Monday, October 25, 2010

What Is It That Only You Can Do? (and a free book contest)

Here’s a guest post by Scott Eblin, the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success. Scott is also an executive coach, speaker, and blogger. He is a former Fortune 500 HR executive, president of The Eblin Group and graduate of Davidson College, Harvard University, and Georgetown University’s leadership coaching certificate program, where he is also on the faculty. He’s been a long-time friend of Great Leadership, and I really respect him and his work.

Would you like a free copy of the brand new edition of Next Level? We’ll give away five copies to the “best” (insight, originality, humor, etc…) answers to Scott’s question at the end of the post. Be sure to include a way for me to contact you (email or Twitter handle) if you’d like to be eligible.

One of the typical challenges that leaders have when they take on a bigger job is figuring out what they need to let go of and what they need to pick up in terms of where they spend their time and attention. There’s a simple question I like to ask executives to consider as they sort this out – What is it that only I can do?

When I’m coaching people through this question, I’m quick to point out what the question isn’t about. It’s not about personal indispensability. As the founder of modern France, Charles deGaulle said, “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.” Yeah, as special and wonderful as each of us are in our own unique ways, none of us are indispensable. If we get hit by a bus, it’s likely that the bus is carrying someone who can step into our role.

But, for now, you are the only person filling your role. So, it’s important to ask that simple question in a slightly different way – What is it, given the role that I’m in and all of the unique resources and opportunities that come with it, that only I can do?

If you think about it, there’s probably a pretty short but very high impact list of things that only you can do as the person filling your role. What is it that comes with your role that enables you to get things done that others can’t? It could be any number of things including:

• Decision making authority

• Participation in leadership conversations

• Access to key people

• Ability to get the meetings you need

• Budget

• Visibility

With characteristics like that, your list of the things that only you can might include knocking down barriers for your team, securing resources, building alliances, setting goals or energizing others around a vision. Your list probably shouldn’t include activities just because you could do them or are good at doing them. Those likely aren’t the list of things that only you can do in your role. Focus on the things that will really leverage the unique opportunities of your role.

Here’s an example of how it plays out in real life. One of my clients was the president of the Federal business unit of his company. He’s a talented guy with a lot of experience and capabilities. In a conversation with his team about the “What is it that only I can do?” question, someone said to him:

"I’ll tell you what only you can do – be the president. When I’m making that final call on a deputy undersecretary of a federal agency to sell a big contract, I need you to show up as our president. I need you to show your interest, that you’re well informed and say that you’ll make sure we deliver for them. I don’t need you to work with us on the third draft of the proposal or run the numbers for the fifth time. We’ve got other people who can do that. I need you to show up as the president because you’re the only president we’ve got."

The same is true for you. Whatever role you’re filling for your team and organization, approach it like you’re the only one they’ve got. What is it, given your role, that only you can do?


Brian Oates said...

Scott, this is a good reminder. Companies want employees to 'share their knowledge' and be 'grooming someone to take their place'. Unique qualities seem to make them nervous. I can't say I've ever seen them say: Do only what you can do!

Rod Johnson said...

Scott, I'm unsure who to attribute this quote to (I think it was Seth Godin), but it goes, "Move from irreplaceable to being irresistable." So when I read your question "What is it that only you can do" I would suggest, maintain and build on your irresistable quotient. It opens doors, builds teams, solves problems, breaks down barriers...

Great question!

Charlotte Curtis said...

What is it, in my given role, that only I can do?
Take the bull by the horns! I am the newest and youngest in my work section even though I am 38. I take initiative, motivate the others, show them new possibilities, and offer new approaches. I analyize everyone to be able to fit their individual needs; that alone is unique because most are too selfish to take the time to figure the office out. I'm proactive; I realize that when something is broken, ignoring it will not make things better. Puting a bandaid on a wound without treating the infection just allows festering. I allow no excuses and have do not have a fear of higher management; that in itself, puts me way above others. After all we all put our pants on the same way, we are all equal at the starting line. Negativity has no place in my environment. I encourage 'All' to stop banging your heads on the wall, if it isn't working find another solution. Last but not least, "Procrastination is the theif of time", and I, personally, have no time to waste on those who will not help themselves! These are some of the reasons why no one can do, accomplish, or fill my role. I am unique!

Camille Macchio said...

Scott, A fantastic question.
I can listen attentively to every member of my team, acknowledge their contributions, provide verbal encouragement and ask questions. What I get back from the team is tenfold because I make them feel important and necessary.
Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

Scott Eblin said...

Wow, what a fascinating range of comments everyone. From the irresistible quotient to taking the bull by the horns to being super intentional about listening. Just goes to show you, there's more than one way to lead!

Coachseattle said...


That's a great question and good point that it is not about indispensability.

I ask myself ""What is it that only I can do and it's value added to my organization?"


Dan McCarthy said...

Brian –
Good point. A unique quality, while good for the individual, could put an organization at risk.

Rod –
Wasn’t it Mariah Carey? (-:

Charlotte –
What a declaration of leadership! Nice.

Camille –
That’s great – I like the focus on your team.

Scott –
I agree. Get those books ready to ship.

Coach Hsuan-hua –
That’s a good coaching question too, thanks.

Kevin W. Grossman said...

Encourage and facilitate the growth of what each of my people can only do. And then some.

Marie said...


I really enjoyed reading this post, what a great reflective question for managers to ask themselves: 'What is it only I can do?'. A lot of organizational reading i've done on leadership, suggests leadership is a balancing act, which needs to be adapted based on situational cues. Thus the question `what is it that only I can do?' I believe needs to be applied to the organizational situation at hand considering team dynamics etc. often requiring the manager to adapt their behaviors and unique talents to maximize results.

Thanks for a great article that all managers can learn from.

Dan McCarthy said...

Kevin -
I like it. Thanks.

Marie -
Thanks. After reading your comment, I had to go back and read Scott's post again. I still think the question could be answered in a more general sense. I think it's not about behaviors, it's about the role and things that only you can do.

Laura Hunter said...

Hi Scott,

I can give you a real-life example of how important your question can be.
My husband and I run our company together. Last year we decided that instead of helping me with day to day operational details and staff supervision he should do what he was best at - interacting with people.
When our clients showed up for our programs he was there to talk, listen and address any questions and concerns they might have. That became his responsibility and his priority.
Our business is now at an all-time high for us and in fact we now have a waiting list for our services - despite the rather poor economy and a pretty significant new sales tax that has just been imposed here. I am positive that this success is a largely a result of putting a key person in a position where he was free to "do what only he could do"

Coach Scott said...

I like the idea of do what you're best at and delegate the rest. It's not about being lazy, but efficient. You can't do everything well, so don't try.

Ann Herrmann said...

This I an important question for all of us to consider. I find it helpful to remember the principle of displacement-everything you choose to do means you will not do omething else. It is thu important to chooe wisely!
Ann Herrmann-Nehdi

Anonymous said...

What is it that only I can do?

Only I can bring my unique set of skills and experiences to the table for every issue that arises.

Only I can determine exactly what mix of those skills and experiences will suffice to help resolve the current issue.

Only I can motiviate myself to do the best I can each and every day.

Only I...

The list goes on. Thanks for the motivating and interesting perspective and thanks to everyone for the inspiring comments!!

Gene Sorrell

Dan McCarthy said...

Today's the book contest deadline!

I loved ALL of the comments and examples. Thanks, Scott for the provacative question.

Charlotte, Camille, Kevin and Gene all answered Scott's question. However, I did not get contact info for Camille. I'll contact the 3 "winners" that I can and see if she gets back to me.

toyin sawyerr said...

Great piece, but the truth is that it is one of the most difficult things to unravel. As a capable hand, particularly the unschooled ones on EMOTIONAL COMPETENCE, It is like a further training one has to undergo to get to realize our indispensability is a ruse.