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Seek to Be Replaceable (Why You Must and 3 Ways to Do It)

For the first few years of my job as a program director of a graduate program on a branch campus of a flagship university, the biggest compliment I could hear was: “Meg, if anything ever happened to you, the program would cease to exist.” That filled me with such pride. The idea that if I got hit by a bus, graduate students would be out on the street, homeless, uneducated, and without a hope in the world.

What a bloated sense of self-worth I had at the idea of being irreplaceable. And yet, as the years went on, I realized that none of my other ambitions could ever happen if I truly was irreplaceable. It was only then I realized that if I ever wanted to level up, I had to make myself the very thing I had avoided ever being: replaceable.

So if you can acknowledge that the only way to level up is to make yourself replaceable, how do you actually do that? How do you look at your current work and start to build a system in which you are eventually not needed? Well, you need to try the three following things:

1) Make two lists...and delegate the second

Jane came to me a year after she took the CEO role at a medium-sized organization. She was overwhelmed by her schedule and felt that every day she was getting more and more in the weeds. I asked her if she knew how she’d rather be spending her time. Before I could even finish she question she launched into a list of ideas, projects, and meetings to which she’d rather devote her time. I wrote them down as she talked. Then I asked, “What things are you currently doing that keep you from those?” Again, I wrote as she talked. When she was done, I slid both pieces of paper across the table to her.

“This first list is your ‘Whys’. They are all the reasons why you are excited. This second list is your ‘Why Nots’; all the reasons why you are not doing the first list.”

She looked down at them and nodded. Then she tapped her finger on the second list. “But I can’t just stop doing these,” she said.

“Do you mean those tasks can’t stop being done?” I asked. She looked at me quizzically.

“There’s what you said, and there’s what is true. The tasks can’t stop being done, but you don’t have to be the one to do them.”

You see, many women believe they are the only people capable of doing whatever it is they are currently doing. Which means in order to be replaceable, you’ll have to delegate. And my guess is that word might conjure up some negative feelings for you. Researchers at Columbia University looked at the gender differences of delegation and drew two important conclusions. The first is that women struggle much more than men to delegate because women believe this to be a negative action, one that proves they cannot handle the work by themselves (M. Akinola, 2018). Further, women feel guilt—our favorite of all the emotions!—when passing off work to someone else. We not only believe we should be able to do everything, but we are also afraid of burdening anyone else. More interestingly, this study also found that when women do delegate, they are far worse at it than men because they do not adequately train the person to whom they are handing the work (2018). The researchers concluded that delegating is such a powerfully negative action for women, and the guilt that comes with it is so great, that when they do delegate they do so with such swiftness to avoid the negative feelings. Cut to the next woman with a new stack of work on her desk and no guidance on how to actually do it.

So how can you get better at delegating—meaning you’ll actually do it and you’ll stick around to provide guidance to the person to whom you delegate? First: you’re going to look back at your second list, the one that captures all the tasks keeping you from your first list. And second: you’re going to determine who around you could do any (or all) of the tasks on that list better than you. Which means, that third: you’re going to have to….

2) Get over your weirdness

Somewhere along the way you’ve allowed some (or maybe even all) of your self-worth to be caught up in not only what you do, but how you do it. As Jane worked to delegate tasks from her second list to others on her staff, she became more and more attached to the second list. The thought of handing it off brought up strong emotions, so she asked for another meeting.

“I just can’t seem to relinquish control of my second list,” she said, her chin resting heavy in her hand.

“Tell me,” I said. “What worries you the most?”

She thought for a minute before responding: “That they won’t do it like I do.”

“And why is it important that they do it like you do?”

“Because the way I do it is successful.”

“In what ways could success look different?”

She sat back in her chair and sighed. “I guess if they are successful, it will be like I didn’t even exist.”

“Would it be fair to say you’re worried about your legacy?”

“Well yes!” she said, then stood up and walked to her window. “The way I do those tasks is my fingerprint on this place.”

“Sure. But what other marks have you made?”

“Well, I’ve hired good people.” She paced around the room. “I restructured the organization to a much better flow. I’ve lifted us to a stronger place financially. I’ve brought in a strong board.”

“That’s great,” I remarked. “Now, how could your legacy be affected if you don’t delegate your second list?”

She looked at me with wide eyes for what felt like a full minute. “Ohhh…” she said, finally sitting back down. “My legacy isn’t these tasks,” she said, waving at the second list. “My legacy is building a good structure and empowering the people around me. If anything, these tasks are keeping me from my legacy!”

We all carry some weirdness about our work. And if you’re struggling to let go of your second list and to empower someone else to take it over, you need to surface what’s at the root of that. A simple way to do that is to ask yourself questions like I did with Jane. But regardless of the answers, you’re going to have to embrace delegation. It is a vital tool to helping you level up. And delegation is the first step in an even greater task of working to…

3 ) Strategically opt in and opt out

As Jane worked through delegating her beloved task list, and began to consider her succession plan, she had another conundrum: what to do with her time. “Now instead of holding on to tasks,” she said to me over the phone one afternoon, “I’m confused about which meetings and events I should be at.” I asked her to enumerate the meetings in question. She listed three regularly scheduled meetings that amounted to six hours a month of her time.

“When I think about it,” she said, “six hours a month isn’t all that much time.”

“True,” I responded. “But the amount of time isn’t the yard stick here.”

“Then what is?” she asked.

“Well, why did you consider eliminating those meetings from your calendar in the first place?”

“Because there are other meetings I need to be at. Ones that align with the first list you had me create.”

“So then what’s concerning you?

“Oh…I don’t know. I think me being there lets the staff know I support them.”

“Sure. But can you tell me other ways you support them?”

“Well yeah. Lots of ways. I meet with them one-on-one, I’ve signed each of them up for different trainings, I send them to conferences, I allow for flex time, the list goes on and on.”

“That’s a lot of support,” I responded. “So now can you tell me the ways in which your presence at those meetings might show something other than support?”

After a pause on the phone I heard her laugh. “Oh gosh,” she said finally. “I wonder if my presence in those meetings might signal to them that I still don’t trust them with the tasks I’ve delegated.”

In the end, you must reflect on how much of your time is spent in the service of making you feel and seem irreplaceable. And then you’ve got to admit that the only way you’re ever going to level up is to be wholly replaceable. Because if you are the end all be all, the end is all you will ever be. And you’ve got far too much to be and to do to end here.


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