outnumbered.

The contribution I can make from my office -- and for the record, there is one -- is in setting the processes, background conditions, and climate in which people can do their best work without getting embroiled in unproductive conflict or drama. When this works, it looks like I’m not doing much of anything at all. As with editing, doing it well usually means going unnoticed. But take it away or get it wrong, and you see the difference immediately.

I’ve seen administrators try to make themselves indispensable by hoarding information or by constructing elaborate networks of side deals in which they fancy themselves key nodes. It never ends well. Moving people around like chess pieces creates an illusion of control, but then the chess pieces start moving on their own and the entire scheme crashes. Worse, someone eventually catches wind of some little side deal you were hoping to keep quiet, takes offense, calls in a third party, and makes your life hell. Not worth it.

The business literature largely exalts the larger-than-life, the outlier, or the ‘purple cow.’ There’s some truth to that, but it’s easy to misread. Much of what these jobs require is something closer to a willingness to experience success vicariously. I consider it a victory when we manage to establish a routine protocol for some recurrent event. That’s a huge win because it allows us to redirect energy away from something banal and towards something progressive. Establishing routine systems -- that is, distinguishing between offices and officeholders -- is the boring-but-important work that allows the organization to devote resources to doing its best work. In these roles, paradoxically enough, you make yourself valuable by making yourself dispensable.

What you say resonates with an article I read on TechRepublic about IT.

If you're IT is working - it's been streamlined, all the maintenance is happening, the updates are going through, the viruses aren't coming in - your IT person is doing a good job if nothing is happening.

Be indispensable for adding value rather than indispensable for maintaining the status quo. The hoarding information and operating side deals is a sign of the latter.
I think you have hit the nail on the head. The best piece of advice I received about administration was "to arrange things so people work well together." If you can do that in higher ed, you are successful.
Even in non-admin jobs, attempting to make oneself "indispensable" usually means purposely cutting others out of the loop - a characteristic often noticed and rarely appreciated by one's coworkers. At that point, you're just gambling that the info you're hoarding will outweigh the ill will you're earning. Anon at 3:34 said it well - "valuable" and "indispensable" are two different things.
In my current role as an academic advisor my goal is to become dispensable to each student I see. If I do a good job the first time I work with a student I shouldn't have to see that student again unless a "catastrophic event" occurs. Too many of my colleagues feel they need to hoard information or that students aren't capable of handling the responsibility of decision making. By doing so they've created a perpetual motion carousel of work for themselves.

What they don't realize is that they could get a lot more done and help many more people if they learned to let go and encourage students to work for themselves.

But I'm the bad guy.
I totally agree that being an administrator means getting out of the way and letting others do what they love and do best. Just last week, I was out of town and came back to my office with a list of things that needed doing. As soon as I listed them, my fantastic staff said, "we just did that." My job here is clearly done.
I read "Linchpin" by Godin (the book where he talks about these ideas at grater length) and it was an odd mix of inspiring and irritating. His book is really weak on evidence though the ideas are interesting. One major flaw is the fact that the does not discuss unions and collective agreements in any way. That makes a huge difference in a workplace.
I find Seth Godin irritatingly self-promotional, lots of style but little actual substance. I flipped through one of his books once and I found it filled with flashy rhetoric and the like, making common sense sound like the best thing since sliced bread.

Nice thought about being an administrator. When the people who run things around here are out, everything in this office goes to shreds. When they return, everything is normal again.
A leader is best
When people barely know that he exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
Worst when they despise him.
Fail to honor people,
They fail to honor you.
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will all say: 'We did this ourselves.'

Tao Te Ching 18
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