I’ve had the honor and privilege of working as a researcher, consultant, and trainer for many professionals in the U.S. military, including special operations forces. Think about Army Special Forces (Green Berets), Navy SEALs, Marine Reconnaissance, Air Force Special Operations Command – these are meant to be the best of the best. These groups are strikingly impressive— their esprit de corps, the powerful ethic of service and sacrifice, the reeking confidence and skill.
What I find most striking about these groups is how much their identity as a group comes precisely from the fact that they exclude others. Who they are is not everybody else—the people who didn’t make it into their special elite group—the non–go-to people.
Selectivity and exclusivity are built into the very DNA of these organizations. Their training and qualification programs require a special application process, with a low acceptance rate. Once accepted, trainees are put through an incredibly rigorous schedule of nonstop physical, mental, and emotional lessons, exercises, and tests.
The SEALs’ training is famously difficult; only about one in five make it all the way through. Part of being a SEAL is the fact that very few people can be a SEAL. The SEALs are just one example. Many organizations and teams are, because of their selectivity, exclusivity, or rigor, meant to select out all the non–go-to people. Think of Harvard University, the bar, almost any medical school, the major leagues of any sport, the General Electric (GE) Audit program. Think of McKinsey, which has among the most coveted and powerful consulting jobs anybody graduating from, say, Harvard, can hope to get. Think Enterprise Rent-A-Car, in which new employees are brought further and further on board (or not) with a 30-day test, a 60-day test, a 90-day test, and finally after 180 days, a test it used to call “the grill.”
It is often said about such elite organizations, “The hardest part is getting in.” Indeed, part of the idea is that, when you’re in such an elite group, you are in such very good company, but it takes continued excellence to stay in. Make no mistake. But, it’s that much easier to continue succeeding at such a high level in a group where there are no low performers whose gaps must be covered. Everybody is operating at such a high level, already above and beyond, that every member of the team inspires and assists the others every step of the way.
Once you are part of such a group, you will ever after having the imprimatur, not to mention the knowledge, skill, experience, relationships, and muscle memory of operating at that level with that level of people. This will serve you during your entire life and career.
So, if you are part of one of these elite groups, you know that it’s possible to build a culture intentionally around go-to-ism, a culture in which everybody is expected to be indispensable. That makes it a lot easier to succeed.
If you are part of a culture that isn’t elite and doesn’t particularly appreciate go-to people, take confidence from the examples I’ve just named: know that elite cultures are something that can be created intentionally.
What If Your Culture Isn’t the Best of the Best?
If you do not happen to be a Navy SEAL and you’re not part of some other elite group within your organization, how can you hope to operate at a high level? After all, some companies simply lack the resources to support a high level of performance. They don’t have the choice of top talent, the selection process, the training assets, or the coaching-style leadership that would allow the organization to create an elite, elite corps. So, you might feel that any go-to-ism on your part would leave you swimming against a strong current.
Or you might be facing some other problem that discourages you from being a go-to person. What if your organization has a bunch of low performers who always cause problems? They continually make messes that the high performers spend all their time fixing—time that could be channeled into developing as go-to people. Or the low performers see you working double time, and they resent it. They might even be saying, “Hey, slow down. You’re making me look bad.” In some cultures, the problem is simply that there’s no special reward for operating at a higher level.
The good news about not being part of an elite team or organization (like the SEALs) is that it is easier for you to stand out among the others and even rise to the top. No matter where you work or what you do, if you conduct yourself as a go-to person, you are the person who is always adding value, always trying to serve others, always trying to do great work, and be great to work with. That’s going to make things better for you and others in your sphere of influence.
Sometimes people say, “But it doesn’t feel fair. And maybe it isn’t even wise to be indispensable. I will be doing much more than my share, with no special reward. And I might even be punished for it by the low performers.”
Don’t take your cues from people like that. Anybody who is saying, “Slow down, you’re making me look bad,” shouldn’t be your role model. You have to believe in the peculiar mathematics of real influence. By serving others, you build up your value and your reputation, immediately and for the long term. Even where there are naysayers or mean-spirited low performers, there have to be at least some people who see the good you’re doing and appreciate it. By adding value, you make the entire enterprise more valuable for everyone, including you. Remember? The math is peculiar.
So even if you are the sole go-to person among a sea of losers, better to be that solitary indispensable employee than to be dragging your heels. It’s better for you because you’re always doing your personal best. And it’s better for the people around you because you might just raise the bar.
If you look out over the landscape and for miles and miles you’re the only go-to person in sight, I predict one of three things will happen:
- The whole enterprise will fizzle sooner or later, but you will learn and grow from the experience instead of wasting your time and energy as a low performer.
- You will rise to the top and become a leader in your department or organization.
- You will quickly discover (and this is what I believe is most likely) that you aren’t the only go-to person in a sea of losers. By making yourself indispensable, you’ll draw out other like-minded folks, and you’ll start a movement within the enterprise. Go-to people are like magnets who attract each other.
So, while you might not be part of the Navy SEALs, it is still very unlikely that there are literally no go-to people in your organization except you. Indeed, you’ll probably discover there are more potentially extraordinary people there than you’d imagined.
When you bring your best to the table, no matter where you are or what you are doing, you bring out the best in others. And soon you start to realize that, in turn, helps them bring out the best in you.