In a way, all work is structured around the idea of “gatekeepers.” Most high-level people at organizations have an admin/personal assistant; to get a meeting with said high-level person, you frequently need to go through the admin. The admin may well know that you’re not a person relevant enough to get a meeting, etc. You can make a strong argument that, within the hiring process, Human Resources primarily exists as a gatekeeper. You could make a similarly strong argument that, within the broader flow of an organization, middle managers primarily exist as gatekeepers — they can almost always say “No,” but frequently can they say “Yes.” The point is, to get anywhere at most businesses/organizations, you need to understand who the gatekeepers are and how to access them in the most effective way possible.
What if, though — what if you thought of yourself as your own gatekeeper?
That’s the thesis of this article from 2013 from Dorie Clark (a Duke University business professor, among many other things), which notes:
I spend my life trying to get past gatekeepers. As a consultant, I’ve been trained to sniff out underlings who can only say no (and aren’t authorized to say yes), and strategically work to evade them. But in my own life, as I’ve become increasingly deluged with inquiries of all sorts, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of gatekeeping: a clean, crisp way of whittling down the requests and a solution to the guilt that comes from saying no.
This is similar to another article Clark wrote recently entitled “Stop People From Wasting Your Time,” which notes:
We’re all too busy, spending our days in back-to-back meetings and our nights feverishly responding to emails. (Adam Grant, a famously responsive Wharton professor, told me that on an “average day” he’ll spend 3-4 hours answering messages.) That’s why people who waste our time have become the scourge of modern business life, hampering our productivity and annoying us in the process.
(That’s a ridiculous stat about Adam Grant, by the way.)
I wrote a post a while ago about “mise-en-place” — the idea, from the world of a chef, that you should set your whole day up before it begins. I figured it would be like most of the business-oriented posts I write: it would do OK in terms of traffic and maybe get a reshare or two, but ultimately, most people would turn to the big guns in terms of business writing (i.e. people that actually know what they’re talking about, which is a category I don’t fit into every day). Surprisingly, that post was really popular. It had strong engagement, re-shares, and traffic for days. I was surprised.
I wrote another post about the notion of “being super busy” that was also surprisingly popular; I re-purposed that on LinkedIn and somehow (no idea), it got 77K views.
Basically, people are really interested in ideas around “how to organize their day” and “how to manage being so busy.” (In a way, that explains the “productivity app” market.)
One of the most effective ways you can do these types of things is this notion of being a “personal gatekeeper.” In essence, you filter out what does and doesn’t matter. Most people think they do this anyway — think of how many e-mails you’ve probably sent that have been completely ignored, hence someone somewhere is doing this — but people don’t often do it in an effective way.
Think about it this way: according to that second Clark article above, the odds of a financial deal of large magnitude coming from a total cold call are about “50,000 to 1.” Hence, if your focus is making money for your org, you’re probably not going to miss a chance to make money by turning down some call requests.
The idea of “personal gatekeeper” does involve some drama — you’re going to turn down a few things that people internally might bristle at, and it might get reported up the chain. The important word to use is “productivity.” When people complain, say “I’m trying to make us all more productive.” Almost no one can argue with that in a business context.
The facts: meetings are misguided, conference calls are misguided, managers aren’t great, people aren’t listening, and most people don’t even spend half their day doing things that benefit the organization!
Companies make money, yes, but that doesn’t mean things are actually productive. If you start acting as a personal gatekeeper, you can make things a bit more productive — stop going to meetings with no clear purpose or agenda (many of them), and rather than immediately responding to a request with “scheduling a call,” ask the person 3-5 bullet points they want to discuss.
Essentially, force people to define the purpose of the interaction. It actually benefits both sides.