The Dark Side of Being a Go-To Person
As a high achiever, being considered a “utility player” or a “go-to person” by colleagues and higher-ups was a badge of honor for most of my career. My striving nature led me to volunteer to maximize results. I considered it a measure of my worth to be sought out for the infamous “special project.” Sound familiar? As any high achiever knows, there’s also a cost to the discretionary, above-and-beyond work. That cost takes the shape of overwork, invisible work, and—at times—sacrificing quality in the actual job to fulfill the accumulation of the extra work obligations.
The “quiet quitting” trend is causing many to demand pay for extra work or stop discretionary work all together. The question remains: How does a high achiever remain an all-star while not running themselves into the ground? The answer lies in what author Greg McKeown calls “essentialism.” In McKeown’s words, “The Way of the Essentialist involves doing less, but better, so you can make the highest possible contribution.” Simply put,
do what is valued exceptionally well and let the rest go.
It sounds simple but determining what is most valued and re-routing low value tasks is not easy.
So how exactly does one shift to an essentialist mentality after years of being a utility player?
Conduct an audit of everything you do. Make a list of all projects, recurring meetings, roles, groups and regular tasks you engage in. For each, rate how much time it takes. Even a task that only takes 15 minutes a week adds up to over 10 hours over the course of a year. And removing from yourself from group you joined that meets every other week for an hour could buy you back over 20 hours over the year. In addition to noting how much time each activity takes, rate (from low to high) how much of your energy the activity takes. One-on-one meetings are an example of an activity that takes both a lot of time—and for some managers—a lot of energy. Because of this, some managers opt to cancel or minimize meetings with the team. If the team’s performance is what is valued, then one-one-one meetings are likely key to sustaining and driving performance. Key to the audit is making sure to eliminate the tasks that take a lot of time and energy, but not all tasks are created equal, which leads us to the next step…
Determine what is valued. For many, this is the most challenging step, in part, because asking if something you’re doing is valued is likely to be perceived as fishing for a “yes” and will rarely garner a “no.” To get a better sense of what is actually valued:
- Look at how your performance is measured (performance reviews are an obvious place to start but don’t forget about job descriptions, goals, and department or organizational goals).
- Ask a few people and check for alignment. The question might sound like, “What are the three things you most value from me in my role?” Consider asking your manager, your manager’s manager, a mentor, and/or a department head. Odds are, the answers you hear will vary. What high achievers are most valued for is something unique — the “special sauce” you bring to the role— which could be a skill, talent, or strength. One of my clients was well-known for her ability to craft brilliant presentations. While this was not one of her job responsibilities, project teams from across the organization sought out her skill and greatly valued it (often at the 11th hour). She regularly spent her evenings and weekends supporting other teams’ projects. At the end of the year, she got a good-but-not-great performance review and was beside herself with disappointment, given how hard she’d worked. She asked me, “What more could I possibly be doing?” The organization sent her a clear message: your presentations are appreciated, but not valued. In fact, she was spending so much of the time on presentations, some of her core responsibilities had fallen short. Which leads to the final step …
Ask yourself what you can let go of to do what’s valued and do it extraordinarily well. Following your time/energy audit and the determination of what’s valued, now it’s time to down-select. This requires an important mindset shift from “being all things to all people” (a common high achieving mindset) to having clarity on your key relationships and your essential work. From there, the downsizing begins. For many, saying “no” is the challenge. My client who decided to do fewer presentations benefitted from developing speaking points to decline requests while still retaining the tone of a team player. For her, it sounded like, “While I’d love to help you, I’m juggling my own priorities right now and I’m at capacity.” Another go-to for her was, “Given my workload, I won’t be able to give this the attention/urgency it requires.” For some, the Way of the Essentialist means not volunteering for special projects unless they are highly valued or cutting back on the more social activities in favor of more restorative free time.
As we return from the Labor Day holiday in the United States, it’s as good a time as any to consider what we’re working on, the impact we’re having, and what we want to do and be in the world. In focusing our attention more on what is valued, what showcases our unique gifts, and what gives us energy, our work feels less like labor and something we need a holiday from.