The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: A book review by Bob Morris

The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done
Bruce Tulgan
Harvard Business Review Press (October 2020)

Focus on what is most important, not on what is merely “urgent”

Long ago, I concluded that many (not all) so-called “indispensable people” in the workplace create logjams that become obvious only when they are absent (e.g. on vacation, ill) or have recently moved on to employment elsewhere. They are human silos, hoarding information about what is where and, especially, about how to do this or that.

They are not the workers Bruce Tulgan has in mind. Rather, he calls them “go-to people…whose ways of thinking and conducting themselves are the basis of all the advice in this book. They are the indispensables, those upon whom you want to model yourself in the best of times — and especially in these most challenging of times.”

Tulgan provides a comprehensive and cohesive operations manual for those who are both willing and able, indeed [begin italics] determined [end italics] to achieve several separate but interdependent objectives. More specifically, how to

– Avoid or overcome the “Overcommitment Syndrome”
– Master the “peculiar mathematics of real influence”
– Lead from wherever they are within the given enterprise
– Know when to say “yes” and (more impirtsantly) when to say “no”
– Work smart rather than merely hard
– Finish what they start and finish it well with a best effort
– Continuously improve communication, cooperation, and (especially) collaboration with others
– Master “Go-to-ism”: The art of being indispensable at work

I presume to add what I believe are two key points:

First, almost everyone in a workforce or workforce segment knows who the “go to” people are, and, no organization ever has too many of them.

These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Tulgan’s coverage:

o Welcome to the Collaboration  Revolution (Pages 3-9)
o What Allows Real Go-to People to Stand the Test of Time” (22-26)
o Real Influence Is the Holy Grail of the True Go-to Person (29-31)
o Beware False Influence (33-43)
o Mind Your Attitude (44-45)

o The Authority Conundrum (48-50)
o Extreme Alignment (54-55)
o Helpers, Experts, and Rogues (62-63)
o Aligning Yourself Sideways — and Diagonal (67-74)
o The Incredible Power of Reimagining Yes and No (80-81)

o The Key to Making Good Decisions (84-85)
o A Problem of Process (87-92)
o Master the No (99-107)
o Professionalize Everything You Already Do (113-123)
o Working Smart — and Even Smarter (137-138)

o Don’t Be a Juggler (145-149)
o Dealing with Interruptions (156-157)
o The Trouble with Relationship Building (171-175)
o What It Takes to Get Better and Better (177-182)
o The Best of the Best (197-205)

Bruce Tulgan really knows what he’s talking about.  No individual is irreplaceable. However, some are much more difficult to replace than are others. That is why organizations should require each of their key people to develop at least one (preferably two or three) potential candidates to replace them, if and when needed. Delegation is essential to that process.

I think this book is a “must read” for those preparing for a career in business or have only recently embarked upon one. To succeed, it is imperative for them to become a go-to person. I also highly recommend it to C-level executives  who are responsible for creating and then sustaining a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Finally, I recommend it to all supervisors who have direct reports entrusted to their care.

Let’s have Theodore Roosevelt provide the conclusion for this brief commentary: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”


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