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The Go-To Person’s Conundrum

Are you one of the go-to people in your company? How do you like it? How long have you been one?

When you first realized you were one, how did it make you feel? Did it give you a feeling of security? Did it boost your confidence and ego? Did it give you courage? Surely it made you feel important, which is a basic human need.

How do you feel about it now? Does it eat up your time? Are you constantly interrupted? Does it make you lash out? Do you find yourself screaming in despair, “Why can’t anyone think for themselves around here?”

Welcome to my world. It’s taken me seven years, but I’m finally learning.

I’ve often thought myself unworthy of being a go-to, but I humbly accepted that role after a while, and started to recognize why people thought so. Many people in this role have an inner conflict. They may feel they’ve earned it, but don’t want to come off looking like they’re all ego. But often the go-to people don’t have very big egos. They’ve earned their status by being approachable. People would rather avoid going to their egocentric co-workers for fear of coming away from the exchange feeling inferior. So if you’re a go-to person, realize that people rather like you, look up to you, and do find you helpful. But you’re saddled with a dilemma.

It’s not intentional, but people start to take you for granted. They begin to think that you’ll always have the answer for them. They give up trying to figure things out on their own. They start to use you as a crutch. And it’s mostly your own fault.

After a while, you started lashing out at people, acting resentful, and becoming negative. People would literally laugh it off; after all, you were always very helpful before. Mr. or Miss Nice Guy / Gal. So they wouldn’t take your outbursts seriously. It’s time for a different strategy.

Many go-to people are natural mentors. They are built for tutoring. They’re good at explaining the answers, and they are friendly, patient, and approachable. And they have the knowledge to share. If they think hard enough about it, they can figure out how they gained their own expertise, and transfer the approach to learning over to their peers. It’s time for a knowledge transfer.

I’ve been taking a dual approach to helping my team become more self-sufficient, and it seems to be working:

  1. I’ve been warning them that I won’t be here forever. There’s a metaphorical Mack truck with my name on it out there, which will either wipe me out or move me to a different location one day.
  2. I no longer directly answer most information-gathering questions.

The first approach doesn’t need much explanation. It just serves to remind people that you won’t always be there to provide the answers. Even if you just joke about it with them, it does raise this awareness.

I’ll describe the second approach. Let’s say one of your co-workers comes to you to ask how to figure out a solution to a difficult technical problem. Even if you know the answer, turn it around on them. Respond with a question of your own. Here are some examples:

  • “Have you had a similar problem in the past?”
  • “What is the main goal you’re trying to reach?”
  • “What have you tried so far?”
  • “Did you look at program “foo”? I think it does something similar.”
  • “What did you find when you Googled it?” (Avoid asking “Did you Google it?” Always assume that they already thought of something this obvious, and give them a chance to save face if they didn’t.)
  • “Have you spoken to John about this? He’s dealt with something similar recently.” (Hopefully, John will use a similar strategy, but even if he doesn’t, it does give the person alternative routes, and lessens some of the dependency upon you.)

Believe me, I’m very familiar with the temptation to answer right away, but you must avoid this, even in the face of a deadline. Otherwise, they will never shake their dependency on you. And trust me, when they do figure it out on their own, it is so much more satisfying. You’ll actually see a noticeable improvement in their confidence and understanding. And soon you’ll find yourself going to them for answers, and they’ll be anxious to respond in return.

The above describes a purely technical issue. But when it comes to a more business or general issue, the strategy is basically the same. Ask some leading questions, such as these:

  • “Do you have an understanding of how your system passes data to our system?”
  • “Are you familiar with the flow of someone becoming a customer up to when they get billed?” (If anything, these questions will make them realize that they should really understand more than just their own silo.)
  • “Where would you look first if you wanted to find how this data relates to the error report you’re seeing?”
  • “Help me walk through the issue. Let’s look at the data together.” (Although this still takes up your time right now, in the long run they’ll be able to handle a similar issue on their own. But let them do the driving.)
  • “Where would you consider the best place we can start to figure this out?” (Make them do the thinking. They’ll often think of the next step, then the next step, and so on.)

These scenarios usually handle walk-ups and phone calls. But if someone sends me an email or an IM, I often avoid answering right away. I’m trying to limit how often I read my email anyway, and I usually have my IM set to “do not disturb”. Often, people figure it out on their own when you aren’t immediately available… and by making yourself scarce you tend to become even more valuable, while freeing up your time to get your own work done.

So do yourself and your company a favor, and help them help themselves.


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  1. I agree that Go-Tos are egoless and approachable. We also tend to get walked on unless we take a stand as you suggest. But I also think Go-Tos are few and far between nowadays and they develop simply because they are the only (or one of the only) lights of competence in that particular workspace. Every time I’ve become a Go To, it’s because I care enough to know how to do my job and do it well and become a loyal, reliable member of the staff. You’ll never find Sally Slacker being the Go To.

    There’s a difference between Mentor and Go To, I believe, Mentor has some sense of voluntariness to it. Go To is strictly victim of circumstance!!!

    The bigger secret, and subject for another blog (thanks for the idea!), is How Not to Just Do It Yourself Because It’s Easier That Way! 😉


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