Invisibles: People who don’t pat themselves on the back

On CBS Good Morning last week, David Zweig was interviewed about his recent book called “Invisibles – The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-promotion.” The book sounds like a fascinating read which explores the success of those who show up to work each day, do their job well and collaborate with others toward common goals. These folks do not seek the limelight and are definitely not about merchandising themselves. And, each has a very rewarding career doing a job well and sharing the success with others.

In my over thirty-three years of working as a consultant, teammate, employee and, at times, manager of people, one observation seems to ring true – “work will find good people.” These are the folks who don’t talk about getting it done, they work with others to get it done. In any business, we find people who are over-committing and routinely missing deadlines or producing less than quality deliverables. We will also find people who talk about good ideas, but fewer people who get up out of their chair and go do something.

The invisible people need not be the “stars” of the team. Sometimes their strength is project or process management competence. They are the machine that gets work product done. In other words, they do the basic blocking and tackling that does not make the headlines. A successful football team is more due to those guards and tackles who make way for the stars. A business is no different. And, many do not do their job exceedingly well, but do it well-enough, and show up each day to do it again. These are those solid C+ and B- performers that every organization needs to be successful. They have an intrinsic knowledge of how to do things within that organization. If leaders do not heed their value and input, they will not be as successful or may fail.

I had an old management professor who advised his son on how to be successful, advice which I share with others. If you do these three simple things, you will have some success. “Show up, show up on time and show up dressed to play.”  It matters not the underlying business or work group. If you are not there, others have to pick up the slack. If you are constantly late, others have to pick up the slack. If you are not there wearing clothes to present yourself as expected to your colleagues and clients or dressed with the right attitude, others will have to pick up the slack. Then, an invisible person becomes visible and management will realize they can do their job without you.

The lesson of the book is a good one. You do not have to merchandise yourself to be successful. Competence is a terrific aphrodisiac to an employer. I often help people network as it is my way of paying it forward. I was helping someone I know well get a job and she is all about competence, efficiency, teaming and effectiveness. She is not as good at merchandising and your first impression would be not to hire her. I used to tell prospective employers, she may not be the one you propose to, but she is the one you want to be married to. She understands strategy, tactics and execution and that is a powerful combination.

Let me close with some observations on what to avoid. If you hear someone say he/ she is a “big picture” person, don’t hire them. If you hear someone use far too many “I’s and me’s” and not many “we’s and us’s” don’t hire them. If someone “throws people under the bus” more than accepting responsibility, don’t hire them. I recognize fully the need to have people who can sell services and merchandise themselves. But, the merchandisers I would prefer to work with know that it is a team of others who back up their commitments. Many of them are in this group called “invisibles.”


7 thoughts on “Invisibles: People who don’t pat themselves on the back

  1. This book sounds fascinating. I have a colleague who tends to be loud and works hard to throw the rest of us under the bus. It turns out, our professors can see through him and he’s the least-liked. It doesn’t pay to be the “star” who does no work and is all talk. I had another situation where I co-produced a community production. I did all the work, and the other woman took all of the credit. However, people came up to me afterward and said, “We know who really did the work.” I don’t think these “invisibles” are as invisible as we might think, and for those of us who are observant, we notice them and we appreciate them. 🙂

    • Thanks Emily. Those nice gestures to acknowledge effort go a long way, don’t they? There is an old, but true line about good leaders – they deflect credit to others, while bad ones assume credit, even when not deserved. As a manager, you tend to recognize who those “invisibles” are. I have written before about my old Administrative Assistant. She had better client service skills than many consultants. But, she also knew what the end game should look like. For example, my old firm changed numerous times the process to send invoices out. She knew no matter the rules, we need to get them out the door by the 15th of the month at the latest. So, she would work backwards from that date and plan accordingly, no matter how many changes were made to the process. Because of her tenure, her pay had increased to upper quartile for what she did and we were constantly asked to get by with a cheaper person. The correct answer was and is “are you kidding me?”

  2. I appreciate your views on this subject. I share your opinion about big picture thinkers. In my experience, they will often generate ideas and contacts, but be unwilling to do any of the follow-up themselves. It is possible for a very detail-oriented person to be immersed in the minutiae of everyday tasks, and not be open to vision or change. But those are the extremes, and I think most people fall between. It’s all a matter of finding a good fit with the role expected of them in the workplace – and good leaders to ensure they don’t drift too far from their roles – unless it’s in a positive direction.

    • Well said. We each have our strengths and a good leader will match up people on teams with different strengths. For example, I worked with a very creative, conversant consultant, whose weakness was project management and follow-up. So, we invariably paired him up with someone who was highly proficient at project management. This is true diversity of thoughts, talents and perspectives. I forgot the name of the company, but they are known for working with Apple and others on innovative packaging, accessories, furniture, etc. The leaders purposefully put different folks on teams – financial, mechanical, artistic, technical, project managers – to get a wide perspective. I think when you are looking to change a process, the team needs to include folks who know the process, but are willing to see it improved, as you are dead on accurate about people too close to a process may be reluctant to change. Great comments.

  3. Note to Readers: Reading the nice feedback and formulating my responses has led me to add this postscript. As leaders, colleagues and customers, there is a wonderful gift we could do that many would appreciate, but especially those who do not seek it as much as others. A “thank you for your help” or some other personal acknowledgment goes a long way. Also, a note or call to that person’s boss is important as you are saying what that person did mattered. A good boss will share the accolade and thanks.

    Quick example with regard to my old Administrative Assistant I note in my comments to Emily. Our mantra was to make our guest consultants from other offices feel at home. When traveling from New York, a senior consultant noted some mistakes in a report she was to present the next day. She called and emailed my AA and my AA made the changes, printed and bound new copies, delivered them to her hotel room and let the traveling consultant know. My AA also followed-up by phone with the traveling consultant to make sure she got them. The traveling consultant not only thanked my AA profusely, she let me know that my AA had saved the day.

    There is a lot that is right with this story. The AA went beyond the call of duty to serve our mutual client. And, the senior consultant made sure not only my AA knew, but me as well, that she appreciated the extra effort. Class act on both peoples’ parts.

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