Being dispensable makes you a better lead

Being dispensable makes you a better lead

There’s this lingering idea that if you can’t be missed, it makes you a better manager or leader. This is a faulty idea, and it’s problematic for both the organisation and yourself.

Slack on your phone

One of the first things I’ll recommend to new leads in our company is to remove Slack from their phone. I’ll straight away add that I’d prefer not to see them pop up during their holiday.

Last year, one of the newer leads considered reducing her well-deserved holiday from two weeks to just one. So, I asked her: “Why?” She answered something in the line of: “What if something goes wrong?” Because I can be annoying, I asked her back: “What could possibly go wrong that can’t be fixed without you?” … silence … I told her that this is a great thing. If she could answer that question, I would want to fix it because we don’t want problems that can’t be resolved without her.

Life happens, and when sickness and other unexpected events come our way, the last thing you should be doing is having your mind at work. I think it’s problematic if that is necessary; you won’t have the mental capacity to do your work well, and it makes you a bottleneck at the same time.

A few weeks ago, I unexpectedly was sick. One of my to-dos that week was to publish a biweekly report. In the past few years, we’ve worked hard at documenting how to write this report and why it matters. As a result, one of my team leads could just jump in and take that off my plate. The Thursday Update (as we call them) was published without delay.

Parental leave and sabbaticals

In 2021, I took 4.5 months of parental leave. In 2022, I’ll be taking 3 months sabbatical, a perk you get every five years at Automattic. I will not be checking my emails, nor Slack. It’s time off, and I’m planning to be off from work entirely.

Doing this is only possible if I can hand over tasks to people I work with and trust. There are two main aspects to making this possible:

  • The first one is documentation and clear expectations. Any type of recurring task that follows a procedure, I should document. If documenting a procedure is not really an option because we’re talking about an ideation project, then I need to discuss clear expectations. What is the outcome we want to see when I’m back?
  • The second one is training and coaching. If I just have the documentation ready, I don’t know if it’s crystal clear to the person who’s taking over the task. So while my sabbatical will only start in June, I’m already appointing co-leads for all projects on my plate. I involve them in decisions and try to make sure that the expectations are clear. By the end of May, I want to be confident that I won’t be missed during my sabbatical.

But won’t you get fired?

As paradoxical as it is, I’m much more likely to promote or reward someone who is good at making themselves dispensable than someone who doesn’t do this. These are the people I want to keep close because I know they can let others reproduce the outstanding work they do.

If you are indispensable, you’re a much bigger risk to our division. If you get a better job offer tomorrow, it will take me months to replace you. So, I’d rather not put you in a key position. It’s just too risky.

Emergencies

Some key positions, and I think mine is these days as I lead a group of over 100 people, could encounter emergencies; something that does go wrong that we couldn’t have possibly planned for. In those cases, my phone number and personal email are available.

I’ve been at Automattic for almost seven years. I have never needed to come online for an emergency while I was on holiday. It may happen at some point, but it will be a true exception.


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