To Get Ahead, You Can’t Be the Brunt of Grunt Work

Tammy Heermann*, Lee Hecht Harrison

One of the biggest stretches that high potential leaders face in getting to more senior leadership levels is moving from the tactical to the strategic. The leaders I work with express it as wanting to make a shift in how they’re known in the organization. They want to move from being a ‘go to’ on executing in a particular area of expertise to being a ‘go to’ for solving the vexing problem at hand. They realize they need to delegate more to get out of the daily grind so they can focus on the future and more strategic issues. This is a universal challenge for all leaders to tackle to move into the executive ranks.  But is it more of a challenge for women than men? It appears so.

A few weeks ago I was giving a presentation to a group of senior HR leaders. We were having a lively discussion on the common barriers women face—in particular when being assessed as having what it takes to move up the ladder.  One of these barriers was described as being trapped in the hamster wheel of tactical work.  At this point, a senior male HR leader commented that he’s observed this phenomenon in his own organization. In fact, he pointed to a recurring theme on his own team which consists of both male and female peers. He noticed that at the end of every meeting the female peers ended up taking all the action items. In fact, in addition to the follow-up work, they also got stuck with the administrative details and cleaning up the cups and debris in the meeting room. Essentially, they were the brunt of the grunt work. He said with much animation, “It happens all the time!”

Who’s to blame? Is it those who are willingly taking the work, those happy to sit back and delegate, or the leader watching it happen?  And what’s the harm?

The harm is that, consciously or unconsciously, we’re relegating the role of ‘doer’, ‘order taker’, or ‘executer’ to women. It’s a lesser role that perpetuates getting trapped in the daily grind, leaving time for the others to move onto more strategic endeavors. Over time, this adds up to false perceptions that the women on the team are great at executing, adept at the details, essential to keeping the ship running. Consequently they’re not so great at the strategic, thinking longer-term, or contributing to the big ideas. This simply isn’t the case.

Another head of HR said for that very reason she recently reconstituted her social committee with a minimum of 50% males because she didn’t want the team to be viewed as merely a party planning committee. She was very aware of consciously shifting the perceptions people had of the team, their capability, and their value add to organizational culture.

What I’m describing is a common phenomenon that I have witnessed all too often, even inside my own organization. As leaders, we need to ensure that everyone can contribute their full value add. We have a responsibility to ensure meetings are run with an agenda and that action items are owned by the right people, not always the same people. And for goodness sake, we can all take our own cups to the kitchen, can’t we?

Another barrier that women face around this issue is how we’re raised and socialized as young girls. We grow up to believe that a good team player pitches in and helps. A good team player says yes, not no.  Sometimes, it can be hard to not swoop in and take on grunt work when no one else is speaking up.

If you’re the one struggling to get out from under the grunt work, try these tips which have worked for many others. Show up to the meeting with absolutely nothing but your brain. That’s right, leave the notebook and pen behind. Don’t panic as you feel the desperate urge to take notes. Remember, you are subtlety shifting your role from note taker to equal participant in the discussion. If you feel you’re getting “voluntold” for an action item that doesn’t make sense, raise it by pointing out that someone else’s background, experience, timeframe or role seems to play more strongly to the follow up.

And as for those pesky cups, don’t be afraid to say, “Hey, you forgot your mug!”

*Tammy Heermann is Senior Vice President of Strategic Solutions with Lee Hecht Harrison. Tammy combines her expertise in leadership development with her international working experience to build leadership capacity and culture in organizations.