How do you make yourself indispensable at work without succumbing to overcommitment syndrome? The solution comes down to the peculiar mathematics of real influence. Real influence is the power you have when other people truly want to work with you, do things for you, make good use of your time and invest in your success. How do you become the kind of person at work whom other people trust, seek out, root for and do not want to disappoint?

Lisa Wolf ’88, who holds a Ph.D. in nursing, is exactly that sort of person, which is why I featured her in my book. In the emergency room where she works, the best answer to most questions is, “Because Lisa says so.” And the best question is, “What does Lisa think?” Indispensable, go-to people like Lisa are not mythic characters. Everywhere I go, I find the people most trusted by their colleagues. You can do the same things they do.

A comic-bookesque illustration of various people at work
Go vertical before you go sideways or diagonal. In addition to your direct boss and immediate teammates, you may be inundated with requests from colleagues, some of whom you don’t even know. Other times, it’s you who needs to rely on a colleague you cannot easily hold accountable. Aligning closely with your boss through regular dialogue—about priorities, ground rules, marching orders and next steps—puts you in a strong position to work laterally.

Know when to say “no” (and “not yet”) and how to say “yes.” Be deliberate and methodical when people make requests of you. That’s how you build a track record of making good decisions, which is how you give yourself more power to say “no” or “not yet” when that’s the right answer. The idea is not to sugarcoat a no; it’s to make a great decision through due diligence. Every request deserves your respect. Slow down, ask questions, pay attention. Remember that yes is where the action is; every good no is about making room for a better yes, and every yes is an opportunity to add value for others and build up your real influence. Don’t waste your yeses: set up every yes for success with a concrete plan that clarifies the sequence, timing and ownership of next steps.

Take the time to get really good at whatever you do. I don’t mean that you should work only in your area of strength and passion but rather that you should professionalize everything you do by mastering established best practices, developing repeatable solutions and building up people who can back you up. Identify the responsibilities and projects for which you want to be known. And look for new tasks that are precisely “not your job,” because those are opportunities to expand your repertoire of specialties.

Serve others, and help your colleagues learn to do so, too. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Finish what you start. Multitasking is a fiction. Focus is the key to productivity and quality. Yes, you have to handle a long and diverse list of responsibilities and projects, but you can execute only one thing at a time, so break up your work into small chunks. Sure, keep a busy schedule, but find the gaps in that schedule and devote them to focused execution.

Lift people up. Relationships are the key, but don’t focus on politicking and personal rapport. Instead, focus on the actual work. This will make the work go better, and when the work goes better, the relationship will go better. Celebrate a successful project with a supersonic thank-you. Channel finger-pointing into continuous improvement through after-action reviews. Plan the next collaboration by looking around the corner together. When you lift up others, they will lift you up, too.

Promote go-to-ism throughout your organization. Be a go-to person. Find go-to people wherever you need them. Help others become go-to people. That’s how you build the upward spiral of real influence, the power that people give each other because they want each other to be powerful. Go-to-ism rests on an essential belief: that serving
others is what makes you the kind of person others want to help succeed.

Bruce Tulgan ’89 is author of The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020)

Illustration by Cristina Spanò