Scope - Design - Deliver

The Indispensable Leader


Bruce Tulgan is the founder and CEO of Rainmaker Thinking Inc. He is a prolific writer, having published over 21 books, including his latest book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work. In this episode learn from Bruce:

  • How to be the go-to person and not get overwhelmed
  • Avoid over commitment syndrome
  • Know when to say yes and when to say no
  • Get yourself a go-to-ism and think like a go to person.

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Transcript: Thanks to Jermaine Pinto at JRP Transcribing for being our Partner. Contact Jermaine via LinkedIn or via his site JRP Transcribing Services


Steve Rush: Bruce Tulgan is a special guest on today’s show. He is the founder and CEO of Rainmaker Thinking Inc. He is a prolific writer, having published over 21 books, including his latest book, which is The Art of Being Indispensable at Work. Bruce, welcome to The Leadership Hacker Podcast.


Bruce Tulgan: Thank you so much for, including me.


Steve Rush: It is our pleasure, indeed. We are going to get into the subject of writing and your latest book shortly, but before we do that. Perhaps you can give the listeners a little bit of an insight as to how you have arrived at being the founder of Rainmaker Thinking and a little bit about the journey that brought you here.


Bruce Tulgan: Yeah, so 27 years ago, I was an unhappy lawyer at number two Wall Street, and I set out to answer a question really, which is, what are your young employees whispering about over lunch? Of course, I was one of those young employees and I had a conversation with a senior partner at the law firm where I was, an associate. And I said to him, you know, if you only knew what your young employees were whispering about over lunch and he got so curious, I could tell, you know, so I thought, well, I’ll write an article about that. And I started interviewing people and I never stopped, so that’s really how I got going. My first book was Managing Generation X. That was based on my first batch of interviews, and over the last 27 years, we have interviewed more than a half a million people from more than 400 organizations and everything we do is based on these ongoing in depth interviews.


Steve Rush: And intergenerational leadership is something that is close to my heart and my clients too, it is becoming more prolific. We’ve now got kind of four, and in certain cases we’ve got five generations that are all working at the same time. And that’s probably the first time that’s happened, including of course the generation X and Y millennials, etc. Right?


Bruce Tulgan: Yeah. I mean, when I started out, I was young and so I was interviewing young people. One of the longitudinal studies we’ve done for 27 years now is about the great generational shift in the workplace and in the workforce overall, and so, you know, Gen X now are no longer young, millennials are no longer young. I mean the young people in the workplace now or post millennials, so we have tried to keep our finger on the pulse of the new young workforce for a long time now. I wrote a book called Not Everyone Gets A Trophy about the millennials. I wrote a book called Bridging The Soft Skills Gap, How To Teach The Missing Basics To Today’s Young Talent about the late stage millennials and post-millennials. And every January we release a white paper called the great generational shift in the workforce and just trying to share with our clients what we’re seeing in terms of generational change in the workplace.


Steve Rush: It is really fascinating and that’s a core part of what Rainmaking do now, but perhaps give us a bit more broader insight as to what Rainmaker Thinking do?


Bruce Tulgan: So we have three longitudinal studies going now. The first one is the great generational shift. The second one is about leadership communication in the workplace. How people communicate up, down, sideways and diagonal, and what works and what doesn’t, what gets in the way. And what we find in that ongoing study is we’re always looking at why does communication in the workplace so often default to unstructured communication and when you have unstructured communication, often you lack substance. And what happens is problems hide below the radar, and so many of the things that go wrong in the workplace, we’re able to tie back to unstructured communication. And so one of the things we do is try to help our clients put more structure and substance into their communication at every level, and then the third, longitudinal study we’ve got going is called winning the talent wars.


And it’s about trends in staffing, strategy, training, performance management, and retention, succession planning, knowledge transfer and again, what we try to do is whether the labour market, is favouring employers or employees. We are trying to track long-term trends in the labour market, and what we have been tracking now for more than two decades is a shift from the old-fashioned long-term hierarchical career path to what we call a more of a short term, renewable transactional career path. And so those are the three main studies that all of our work is based on. The reason I am able to write so many books is because, you know, we’re always doing research. So every once, in a while, I just press print Steve, you know?


Steve Rush: Yeah, got you. One thing that’s really fascinated me about the time that we’ve spoke is that you have got this real insatiable appetite for writing and knowledge. Where does that bug come from?


Bruce Tulgan: I often think of Dorothy Parker, the great American writer. She famously said I hate writing, but I love having written.


Steve Rush: Yeah, I know that feeling.


Bruce Tulgan: And I think maybe, I love having written. So, you know, I’m always doing this research. I don’t want it to go to waste. I type really fast, so I’m not sure. I think my insatiable desire to write, I don’t know if I would describe it that way, but you have me examining my own self here in. This count as great interview because here you’ve got me really thinking.


Steve Rush: I guess, from what you have described, it is more about the writing as a by-product of your appetite to want to share knowledge and insights that you have captured. That would be a fairer summary


Bruce Tulgan: Yeah, I am student first, and foremost. I think probably what I am best at is being a student and what I am at heart is a student. I see myself every time I go into an organization. I want to learn about the organization and the people. I want to learn what is going right, what is going wrong, where there opportunities, where there are puzzles, where there are opportunities to help. And you know, if you’re always asking questions and taking notes eventually you get common denominators. When I see a problem return over and over and over again, then what happens is I start looking for solutions and if I can find a solution then I got a book.


Steve Rush: Awesome. It sounds great. It is a great approach to capturing knowledge information, and then sharing it elsewhere. And in the latest book, Being Indispensable at Work. The principles about the book is around winning influence, beat over commitment and get the right things done. So what was it that set you on that path?


Bruce Tulgan: Well, what we see over and over again is of course, everybody at work wants to be, I mean, look, some people don’t want to be that indispensable, go to person. Some people want to hide. If you want to hide, you are not my kind of person. You are not going to be interested in my books. You know, my books are not filled with shortcuts and easy solutions. Most of my books, the punchline is work harder, work smarter, work faster, work better. You know, most of our punchlines are take a walk every day and eat your vegetables. But assuming that you want to work effectively, that you want to be one of those indispensable go to people, then the thing that usually gets in the way. If you want to be a go to person, people go to you and if they keep going to you, you get overwhelmed and if you are over committed then pretty soon you are juggling. If you are over committed, pretty soon, you have to start saying no, if you’re over committed, you’re dropping the ball. You have delays, mistakes. You do damage to relationships. The puzzle I was really trying to solve in this book is. How do you become one of those indispensable go to people without succumbing to over commitments syndrome?


Steve Rush: And it is a bit of a by-product of being great at what you do. Isn’t it? People will always come to the people they can trust. And in the book you talk about this over commitment syndrome. So if I am a leader and I have got over commitment syndrome, or my team have, how can I recognize it in me, and others? How would it manifest itself?


Bruce Tulgan: Well, look, you know. If you want to be indispensable, you have to play a longer game. And the big mistake that people make is thinking, well, if I’m great at what I do, then I’m indispensable. Well, okay, you got to be great at what you do, but we’ve all known technical experts, nobody wants to work with. Right? And they said, well, if I work harder than everyone else, I’ll be indispensable. Well sure, but we have all seen people who work their heart out, but don’t really get things done or they don’t get the right things done or they don’t get things done right.


Steve Rush: Right.


Bruce Tulgan: Right and they said, well, okay, it is all about attitude. I got to have a great attitude. Well, we have all seen people who have a great attitude who end up over promising and they really want to be helpful, so their way of manifesting a good attitude is they say yes to everyone and everything. Well, if you say yes to everyone and everything, you are not making good decisions; you are going to get over committed, and it means you are likely to, not really be able to serve anyone ultimately optimally. So, you know, you have to play the long game, but the long game is played one moment at a time. So look, here’s what happens. Some people they want to be indispensable, so here is what they do. They say, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Until they are over committed, and then they feel like they have no choice, but to say no. So then, they start saying, no, no, no, no, no. Until they get a break or until they get some of their time back, and then they say, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, Again. But they’re saying yes, because they want to please in the moment and they’re saying no, because they’re overwhelmed and they have to say no, but people who are go to people who were indispensable, who stand the test of time, they take each request as it comes and they try to make a good decision. They know when to say no and how to say yes.


Steve Rush: So I guess one of the coping strategies for this is, and you call this out as a chapter in your book. It is when to say no and how to say yes. How would I know when the right time is to say no and how should I then say, yes?


Bruce Tulgan: Well, you got to make a decision. So if what you’re doing is saying, yes, because you want to please, that’s not the right reason. Right? You want to please, so yes is where all the action is. Yes is how you prove yourself. Yes is how you build relationships. Yes is how you add value. Don’t waste your yeses, right? Yes is also a commitment. If you say yes, then you better deliver and that means you need a plan of action. It means you need time to execute and so you want to say, yes, when you can deliver. You want to say yes, when it is a good idea and what we have learned is that, you know people who say you have to learn how to say no. It sounds great in theory, but you can’t sugar-coat your no such that anyone wants to hear it. You know, it is still no.


Steve Rush: Yeah, it is true.


Bruce Tulgan: You know, so the key to know no, in the long term, it is having a reputation for being right. It is having a reputation for being aligned with leadership. It is having a reputation for being professional and business-like. It is having a reputation for how you conduct yourself. You are all about serving others, but you make really good decisions because you know, if you’re going to serve others you got to make good decisions. Cause you can’t do everything for everyone. So you have to do the right things for the right reasons, so when Steve said, no, I stop and think, gee, if Steve said, no, maybe this was not the right ask. If Steve says, no, maybe no is the right answer. If Steve says, no, I better listen to what comes next. That is the long game; you want to have a reputation. You want to be known for making good decisions for being responsible, for being service oriented. You are not saying no, because you don’t want to help. You are not saying no, because you are overwhelmed. You are not saying no, because you are feeling like you are drowning in work. You are not saying no, because you don’t like me. You are saying no for a good business reason, so that is the long game. In the short term, the trick is you’ve got to be aligned with your chain of command. So know where your boss is coming from. Know what your boss would say. What are the values, the priorities, the ground rules, the marching orders, so you have your good vertical anchor, and then when somebody makes a request? Listen, tune in. The best way to put yourself in a position to make a good decision is spend more time on the ask; now that is true if you are making an ask. Make sure that you shape a really good ask, but so much of what people have to say to you at work is asking. Stop and tune in, pay attention to the request.


What you really want to do is, is ask the asker the right questions. Exactly what do you need? How do you need it? When do you need it? How can I help you, help me help you? And the more you pay attention to the ask. The more you are going to see is this a big ask or a small ask. Is it a small ask, hiding as a big ask or a big ask, hiding as a small ask. You got to tune in and then if you can’t do it, the worst thing in the world you can do is say yes. When really, you are not going to be able to deliver or if you say yes, when you really are not allowed to deliver, or you say yes, when, hey, this is really not a good idea. So a good, no is a huge favour and every good no is there to make room for a better, yes.


Steve Rush: I love that principle of tuning in, because in my experience as a coach and as a consultant, as well as leading businesses, understanding the request is so, so important to getting a yes, and actually I suspect, but the more time you spend tuning in, the more likely you’re going to say yes to the right things that you’d be able to deliver effectively. Right?


Bruce Tulgan: Absolutely, that is what it is all about.


Steve Rush: Is there a room for a maybe in here?


Bruce Tulgan: Yeah, I mean, that is right. When you don’t know the answer, the best thing you can do is engage with the ask, get to know that request better. Sometimes when somebody asks you for something and they make a request, you are the wrong person. Because they don’t really understand what you do or maybe they’re asked because they don’t really understand what you do. Maybe there asked needs work. It needs to be fine-tuned, so sometimes you want to help somebody fine-tuned there ask, go back. Maybe sometimes the answer is not yet. Sometimes the answer is I could do that for you, but I will have three hours a week from Tuesday, right. Sometimes the answer is, oh, you know, I am the wrong guy. This is a job for Steve.


Steve Rush: Got it, yeah. It makes loads of sense. There is one thing I love in the book; Bruce that you talk about is the go-to-ism. What is a go-to-ism?


Bruce Tulgan: Yeah, go-to-ism. I wanted to call it the book go-to-ism, but the publishers were like; nobody will know what that is. It is the way of the go to person. It is thinking like a go to person. You think like a go to person. Look, being Indispensables in the eye of the beholder. The question is to whom are you indispensable? If you are a go to person that means people want to go to you and you want them to keep going to you. That means that you are somebody who is trusted and relied upon to deliver consistent. When other people have a need, they go to you. First, it is being a go to person but it is also finding go to people and realizing that when you go to someone else, it is not all about your needs. When you have a request or a need, you should still go with a service mind-set. I want to go to the right person because I want to give that person an opportunity to serve, to add value. I want to go, what can I do? I can be a great customer. I can help you help me. If I can’t find someone, maybe I can build someone up. So it’s an upward spiral. It is realizing that the way you build influence; see some people they want to use influence, right? So it is all about getting what they need out of other people. Well, if you are somebody who wants to use influence, then every time you try to use influence, you are probably going to lose influence. Because if you are always trying to get what you need out of other people, other people don’t root for you, they root against you.


Steve Rush: Sure.


Bruce Tulgan: Other people see you as a taker, right. So you can either be an influence user or an influence builder. If you want to build influence? The way you build influences is by adding value, and by the way, this is not totally selfish. You don’t have to be a saint, right. If you want to be valuable, add value. If you are ambitious, the number one thing you can do is be valuable. And if you want to be valuable, that means you got to be adding value every step of the way, that means in every interaction. So gotoism is thinking like a go to person. It is having a service mind-set. It is realizing that lead from wherever you are. That doesn’t mean be a steamroller and I get things done, whether I’m in charge or not. It means wherever you are, you got to assess the chain of command, the lines of authority. You got to align yourself and then communicate with structure and substance up, down, sideways and diagonal and make good decisions because your time and energy is what you have to give. So every time you say yes, you’re making a commitment, don’t waste your yeses and then work smart. That doesn’t mean, you know, you only work in your area of passion. It doesn’t mean, you know, you’re so smart nobody ever sees you learning. It doesn’t mean you only do the things you’re good at. It means everything you do; you take the time to get good at it, and then, you know, yes, you can have a long to do list, but you get things done. The longer you’re to do list, the less you can afford to juggle, you can only focus on one thing at a time. So no matter how long you’re to do list is you got to focus on one thing.


Steve Rush: Sometimes it is even better to have a to don’t list almost, so that you prioritize, right?


Bruce Tulgan: Exactly, I mean, what I always say to people is, you know, show me you’re to do list. No, I want to see your do list. What are you going to do right now?


Steve Rush: Yeah, got it. In your experience, Bruce, when it comes to being indispensable, is there one thing that you could maybe anchor into that is the biggest disabler of somebody being indispensable? What would be the one thing that will hold somebody back the most?


Bruce Tulgan: Well, the biggest mistake that people make is trying so hard to be a go to person that they over promise. If you are, don’t be the over promiser, don’t be the over promiser. Be somebody who, if you make a promise, I can take it to the bank.


Steve Rush: It becomes an overplayed strengthen then, doesn’t it?


Bruce Tulgan: I mean, look, you want to be known for delivering. And so you’ve got to say yes, if all you have up your sleeve or no’s, then nobody’s going to go to you. You don’t have a lot to show if all you have up your sleeve or no’s. When you say no, I want to no it’s good for a good reason and when you say yes, I want to know you’re going to deliver.


Steve Rush: Sure, now this part of the show is where we turn the leadership lens on you. So not only are you a prolific writer and the CEO of Rainmaker Thinking, you are also leader in your own, right and therefore this is where I get a chance to hack into your leadership mind. And the first thing I’d like to do, Bruce, is for you to share with our listeners, what would be your top three leadership hacks?


Bruce Tulgan: Well, if you’re a leader of other people, if you’re charged with responsibility and authority in relation to someone else’s livelihood and career, that’s a profound responsibility. So step one, own your power and don’t practice false empowerment. False empowerment is a sink or swim, reinvent the wheel figured out. False empowerment is when you say, oh, dude, whoever you think it should be done and then I let myself off the hook. Real empowerment is about setting people up for success, making it clear to people what’s up to them and what’s not, and providing real guidance, direction, support, and coaching, so that’s number one.


Number two, don’t practice, false fairness, false fairness is treating everybody exactly the same. There is nothing less fair than treating high performers and low performers the same. So, you should do more for people when they go the extra mile. Give everyone the chance to succeed, give everyone the chance to earn but everybody is a special case, so you got to treat everybody like a special case. And number three, I don’t think you don’t have time to lead. You don’t have time not to lead. If you think, you don’t have time for regular structured dialogue; here is what is going to happen? You’re going to spend all your leadership time touching base, interrupting, looking at email, being in meetings while problems hide below the radar. If you don’t drill down and have substantive structured dialogue with your people, you’re going to miss problems hiding below the radar, and then they’re going to blow up and you’re going to spend way too much of your leadership time solving problems that have gotten out of control. That should, have been solved easily.


Steve Rush: Bruce, they are great hacks and the last one in particular resonates with me because I observed on in many occasions, particularly as leaders grow through the hierarchy of seniority and organizations, they actually spend less time in that structured conversation. Do you observe that? What is your experience of that in what you do with, with Rainmaker Thinking?


Bruce Tulgan: Yeah, I mean, well, for one thing, people move into positions of supervisory responsibility because they are very good at something. It is often not because they are good at leading and you know, then we put them in charge of people and often we teach them how to do a little extra paperwork. Nobody ever does the systematic work of teaching them how to do the people work. And then as they move up the chain of command, they get worried about working their lateral relationships and it’s very important. Of course, collaboration is key, especially at an executive level but the best leaders. They know, no matter how high up the chain of command you go, nobody needs a weak leader and the people who report to you. Look every single day, the first person you got to manage every day is yourself. The second person, you got to manage every day is your boss, and then third, anyone who reports to you. You’ve got to provide regular structured guidance, direction, support, and coaching. And yeah, I mean, you got to be vigilant about that, and organizations that are committed to a leadership culture no matter how high up the chain of command you go, you still have that regular structured dialogue with your direct report.


Steve Rush: I have a quote, which I use quite often with my clients, which is, “Structure + Discipline =  Freedom.”And the first look I get is, “you serious?” = That I’m going to be confined because I’m structure, and I have to be more rigorous and I get more freedom, and of course you do, because it creates the space for you, to do you what’s important, right?


Bruce Tulgan: Yeah, that is absolutely, right. I mean, look you know if you are at work and somebody is paying you, there is a lot of stuff that is just not up to you. Decisions are being made. There are rules, there are policies, there are priorities and the biggest favour you can do for somebody is first clarifying for them, all the stuff that is not up to them because then they have guard rails and good news. Like once you know, all the stuff, that’s not up to you, there’s still a lot of stuff left over that is up to you.


Steve Rush: Yeah, definitely so. Now we are going to move to a part of show, which we affectionately call Hack to Attack. So this is a time in either your life or your work where something hasn’t worked out and actually as a result of that adversity or the challenge that comes with that, you’ve now learned from it. And you use it as a positive in your life or your work, what would be your Hack to Attack?


Bruce Tulgan: I can say writ’ large I can say, that I have made more mistakes than I can count. What I have learned is that, you know, it is an old cliché, but you know, if you learn from a mistake, it is still a win. And another way I like to think about it is every experience is a building block, right? What did you learn from that? What are the relationships you built, even if the tangible result you created was not what you hoped or you missed specs, or, you know, it was doesn’t even work. What are the pieces of that tangible result? So that kind of, I always say, if you have 1% of success on something, you better get to work failing because you got to fail 99 times until you’re going to succeed. So you better get busy failing, right? Fail early and often and fast, you got to fail 99 times to get to your success. So look, you know, the reality is that anyone who has a lot of success to show is somebody who takes a lot of opportunities and you just have to look at, what are you taking out of every experience?


Steve Rush: Definitely, I couldn’t agree more and the last chance we get to spin through your mind and hack into your mind, Bruce is a little bit of self-discovery for you. So we’re going to do a bit of time travel. You get to bump into Bruce at 21. What is going to be your advice to him at that time?


Bruce Tulgan: You know; I would tell myself, work harder. Don’t let yourself off the hook so often. Now it is easy for me to say that now, because I am 53. And so as much as I believe, I’ve done a lot of hard work over the years, every day I’ve taken off, I think, well, gee, if I had worked harder that day, then now I’d have more time to myself. You know, I always tell young people the harder you work when you are young, the more options you are going to have when you are older.


Steve Rush: Yeah, that is so true though. Isn’t it? It is just so true. However, at 21 you think the world is going to be a long way away and 53 is a long way away, but it soon comes around, doesn’t it?


Bruce Tulgan: It sure does and here we are.


Steve Rush: Yeah right, absolutely. Folks are going to be listening to this and thinking. I want to get a piece of the action. How can I find out more about what Bruce and the team are doing? Where can we direct them?


Brue Tulgan: Well, you can always find us at and we’ve got a lot of stuff going on there and most of it’s free, and of course I’m on Twitter @BruceTulgan and I’m on LinkedIn and you can always get the book. Wherever books are sold, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, wherever books are sold.


Steve Rush: Awesome and we make sure that we put some links to the show notes so that as folk have finished listening, they can head over and click on those links and go straight to find out more about what you do. So, Bruce, from my perspective, I’ve just had a bunch of fun chatting with you and really listening to the passion and energy that comes with what you do with Rainmaker Thinking. I want to wish you absolutely every success with being indispensable at work. I am pretty sure that, you know, it’s going to really enable people to start to be really thoughtful about how they set themselves up for success, so from my perspective, Bruce just wanted to say thanks ever so much for being on the show.


Bruce Tulgan: It is my pleasure. Thank you so much for making it so much fun and making it so easy


Steve Rush: That is awesome. Cheers, Bruce.


Bruce Tulgan: Hey, thanks so much.




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