A few years back, I started working for a boutique real estate investment trust (REIT) company. I was inadvertently so good at it that I was made a junior partner in two years. I relocated to California to open the West Coast office and my opening move was to land a massive deal. Now I am madly looking for a larger office space and hiring analysts and other staff, all while trying to manage the details of the deal.
I know next to nothing about renting office space and even less about hiring, but, like everything else, I seem to keep figuring things out. My boss (the CEO) thinks the world of me and is nothing but supportive.
The problem is that there is simply too much to do. I am really good at getting things done but the task list far exceeds the time I can devote to work. I have two small children and a great husband who has a less intense job and can manage without me—but I don’t see how I can keep up these 12- to 14-hour days.
Every time I turn around my boss is piling on more. In our last conversation, right after telling me he wants me to manage this year’s holiday party (I am good at that kind of thing but hate doing it), he said he thinks I should be in charge of our company culture. Our culture? I don’t even know what that means. But I do know I can’t possibly take on any more than I am already doing.
I am afraid to say no. I would hate to disappoint my boss, who clearly believes I can do anything. I have to figure out a way to deal with all of this.
Just Too Much
Dear Just Too Much,
Indeed, you do. You must figure it out. And you will. But first you are going to have to reshape your own self-concept. It seems that you pretty much can do anything, you just can’t do everything. All at once. Nobody can.
You are a poster child for an adage I think I coined: “The reward for doing great work is—more work!” It is true that if you want something done, give it to a busy person who gets things done. I have always had the (totally conscious) bias that moms with careers get more done in less time because they have to.
Your boss has become used to handing over things to you because he has ample evidence that you will get them handled. He will keep doing it until you tell him to stop. And, yes, that will probably be disappointing to him. So if you want to stop being a slave to your never-ending to-do list and start creating a life that doesn’t give you heart palpitations, the first thing you need to do is get used to disappointing people. Lots of people. For someone like you this is the hardest thing, but it is also the most necessary. I can’t promise that you will ever get fully comfortable with it, but I can promise that you can (and will) get better at it. Being the “get-it-done Golden Girl” has become a habit—one you can break as you develop new muscles.
Research shows that women tend to volunteer twice as much as men to do tasks that (1) are not in their job description and (2) will not increase their promotability or income. Here is an article that might interest you. It isn’t really a problem if you are able to do everything well that you need to do and you’re still having fun—if you love baking, by all means bring in the birthday cakes! But it is a problem if it diverts your focus from critical tasks, or if you are exhausted or resentful.
Ultimately, the way to really disappoint people is to make promises you can’t keep—so half the battle is managing expectations. In terms of revealing to your boss that you are an actual human being and not a task accomplishment cyborg, simply tell him you have reached your limit of what is possible.
Here is your step-by-step guide to properly managing expectations, including your own:
- Make three lists:
- a. Things you are great at or really interested in and love to do that are part of your actual job. This is where you want to spend the bulk of your focus and time.
- b. Things you are great at but not that interested in or don’t love to do that are part of your actual job, or peripheral. These are things to delegate.
- c. Things you aren’t good at, are really bored by, or hate doing that are not even remotely connected to your job. These are things that don’t even register on the radar of very successful people (mostly men).
- Next time someone—anyone—asks you to do something, see if it falls into the (a) category. If it doesn’t, the answer is “no.” (NOTE: you can do this retroactively for the holiday party and culture creation tasks.)
- “No, I can’t take that on right now.”
- “No, I am much too tied up with _________, _________, and __________.”
- “No, there must be someone else who can do that. I know Robert loves parties!”
- “No, I am terrible at planning events.”
If just saying straight up “no” is too hard, you can build up to it over time. Try starting with what the authors of The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work call a “Modified Yes”:
- “Is there someone else who might be able to lead that project? I will gladly contribute or consult.”
- “Let me review your request and think about what the commitment would entail. May I think about it?”
- “Maybe—let me review all of the other commitments I have and see if that will be possible.”
- “I am interested and excited by the idea, but I would need to pass one of my other projects to someone else if I were to take it on.”
This is the only way you can stay focused on what matters most to you and make partner (if that is your goal). No one ever made partner by being a doormat, so stay focused on generating revenue and building up the West Coast office. Let other people—maybe people you hire—figure out the holiday party and, eventually, hiring. And certainly recommend that the company hire a professional HR person to manage the culture, which is a full-time job even for someone who really knows what they are doing. I am astonished at how many small companies do not invest in a Chief People Officer when people are, in fact, what will make or break any endeavor.
The first step is awareness, which you have. The next is to take a good long look in the mirror and ask yourself who you want to be, what you really want, who you don’t want to be, and what you don’t want. And then begin to slowly manage your boss’s and everyone else’s expectations by signaling clearly what you will and will not do. As long as you are kind, clear, and respectful, it will lead to people respecting you. And you will find you are asked to do fewer things that do not require your special brand of brilliant.
You can choose to step up now or you can wait until you are suffering even more than you already are. Some people will only face the discomfort of change when the cost of not changing is so high that they have some kind of health crisis, they lose their sense of humor, or they find themselves actually failing at their job. I highly recommend not waiting—but it is, of course, up to you.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.