Irreplaceable

This week, I moved into the office of a colleague who recently retired after 28 years. Sitting behind his (my) desk, I spent a few quiet moments reflecting on how supportive and influential he had been. I considered how in my first days and weeks I realized that he would be a safe harbor, an ally in my growth as a technology professional in a brand new industry. I thought about the many times I had walked into his (my) office to get candid feedback and he had given it to me — with helpfulness and without judgement.

So, I gave myself a few moments and then I got back to the work.

It’s a hard lesson to learn that you are replaceable at the office. At least it was hard for me. I wrap so much of my value around doing good work and providing support to my work teams that the idea that they could get someone else to do what I do hurts. I’m special, right? I’m important, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, I do believe I’m special. Yes, I do believe the work that I do is important. But irreplaceably special? Irreplaceably important? Not so much.

In Lean In Or Recline Back, my post about how women need to be encouraged to swivel to meet their personal and professional objectives, I shared the story of leaving a high octane career in industry for a less demanding job in higher education. What I didn’t share in that post was what I learned from the exit process. How I learned that I was replaceable.

When I announced I was leaving, everyone swarmed to convince me to stay. I was certain in my heart and head that it was the right call, but the response impacted me. It gave me a bit of an ego boost, and it led me to believe that they were going to be lost without me. I felt badly that I was leaving them and so I gave three weeks notice instead of the standard two. In my loyalty I reasoned it was the least I could do; I wanted them to be able to recover from my abandonment.

I was misguided. My position was a critical one and the leadership team didn’t hesitate. Within a few days they had identified and announced my backfill. By the end of the week he was in my (his) office and I was squatting in a cube. By the end of the second week I had transitioned all of the critical work (most of which I had documented) to him and was just on call for questions. And, the third week? I sat unneeded in the cube watching the clock and feeling in my heart that in staying a third week I had made a noble but terribly wrong call.

Turns out, I was completely replaceable.

I try to keep that in mind when I start to get a little too full of myself. When I’m struggling to delegate effectively or when it feels like I’ve become an obstacle to progress. I don’t discount the unique talents that I bring to the table, but I try to remember that effective organizations and leaders will be prepared to respond to an employee departure. And as a leader I remind myself that it is my job to make sure my team can respond to change. To make sure we are all (including me) replaceable.

And while I am confident that as an employee I am replaceable, I know that I would not be easily replaced as a person. I hold a unique and special place in the lives of my parents, husband, siblings, children and friends. I have no shortage of data points that tell me the world will be a different place without me, a quieter place with less light and less energy.

And as far as I know, no one is ready to replace that.

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