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Women leaders, stop being indispensable

January 24, 2017

I was recently talking to one of my executive coaching clients about the challenges she was having filling a position on her team. Not long before our conversation, she had reached out to a woman in her network who was looking for a new opportunity and was highly qualified for the position she was trying to fill. When the woman’s manager found out, my client was told that the woman was off limits. When she asked why, the manager told her that the woman was indispensable and that they couldn’t give her up.

It’s a catch-22

For some women, they work hard, become indispensable, and then don’t get the promotion they were working so hard for. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but it isn’t. Being indispensable is one of the worst things a woman can be, especially if she has aspirations to get promoted to more senior levels of leadership. In many cases, over time, high performers gradually take on more work in an effort to continue to prove their own value. The desire to be seen as a valuable contributor and a team player eventually leads to an exhaustive to-do list. She keeps her head down, works hard, delivers results, and waits to be tapped for the next promotion. She sees the men around her get promoted, so she’s confident that if she keeps doing good work—including saying “yes” to more work—she’ll be next in line.

Unfortunately, this is not how it plays out. She continues to work diligently and say “yes” until she is overwhelmed. She may get passed up for a couple of promotions she was sure she should have gotten, but doesn’t get quality feedback about why she didn’t get the role. To be honest, the hiring managers don’t know what feedback to provide—the other candidate was just “better.” She gets frustrated, but worse, starts to wonder what’s wrong with her. Is she not performing well enough? Perhaps she should do more. Eventually, she starts to get tired. The next promotion comes up and she can’t imagine doing any more work. She thinks, “If this is what it takes for me to do well at this level, I can’t imagine doing well a level up.”

Eventually, she stops raising her hand for promotions, or worse, she starts to disengage from the organization. She may leave, after feeling that she is not a good fit and that she can’t succeed, or she may tell herself that she’s “fine” in her role, despite the nagging feeling that she could do more or be more. Essentially, she opts out of the leadership ladder or opts out of the organization.

Women don’t intend on becoming indispensable—they are just doing what they think they need to do. This is for a variety of reasons:

First, some women don’t know what they really want. They’ve walked through all of the doors that have opened for them because they are high performers, but never stopped to ask what they’re working toward. I have been surprised by the executive women who I have worked with that have asked themselves, “Is this really what I want?” Even if they know what they want, many times they don’t tell anyone. There are a lot of reasons for this, but most often I hear that they feel they don’t have to, and that by saying something, they might come off as presumptuous. Or, they don’t want to come off as competitive and not a team player.

If they do know what they want, and are telling people, they might not be telling the right people. Having a sponsor is essential for any woman who wants to get promoted. This sponsor may be an executive, who has agreed to use his or her social capital to open doors for a sponsee.

Finally, they keep saying “yes” without being thoughtful or strategic about whether what they are saying yes to is: a) part of their job description, or b) something that will help them advance.

My advice to you:

  1. Figure out what you really want, be bold, dare to dream, and then tell everyone you want it.
  2. Find a sponsor, preferably someone who is a couple of levels up in your organization, who can be a strong voice for you and make sure they know what your aspirations are.
  3. Stop being so darned helpful. Be strategic about what you say “yes” to, and equally as important, what you say “no” to.

I wish that I could tell you that the woman at the start of this story got the new role, but it didn’t happen. What did happen is that she started to have conversations with her manager about her future. Her manager now knows what she wants and they are both working together to ensure that when the next promotion comes up, both she and the team are ready for her to take it.

Vision and voice

When women leaders start advocating for themselves with a clear vision of what they want, a high percentage of them get promoted in a short period of time. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. It wasn’t that their managers didn’t see their value—it’s quite the opposite. The leaders didn’t know the women wanted the promotion and thought they were happy in their roles. As a result, there was no reason to consider them for the next promotion.

So, as you think about what success looks like for you this year, remember this: Find your voice, find a sponsor, and stop being so darned helpful. Your next opportunity may be closer than you think.

Tell us: have you made yourself indispensable? What’s one thing that you can do to get yourself one step closer to what’s next?

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Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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