Work Yourself Out of a Job

In the late 1990s, my special forces team was preparing to return to Paraguay on a mission to help the Paraguayan government build a stand-alone special operations capacity. This was a vital need at the strategic level. I was the detachment commander, and “Homer,” a guy who had mentored me for years, was the team sergeant.

As we were preparing for this mission, he called me in and said, “I think we’re doing too much show-and-tell and we’re not working ourselves out of a job.” Here is what he meant by that. The most important thing we could do on this deployment, Homer explained to me, wasn’t to demonstrate our prowess or capability, or provide a short-term skillset, but to help the Paraguayans stand up on their own. 

This was something I’d been taught early on in my training, that all Green Berets are taught, and Homer’s words brought me back to center.

From that point on, we refocused our mission and looked hard at not only what we would teach when we got in there in the short term, but how we could show them what “right” looked like and then start stepping back into more of a tactical oversight to let them take the lead and demonstrate their capability. Even if they stumbled, we’d intervene only when absolutely necessary.

That was a game-changing moment for me as a leader, and it’s a mindset that I carry with me now in everything I do.

Some people fear that working yourself out of a job means that you make yourself irrelevant to your organization or client. Quite the contrary. What it means is that you actually create opportunities for the people around you to develop their own capacity, so that you can ascend and be even more relevant at a higher level. This keeps us from getting stagnant and it allows organizations and opportunities to grow.

The challenge in this situation is usually the temptation to say, “How do we keep ourselves relevant to them forever?” We give some of what we’ve got, but we don’t give them the full package, keeping them dependent on us. I think that’s the wrong mindset to have.

Instead, get them on their feet and work yourself out of a job, so they retain the organic capacity to do what they need to do. Go in with the intent of working yourself out of a job so they truly don’t need you anymore, where they have either the product or the service on their own, and they can run with it.

This builds a deep sense of reciprocity and trust, paving the way for a lasting relationship and repeat business.

If you are a trainer or leader who teaches skills to another organization, then take it a step further. Go in there and demonstrate what “right” looks like and then use a “crawl, walk, run” method, by which you teach your client to get on their feet and do what they need to do.

I recently did this with the senior leadership team of a commercial bank. We looked at what the leadership requirements were, and using “crawl, walk, run,” we started to move them in terms of how they needed to work with each other. We got faster and faster until eventually I wasn’t really participating in their meetings at all. I was stepping back in more of a tactical over-watch position. Once that demonstration of capability is there, step back and then just intervene as necessary.

People appreciate anyone who teaches them something they need, and then steps back and lets them run with it. It builds trust and loyalty. And when you think about that with your clients, that’s everything. Because in loyalty, people will forgive you even when you make a mistake. And in trust, you’ve built a relationship that’s bigger than the transaction.

This is the mindset that will allow you to attain higher relevance with your clients and in your organization.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit


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