If you’ve become so valuable to your manager that your career has stalled because they don’t want to let you go, it’s time to become dispensable. But how can you do it gracefully? The author presents four ways to keep your value as an employee from halting your career growth. While you show your value and expertise to your manager and team and make an impact in your current role, set boundaries, take on work you’re excited about, network within your organization, and set the person who comes after you up for success.
“The critical mistake you made is that you became indispensable,” a mentor once said to me. “That’s why you can’t get off his team and move on to your next assignment.”
After more than four years in the same role, I found that my career had stalled even though I had gone above and beyond my job description. My boss frequently volunteered my time to other leaders to build their strategy decks. He asked me to call vendors to get them to purchase annual gala tables for the nonprofit board he served on. He had me write his speeches for external events. He asked me to help manage his LinkedIn profile, and soon other leaders came to me with similar requests. Finally, he asked me to help the CEO and other executives prepare for interviews, because I was so good at crafting media briefs.
The observation from my mentor was a rude awakening. Because I had said yes to every assignment, in hopes that would help me move on to my next opportunity, I had become indispensable, and my manager wouldn’t let me go. Being indispensable had temporarily killed my career.
While job-hoppers can be viewed as unreliable or lacking commitment, those who have stayed too long in a role can be perceived as stagnant, too comfortable, and not innovative. Staying in the same role too long can also impact your confidence and your own view of your capabilities. Ultimately, it can stand in the way of your career growth and advancement. Here are four ways to stop being indispensable to ensure that your career progress doesn’t stall.
Make Yourself Less Available
While we’re taught that our jobs are to make our managers’ jobs easier, that doesn’t mean we need to be available 24/7. Living in an always-on attention economy can compel us to always be available to do whatever is needed. I routinely responded to texts at 6:30 a.m. and phone calls at 11 p.m. on Saturday evenings. I would drop everything when my manager called, even responding to his requests during vacations with my family.
“If you repeatedly respond to texts at 6:30 a.m., your manager expects that you will be available then, because you didn’t set your boundaries,” Christy DeSantis, founder and chief confidence officer of Fiducia Coaching, told me. “We all need to train our managers on when we are available and when we are not. Make yourself available and present for the career moments that matter. And remember, managers don’t always need or expect a response right away, so stop yourself from immediately responding.”
In addition to following Christy’s advice, focus on being intentional and making an impact during reasonable working hours. Of course, the occasional fire drill and urgent tasks will happen, but retrain your manager on your general availability while continuing to demonstrate your value and expertise.
Say No, and Then Say Yes
Saying no doesn’t have to be detrimental to your career. If every quarter you’re asked to lead the team offsite, it’s time to decline. Say no, then position the no as an opportunity for someone else to lead and learn from the work. Nominate other individuals who could benefit from taking over the task. If your manager insists that you have to keep doing the work, be explicit about other initiatives or projects you’ll have to stop working on to make time for it. Be clear that you’re committed to delivering strong work and want to ensure that you aren’t being spread too thin.
When you say no, think of something else you would be comfortable taking on and excited to say yes to. Prioritize projects that are important and timely and that give you exposure to the wider organization. Before your manager assigns you work, be proactive and raise your hand for projects that can increase your visibility internally. If you’ve become indispensable to your manager, saying yes to work that gives you access to other leaders will help you move on to your next opportunity.
Be Clear on What You Want to Do Next
When I started working for my manager, he said I would be on the team for only a year. But twelve months became 18 months and then 24 months. He told me to stop worrying and that he would help me find my next opportunity. Four years passed and he still wouldn’t let me go — I had become too valuable to him. And I had made the fatal mistake of tying my career to one individual.
“If your manager isn’t supportive of the next step in your career, be vocal with as many leaders as possible in your organization about your career vision,” Lola Bakare, owner of be/co and marketing executive coach, told me. “Bonus points if you can manage to weave in all the ways in which working with your current manager has inspired you along the way.”
She added: “If a number of leaders are advocating for you to move on to your next role, it will be harder for your manager to hold on to you. No one wants to be labeled a talent hoarder, and the public recognition of their role in your success just might turn them into an advocate, too.”
In addition to following Bakare’s advice, connect with HR about your career vision. In many organizations, HR plays a key role in talent planning and will have an understanding of what roles will be opening up in the short and long terms. It can advocate for you behind closed doors to help you move on to your next opportunity.
Help Find Your Successor
If your manager is convinced that you’re the only one who can do your job, it’s time to change their mind. Help them find your successor. Consider those within your team along with individuals you’ve met in other parts of the organization. Think about people in your networks who would be interested in joining your company. Offer to introduce your manager to key talent.
If you have an internal successor in mind, ask them to help you on a project. This will give them the opportunity to see if they like the work and your boss the opportunity to see how talented they are. And as you plan to move on to your next role internally, help with a smooth transition by supporting your successor. Help prepare them for success by introducing them to key stakeholders and projects and coaching them on how to work with their new manager. Setting your successor up for wins means you won’t be pulled into your old role and can move on to your next chapter.
If you’ve become so valuable to your manager that your career has stalled, it’s time to be dispensable. While you show your value and expertise to your manager and team and make an impact in your current role, set boundaries, take on work you’re excited about, network within your organization, and set the person who comes after you up for success.