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.