Invisibles: People who don’t pat themselves on the back (a reprise)

A few years ago, David Zweig was interviewed about his book called “Invisibles – The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-promotion.” The book is 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. I was thinking of this book as I read about the courageous and quiet healthcare and retail workers who are doing their jobs in more dire situations.

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 may 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.”

14 thoughts on “Invisibles: People who don’t pat themselves on the back (a reprise)

    • Linda, thanks. Well done. The professor was more colorful in his story. Though, it is amazing how these three simple things are not followed. Keith

      • But really, so basic, simple, and important! A funny thing, perhaps I’ve shared this with you before. Hope not.
        As a child I’d hear the old ranchers talking about someone. A frequent descriptor was, “Yeah, that guy really knows how to work!”

        I’d think to myself, “WTH does that mean? How can anyone not know how to work?” That concept puzzled me. Until I entered the workforce and discovered, in training new recruits, that honestly, some people “don’t know how to work.” I think “show up ready to play” maybe touches on this. A person who knows how to work enters the scene and looks around to see what needs to be done. How can I pitch in? What’s falling through the cracks? Who is about to crack? Doesn’t have to be walked through every step but anticipates need.

      • Linda, great contribution. Showing up ready to work is a huge add to the list of attributes. Some people know how to organize their work for the day and week. They work hard, but work smart.

        In my business, the better workers reviewed requested data to see if there any needed follow-ups, rather than waiting to do so as the deadline approached. So, they would follow-up and do other tasks while they waited.

        Also, there is a necessary skill to managing your boss’ time asking your questions in scheduled meetings of 15 minutes.

        I am sure you have numerous examples in your line of work. Keith

  1. Note to Readers: I sent this post to an email distribution group and received this heartfelt response. I received similar responses, but felt this one resonated. I will edit it for brevity.

    “Thank you so much for this. I am one of those people who feel like they are invisible at times but I know I get the job done. I think why I feel invisible sometimes is because after showing up and being on time, dressed appropriately and going above and beyond, the staff and board just expect that from me. So I feel invisible sometimes. …It is not about me, it is about the people we serve and the staff. I work in development so my heart mission is to bring in the funding, donations, in-kinds that we need so we can continue our good work.

    It is even harder to feel visible while working from home. Thank you for this email story. It inspires me to continue my heart journey.”

    • Roger, that is not a surprise. The self-merchandisers often do not stay around long enough, making the invisibles even more valuable. The invisibles have a greater “intrinsic knowledge” on how to get things done at that organization. Keith

      • Very true Keith.
        I don’t know if you’ve read Lord of the Rings.
        One of the lesser characters is Sam Gamgee, initially only loyal servant to Frodo, hero hobbit.
        Sam is dependable, practical and often turns a vital situation around by simply doing his job. To the extent when I read Lord of The Rings, he is the hero.
        In fact the when it comes to the evil ring which Frodo must bear everyone else is scared to because of its malignant influence. Frodo gets in a state when he loses it, Sam find it without turning a hair and says ‘Here you are Mr Frodo’ and hands it over, which no one else could do.
        Tolkien dedicated Sam to the ordinary British soldier of WW I

      • Roger, I have only seen the movies. That is a terrific example and summation of Sam. My wife and I watched the movie “Tolkien” a few months ago. He had many demons from The Great War” which he included in his writings. Great addition to the narrative. Keith

  2. Note to Readers: One of these solid citizens is retiring from my old company after twenty-two years. I am sure there are some who say she can be replaced, which is almost always true about anyone, but that is 22 years of intrinsic knowledge walking out the door.

    What do I mean by intrinsic knowledge? – that is the ability to navigate the company’s procedures and bureaucracy to get things accomplished. This is even more important when change occurs. These folks know what needs to be done, so when the new approach proves burdensome, they can help navigate knowing what the end game must look like.

    My company became increasingly more difficult to work with overly-burdensome Client Services Agreements and Statements of Work. We lost a $1 million assignment because of such and I spent an inordinate amount of time with attorneys and supply chain people rather than meeting and serving the buyers of our services. If it were not for a key right arm, one of these invaluable invisibles, I would have spent even more time. By the way, she was not invisible to me or our clients.

  3. Excellent, sound reasoning. Far too many people in the workplace today fail to heed this advice. I had my first full-time job at age 13 and my father’s advice to me then was, “If you’re getting paid for doing a job, then you better be earning that pay by giving 100% of the best you’ve got to give.” I never forgot those words and always tried hard to follow them. Today, I listen to my daughter, a nursing supervisor and other friends in management positions talk about how difficult it is to instill work ethics in their staffs and I wonder if people are getting lazy or just don’t care anymore.

    • Jill, good advice by your father. Your daughter needs to be an “employee whisperer.” She needs to whisper, “If you make yourself expendable, you will become such.” This is especially true in downturns.

      I know of someone who at 57 laments being slow at work with her performance metrics. I shared with her to seek help on how to improve, but told her a few things she needed reinforced. You show up early and always to work. You have gone in to work when asked if someone does not show up. You are pleasant and want to do a good job. That is more than half of the battle. Keith

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