Article getting a second opinion: Making Yourself Indispensable by John H. Zenger, Joseph Folkman, and Scott Edinger, From the October 2011 Issue of Harvard Business Review
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Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to explore questions about business and business practice. In the process of examining them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but one that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects. And by the way, if you want to learn more about how to work more closely with us, stay tuned at the end of the show.
I am Zac Swartout, and always with me is Carol Sanford, our inhouse positive contrarian. Who responds to big and hard questions with a radically different take.
Carol: Hi Zac,
Zac: So Carol we’ve talked a lot on the podcast about how to grow a business to become non-displaceable in the market. But we have yet to talk about that idea in the context of an individual. I’m pretty excited to tackle this one because I think people have a common misconception that one of the paths to success is to make themselves indispensable to their organization. I remember saying to myself in many jobs “if I leave that place goes down without me!” In the end that was more about my ego than it was the long term viability of that business.
Carol: On our Twitter feed for the podcast I got a question on how you deal with partnerships you started a business with but are troubled. How do you make partners non-displaceable to one another in the whole. Versus one trying to push the other out. So I looked up advice given by HBR and thought it gave a good ground for a Second Opinion which is what our show is based on, not just us pontificating. Zac, why don’t you share the info on the article so people can read it before or afterward, and share a bit about what your impression was of the article.
Zac: Sure so first off for those following along, it’s from the Oct 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review with an article entitled Making Yourself Indispensable by John Zenger, Joseph Folkman, and Scott Edinger. My impression was this leaned heavily into more career advice about how to build on one’s strengths. The premise of the article here as far as I can tell was, in order to make oneself indispensable to their organization as a leader, they need to develop more strengths that complement the strengths they already had. Because, according to the data the authors had from about a quarter of a million 360 degree feedback reviews, more strengths = better leadership feedback.
I dunno about you Carol, but I’m still finding it hard to understand the link between being indispensable, meaning absolutely necessary, and developing more strengths so maybe you can help shine a light on this?
Carol: It is almost as if they had no idea of what a really powerful way to be in the world was so they just encouraged people to augment what they already had shown they were good at. I have never really had much of a “real” job as an adult, but it made me sad that anyone would follow this advice.
Zac, just so people get an idea of what they would look like (or maybe has looked like), can you share what this looks like for you. E.g. What are you already great at and how would you follow their advice. I want a strong contrast here with what we are going to offer.
Zac: Sure so I have gotten a lot of feedback over the years, particularly in my previous role at the hospital where I worked, that I was a strong leader because I had a high level integrity, was deeply caring for those around me, and had a lot of what HR folks call resiliency– I was kinda like one of those clown balloons that you punch that fall over and get right back up. So if you look at the map the authors draw up I have a lot of overlap with a number of the areas they highlight.
Carol: I gather that path is not personally rewarding and even fulfilling or you would not have left a career path that was being offered by your last employers or you could not have. Can you make another level of cut on this, so we can see what they did, how they tried to keep you there and a little bit about what it left you feeling like?
Zac: Both during my time on Wall St and in healthcare, as I was leaving my employers were upping the ante by offering me different roles, and opportunities to try to keep me. I can tell you that I was definitely living my idea of being indispensable but it was deadening to me.
Carol: What was missing that made you leave? They were not indispensable to you. So looking at it from the employee’s perspective, how does this relate to this advice here?
Zac: What was missing was the feeling that I could actually change people’s lives and work for the better. The reward mechanisms within the business stopped working. It was like there were certain aspects of work design that were beyond my reach to help change, but the business itself just assumed that enough money or title would be enough to keep me. I think a lot of people fall for that trap. But on the other side they realize deep down there is still something missing after the short term buzz of the reward wears off.
Carol: And if you used their theory in your marriage, what would you add on that you are good at… and how would you feel when you apply their advice to your personal life. What is missing?
Zac: In my marriage my wife and I work on ourselves and our relationship continually. So one of the strengths they list here is “Practices Self Development”. The other strengths I should look to develop then, according to the chart are innovation and focusing on results. So it looks like I need to do things like create a high performance team, or family I guess, provide more effective feedback to my wife and kids, and provide reward and recognition to them. Carol saying this stuff out loud kinda gives me the creeps a bit. Maybe you can help show our listeners a different way to think about this.
Carol: I want to offer a different world view and three windows into it that will work for listeners personally, for your relationship with your business partner, or for positioning a business and would have worked for both sides in your last, maybe ever, job. And will work in the same situation in the article
Zac: Awesome, ok so where do we start?
Carol: So let’s look at a different way to consider non-displaceability. Or as they say, indispensability. Three windows. First is, stop looking for strengths and trying to get better at those as advised in the article. Instead, look to who you deeply are, your Essence and work to be more of that, more often in more ways. How do you differentiate Essence and Strengths, Zac? I know you have thought about that a lot?
Zac: So strengths live at the level of personality. Strengths show up as all the little aspects of me that I’ve learned from my parents and the world around me. I often find that actually my various personalities are the aspects of me that get in my way. So I think of essence as that immutable aspect of me that is innate. It’s the core of me from which I can draw the most clear direction and guidance towards my own contribution. It’s what makes me…well, me and not anyone else.
Carol: And Zac, what is your essential self? In a couple of words and how does that show up for you in your business. Not that a business matches Essence. Essence can be expressed anywhere and should be. Even the worst conditions. But your current expression is more obvious here.
Zac: Embrace Wholeness.
Carol: Why is it that Essence is a more powerful window on being connected, grounded, even valued in the world? And how does that relate to you?
Zac: Because no one can be me. Essence is about being unique – 1 of 1. So if no one can be me, no one can displace me. Because I start from essence to source where I might begin, the offerings that come from essence are imbued with that uniqueness. So if my business is offering the same thing everyone else is, why would a customer bother to buy something that they can get from anywhere? Seems like my business wouldn’t last very long if I was trying to mimic everyone else. How would I be able to stand out or signal in the market with so much noise?
Carol: The second characteristic is the deep and meaningful external considering for others, society and planetary processes. We call that Global Imperatives. What is imperative and is understood about how life works. How Living Systems work. Can we get out of our anthropocentric and do good mode to see reality at work? We let go of our solipsistic way.
Zac, what is the reference point of this article as you see it. And how does it drop out the core characteristic to be non-displaceable?
Zac: Great question: so the reference point of the article is written from the perspective of a middle manager trying to climb their way up the corporate ladder. The premise they start from is, in a sea of sameness how do you get picked to move up. The answer they give you is, be more and here’s how. Unfortunately the answer they give you, when looked at from our perspective, is “be more of everyone else”. This fundamentally has nothing to do with anything beyond the walls of oneself and that company. Once again, Taylorism rears its ugly head. Apparently in their world your perspective as a worker ends at the walls of the company. I think this is the deadening part for myself and most people – over time your contribution doesn’t actually mean much when it’s always refracted through the company’s success and nothing else. I can tell you I wouldn’t last very long as a business owner if I didn’t fundamentally consider the world outside.
Carol: Yeah, you know I came up with this idea of talking about Global Imperatives from listening to people who kept trying to add on their own do good stuff. They’d create sustainability departments or programs called circular economy or donut, something that was outside of the strategy, outside of being a part of the business, and in a human being’s life, outside of being a whole person. I wanted to be able to have people really learn how much they project human values and human do good statements onto a planet, onto Mother Earth at work, and onto a society. I pushed back to try to get them to come the idea of really understanding, like what does it take for democracy to really work, how does democracy work? Slowly people came to being able to stand in democracy’s shoes and said, well, it’s really about you need to have people who have critical thinking skills, who can be self managing and not waiting to be influenced by their group. But we don’t develop that, and so we’re going to create a global imperative which we use to think about how do we help build critical thinking skills rather than dumb down our suppliers? We need to do the same thing as parents.
Zac, how does your work and business take this into consideration or can do so?
Zac: We are working indirectly on a number of systems, not the least of which is the system of masculine maturity. We see ourselves as storytellers, trying to offer stories in the world that act as catharsis for our audience. Sure we make cool choreography, but cool has the shelf life of bread.
Carol: The third aspect of non-displaceability is designed to activate personal agency, plus the external considering we spoke about with social and planetary imperatives together. You keep holding Essence and Imperatives AND promise to deliver something to stakeholders to the business.
Example: A Google Maps engineer, David Thau who was in essence a pattern tracker. He made sense out of things from the patterns left behind, like tracking deer. He tracks patterns in Living Systems. He was very interested in indigenous peoples having a home that was naturally filled with life as it has for centuries, particularly in South America. A Global Imperative for non-human and natural systems working in harmony each playing a role in the system. He was always researching to see what was the intersection of his way of working and the Amazon tribes’ way of living, from which he repeatedly created offerings through Google Maps to fill those voids as he understood them. For example, one great use of Google maps was ableness to track changes in oxygen levels and forest health via mobile phones. The documentation in the app was able to be transferred to governing officials who cared about ensuring contracts were adhered to by foreign oil companies. The results of the tracking apps coupled with other technology was considered certified proof of adherence or violation. He was the go-to engineer during the time I worked with him through the Google Innovation Lab, and a non-displaceable engineer bringing these three windows into his work, daily.
Zac: An easy way I have found to notice when these are working is to also look at when they aren’t. If David had started from a strengths test rather than his own essence, he would probably have looked at his technical expertise as a strength and then followed the authors’ abstract advice to innovate, or communicate his ideas more broadly. I doubt his perspective on indigenous peoples would have played a role here. If he was only looking at company goals, instead of global imperatives, I doubt the Amazon would have even come up on his radar and been more focused on internal KPIs for Google. And if you invert personal agency the connection between these two would have been broken and he’d either be out trying to engineer for his own wallet or next quarterly review. I think I’ve probably just described a lot of engineer’s worlds there.
Carol: The partnership and your role in the business follow this. It is where all those intersect with this question. The whole might be thought of this way:
What is it that the beneficiary most needs as the next step in their learning and contribution into the world with their life, that, with development of myself, I am most able to provide?
We are always looking at a place to make a real difference that make a real difference in the Essence expression of a customer, supplier, partner’s life, and it is so big we have to grow ourself to do it. And it fits who we are uniquely and what is needed so the best can really come from us.
Zac, How does that strike you as you listen to me speak about this third foundational window? Is there a place this seems relevant to you in your business?
What does this speak to, that is missing from the article?
Zac: The article gives a list of abstract ideas of how I could be, based on nothing that has anything to do with me. In the end that creates more sameness. And what’s worse, what difference does any of this make? Apparently all I am meant to do and be as a human, is be more like other people so I can move up the corporate ladder. No wonder this approach makes people feel dead inside.
Carol: So I’m really curious about what you think about your essence and the beneficiaries you’re working with. How do you see that you’re bringing more of who you are, this embracer or seeker of wholeness, and how is it that you’re bringing the global imperative of maturation of the masculine species into this? Where do you see this company and how does it bring life to you and to them as a result of that?
Zac: Well, I can tell you there are moments when we’re beginning a new project and even along the way where because we’ve done so much work upfront to think about the whole of the thing, it’s almost like we’re already anticipating where down the road we’re going to fall into a ditch. Right? And then because we’re always focused on the story of the thing and the meaning behind it the whole process in and of itself is not only meaningful for me but meaningful for all involved. So it’s like as we’re moving through the process I’m gaining will, and more and more will, and it continues to build on itself as I go, because the whole thing feels like it’s a moving whole not some piece that I’m trying to wrestle to the ground.
I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s what I’m trying to get at.
Carol: Yeah, that’s great. I was thinking about how this whole thing fits me, because I’ve got a few aspects of essence but this one we’re referring to all the time is contrarian. What that really is about is disrupting certainty because people get lodged in some idea they have, whether or not they’ve ever tested it. So my whole life has been about helping people learn to dislodge their certainty because I believe that we don’t have a planet that works, we don’t have a democracy that works, we don’t have families or schools or any institutions that work unless people can become unattached and develop their thinking capacity.
So I generated communities that people can join where they have made a decision that they’re really ready to do that, first for themselves and then for others. I don’t know of anyone else who can do what I do the way that I do, and I know it’s deeply needed because people stay for decades as a part of what I’m doing. And my life feels so rich and meaningful. So hopefully we’ve given some connection. Do you have any reflections on what I just said?
Zac: It’s funny you say that I already mentioned these to my wife while I was working on this. Your questions had us both pausing and really thinking deeply about what you were saying here. I think that alone speaks to the possibility of what can come from a perspective shift like this.
Carol: I think you’re right. So, what we’d like to encourage people to do as of today is first, you let go of the whole idea of strengths. Those are things that are conditioned, they’re part of personality, they don’t give you a great future and if you climb up a ladder it may be a very dissatisfying unfullfiling or certainly limited to only function and maybe a financial return. If what you want is meaning and making a huge difference you want to come from who you are and that takes some work playing around with to discover. That’s why we hang out and do that in our communities, to help people grok what that is.
We also instead of separating out how we take care of the planet and social systems and people, we embed it and teach our business members how to make it global imperatives from the system’s experience, not the humans. Then how to find those implicate intersections like you did with your business and like David Thau did with his work in Google and also in his own new ventures, and how I have done that. So that’s how it is you become nondisplaceable in the world because you’re providing something that makes a difference, it works from you and it helps bring something that everyone feels like, ah, that’s what we should be working on.
Zac: We have our 2020 Summit coming up November 17. All virtual of course. The Subject is The Regenerative Governing Board. Bring some or all your Board of Directors, or Advisors, any one in a role of Governors or other similar bodies. Join The Regenerative Business Summit Nov 17. It is for more than commercial enterprise. Not for profit, advisory, and more. Learn how the idea of governing looks from The Regenerative Paradigm. Learn about the five ways of change that Regenerative approach shifts in terms of how board elections or appts happen, committees roles shift, role with the business has a seismic shift and every other aspect of what is required by law, policy and regulations and even how ethics and moral choice are re- envisioned and restructured. Including how financial effectiveness, investment and social justice have a new platform for giving guidance
Join Carol’s newsletter at Carol Sanford.com. to get more information on upcoming events.
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Carol: and keep listening to Business Second Opinion for more ideas on working from Regenerative Paradigms and Practices. And my new book is out The Regenerative Life with an extensive workbook and Book Club materials, which Carol support with Live online Workshops for Free. More at carolsanford.com.
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Zac: This has been Business Second Opinion
Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to answer questions about business and business practice, you may not know you need to ask. But we believe you should be asking for the benefit of your understanding and your businesses ethics and practice. In the process of answering them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects.
In today’s show, we examined:
This episode is helping us think about what non-displaceable means for indispensable means. And how to move that from self-centered too system centered for the good of the whole.
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Carol Sanford and Zac Swartout, co-producers