Think about those mediocre leaders who do just enough to get by. We have all worked with them albeit the resentment that comes because we know we work harder, faster and are smarter. Truth be told, according to an article in Harvard Business Review (HBR), “Making Yourself Indispensable,” you can do everything right—all the time, and still be overlooked by upper management.
The words the three gents (Zenger, Folkman and Edinger) speak of in the HBR post are “cross-training,” and if you aren’t ready to complete it so to speak, move out of the way because you are about to drop down a notch or two on the leader ladder—maybe even ruin your career.
Developing a Unique You
In the HBR article the example of cross-training is portrayed: “A novice runner, for example, benefits from doing stretching exercises and running a few times a week, gradually increasing mileage to build up endurance and muscle memory.” The same is true for project leaders. The same old path is not always the right path, and your skills need some building up now and again.
They say of NFL quarterbacks, a good one is one with fast, accurate throws and a great one is also fast and accurate but is also able to move outside the pocket to extend the play and avoid being sacked. To become a great NFL quarterback, these leaders of the game combine a variety of cross-training beyond just throwing, but footwork and movement skills.
If you’re not open to not just thinking outside the box, but actually getting outside the box, you won’t continually develop into a project leader who gets recognized for every project he leads.
Woe Is I
I’m not talking about the great grammar book “Woe is I” although it’s a necessity for almost everyone (even for project managers) but, instead, of those leaders who sit back and wonder what’s up—what’s wrong, and why am I not being noticed for my achievements? You can still be an awesome leader, but becoming indispensable requires revisiting some of what you do and expanding upon each area.
Let’s take a look at what I’m talking about and I guarantee you’ll see yourself somewhere in my scenarios.
You may be the type of leader who has adequate skills to lead your team no matter what the project. You can direct them like a conductor at an orchestra and are effective at decision making and assessing and dealing with project risks. What you also are is complacent. You follow your management principles to the letter and never question, nurture, or over-excel—the old way is the best way. You will never sway from the ideologies behind the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).
Change this by asking the tough questions such as what can we do better and challenge your team to work through tasks faster than the normal accepted pace—but with the accuracy you expect. Seek out those who seem lost and instead of allowing them to hang on the hem of the team, nurture them to be better team members, even if that means mentoring. Show upper management you do have new ideas and are capable of implementing them, not just talking about them.
Cross-train by doing something you fear: bungee jump, zip glide down a mountain or ride the rapids! Or, take a class in public speaking to spur your complacency!
Sure, you deliver on time and under budget, but your initial planning phase is a long process. You have a hard time determining what project management methodology is best for your project. You rely (dare I say) too heavily on your project management office (PMO) instead of making hard and fast decisions. You agree with everyone on your team and you don’t place blame or make anyone accountable for mistakes—you don’t criticize them, either, and we all know even constructive criticism is needed from time to time.
Change this by admitting your project planning skills are poor at best and make them better. Bright Hub offers an entire guide on the project planning phase, and by reviewing it, you’ll easily see when and where you’re heading off track. A PMO is a great tool if your company is lucky enough to have one, but you can be unique and come up with ideas on your own. In fact, your new great idea may become part of the PMO library of resources! If you always agree with team members and are too sympathetic, you’re not leading; you’re afraid of contact or confrontation. Develop a new leadership style, for heaven’s sake! Finally, if you’ve got slackers on your team and don’t hold them accountable, in the end, any failure or mishaps during the project will fall to you because you haven’t documented any bad behaviors.
Your cross-train assignment is to join a Scrabble® troupe that plays with a one-minute timer to aid your decision-making skills, or get involved in a poetry slam to boost your attitude!
Red Hot Leadership
Let’s face it—your teams don’t like you because you never give in and are demanding. You never listen to anyone’s suggestions and you simply don’t care about how your teams feel—you know your way is best. You overhear words from the water cooler, like autocratic, mean boss, and dictator and worse, those words don’t bother you because you simply don’t care. Upper management may love you because you are red hot when it comes to project delivery, but they may also notice the dissension among your teams.
Change this by admitting you’re not the only project leader in the world who is smarter than everyone else—you’re not, you know. Make a list of behaviors you feel uncomfortable with such as leading focus groups or listening and acting upon team feedback. Embrace your team’s ideas and spirit and offer recognition when due. Above all, learn more about employee engagement because you need it now!
Cross-train by volunteering at the puppy and kitten section at the animal shelter or become a Big Brother or Sister to melt away some of that cold, cold heart! Better yet, watch the movie Marley and Me and go ahead, cry at the end!
The Yes Leadership
If you always say yes to everything brought your way, you are a yes man (or woman) and in the project management world, promising yes all the time isn’t realistic. You don’t account for risks or changes in the project or scope. You dismiss naysayers because you already told the client or upper management you will be able to complete the project on time—or let’s face it, yes is the only answer you know. You aren’t a realistic project manager.
Change this by understanding the importance of change (even if you aren’t willing to change) and learn you will find risks within projects more often than not. Above all, stop saying yes to everything and instead, say “that’s interesting” or “good point.” You can still achieve project success by leading differently and, in fact, the yes manager is probably the most stressed manager out there today.
As a yes person this will be hard, but you must say no when asked to volunteer at your child’s school, at your church and as mean as it may seem, your first assignment is saying no to all those kids’ fundraisers at your doorstep. Learn to put your foot down and see how good it feels!
Cross-Train for Success
So, those HBR guys behind the cross-training idea for becoming indispensable do have some good ideas and you can do the same to become indispensable yourself. If you seem to receive the same old raise at every performance appraisal or your name doesn’t come up as a key player within your company’s management team, you are not indispensable, even if you’re doing everything right.
It is possible to cross-train for success by stepping back and reassessing. First, ask yourself some tough questions: Are you too honest? Are you too strict? Are you too demanding? Are you too lackadaisical when it comes to decision making? Do you trust too much or are you too autocratic?
Skip the cross-training at the gym and instead network and watch your peers closely—you can learn a lot from those who excel at greater levels than you. No one wants to be just a good project leader and everyone strives for great leadership skills, but you won’t achieve them if you don’t recognize what you’re doing (or not doing) first.
Don’t be shy; ask what’s working for other leaders. Better yet, get permission to get feedback from their successful teams and adapt those suggestions into your work habits and leadership methods.
Stop being average and become indispensable because today’s world is fast-moving and fierce, and if you don’t act now, you will find someone hot on your trail, ready to pass you over. Before you throw in the towel and say this path isn’t for you, take a look at that over-achiever hot on your trail. Do they have fire in their eyes, and if so where’s that fire coming from? It’s probably not experience because they’re most likely new to leadership. What it probably is shouldn’t be a surprise to you—it’s that strong desire you once had, have lost and are now finding hard to regain.
Do You Need to Change?
If you’re an old-hat leader who has looked in the mirror lately and realized you’re not indispensable, I’d like to hear from you. What did you do to change? Were you forced to change or did you figure out change was necessary all on your own and change real fast like Dorian Gray’s portrait? Or, were you the leader passed up by a young newcomer? You can remain anonymous in your comments below and your real-life experiences will aid those seeking answers on the road to becoming indispensable!
Willing to step up to the challenge? Let’s start a conversation on cross-training for successful leadership!
John H. Zenger, Joseph R. Folkman, and Scott K. Edinger - Harvard Business Review “Making Yourself Indispensable” October 2011.
Author Screenshot: Woe Is I (Patricia T. O’Conner) / Amazon