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How to work yourself out of a job

5 min read

Thinks the reader upon encountering this column title, Why would I want to work myself out of a job?

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free-will, and of my own free-will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?”

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Many executives I know and respect are afflicted with what I’ve dubbed the perception of essentiality – the belief that not only is their work broadly essential to the organization, each element of how they do it is likewise essential and personal, else the organization suffers.

We’ve come to believe this in part because we are neurologically wired, educationally coached, and organizationally stimulated to believe it. Responding to fast-paced busy-ness triggers dopamine hits: so does email and its even more insistent sibling, texting. Believing ourselves essential is likewise a boost to the ego, how we justify our compensation, our position in the organizational hierarchy and our sense of self-worth, including the moral self-worth of making a difference in the world. We believe ourselves essential because we want to believe it: if we’re irreplaceable, we’re unique.

With all this self-belief of our essentiality comes adverse side effects:

  • Believing ourselves critical to the organization’s functioning, we stress ourselves by lengthening our work days and increasing the cycle speed of recurring familiar tasks.
  • Perceiving ourselves short of time and behind the 8-Ball, we narrow our focus and stick to the short-term, instead of thinking long and creating long-term new business exploration, conceptualization or development.
  • Thinking ourselves the best qualified to do the jobs that we do, we complete each task ourselves rather than delegating some of it, training someone up to do it or permanently handing it off.
  • Envisioning ourselves always in our current role, we forget to educate others on what we’ve learned.
  • Feeling our-selves overloaded, we’re reluctant to take on new challenges where we’re uncertain what to do and might fail when we try.

Further, the self-perception of essentiality is contagious: emanating from the top, if unrecognized and left unchecked, it can take over a company, with everyone trapped horizontally in the job he or she currently has, unable either to rise ourselves or to enable junior (and usually younger) colleagues to rise. Such a company becomes fragile, and in a time of rapid and disruptive change, the last thing the affordable housing industry needs is a preponderance of entities that are fragile.

Once you see your self-perception of essentiality as your own hand-forged Marley’s chain, you will realize that every bit of self-perceived-essentiality you remove gains you immediate lift: more time at work and at home, more chance to think, more awareness of possibilities rather than pressures. How then to unburden yourself? Link by link and yard by yard: make the activity of job-shedding continuous. Here’s how:

  • Every year, identify the bottom quartile of your job: the things that for you are easy and routine. Make it a personal objective to shed as many of them as you can.
  • Tell everyone in the organization that this is your strategy. (If nothing else, it’ll make people think.)
  • Find within your organization other people (often junior, often younger) to whom the work that you would like to shed would be new, challenging to learn, satisfying to do and valuable to master.
  • Don’t look for your younger self. Look for those who represent your values, the ones who hunger to do more.
  • Befriend these colleagues. Offer to mentor them in taking on these discrete activities. The ones you want will jump at the chance.
  • Let them do the work. Even when they do it differently from your way, resist the temptation to intervene unless it imperils the company or their careers. If the latter, critique some, spot-weld some, but do not take the task back. When the task is done, list their names first, yours second.
  • Encourage the people who report to you to come to you and ask to take over something you do now.
  • If somebody does a job well three times in a row, give the whole activity to him or her. Or ‘reverse delegate,’ tell that person to make any decision he or she is confident in, just come back to you when seeking advice.
  • Find something new that the organization sees or should see as a priority or opportunity, isn’t getting anywhere now, and where you’re as qualified inside the firm as anybody. Research enough of it to develop a plan of action. Pitch this to those equal to or above you (your boss, your executive committee or your board of directors). Get approval, and use that as further reinforcement for working yourself out of other parts of your job.

For companies in affordable housing today, among the most precious and rare executive qualities are values, vision and versatility. All of them wither under the self-perception of essentiality, and revive when you reclaim space and time to reinvent your job by working yourself out of it. Promotion arises when you have grown the ability to be the boss of your former self, and it happens faster when you’ve created your own space for that growth. In nearly four-and -a-half decades in our estimable industry, every time I’ve worked myself out of a job, what opened up was always a new and better one, usually in the same organization.

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at [email protected].