In my experience at all levels within large organizations as well as small ones, the team members valued the most, and usually promoted first, are the ones seen by others as indispensable or “goto” people. The challenge we all face is how to be one of these, without overworking, while still getting the right things done. What do these people know and do that you can’t do or learn?
I’ve been trying for years to net out the key elements of this answer, and I was pleased to find some real help in a recent book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work,” by Bruce Tulgan. He has long been an advisor to business leaders all over the world, so he brings a global perspective, as well as his own to this issue. I’ll paraphrase here the key principles that we both have observed:
- Build real influence by doing the right thing for others. You get influence by facilitating success in others around you, by always doing the right things, and adding value to every single opportunity. You know you have power when other people really want to do things for you, make good use of your time, and contribute to your success. A key prerequisite to influence is trust. For example, at the executive level, Warren Buffett is such a trusted business leader that Bill Gates and other luminaries constantly seek him out for help and guidance on projects that have long-term business potential.
- Take charge but stay aligned with the chain of command. First you have to make the effort to learn how things work and what is allowed in the organization. Staying aligned requires communication up the line, as well as down, and diagonally. It’s important to take your own initiative, but don’t go rogue and overrun other people or processes. In my career, I’ve known many people who were willing to take on more work, but were frustrated and ultimately failed, due to their inability to work the chain of command. It always pays to stay aligned with key forces, both inside and outside the organization.
- Know when to say no and how to say yes. Remember that “yes” is where all the action is – to add value and build up your real influence. But to be effective, every “yes” must be timely, and preceded by some due diligence and a focused execution plan in your mind on what and how to deliver. Learn when to say no (or not yet), with the same certainty. A good no, well decided at the right time, is a huge favor to everybody. No one wins if you simply cannot do the job, are not allowed to do it, or you really believe that the work requested is not a good business decision. This is where trust and honesty are critical.
- Work smart by professionalizing everything you do. Brute force doesn’t work in business. Professionalizing means following best practices in your field, capitalizing on repeatable solutions, and using available tools or job aids. In today’s ever-changing world, you must keep expanding your repertoire, and build relationships with experts.
- Don’t be a juggler, and finish everything you start. Constant jugglers and multi-taskers will inevitably drop the ball. Take control of your time, break the work into bite-sized chunks, find openings in your schedule for each chunk, and keep your focus on results, rather than hours expended. Remember that “done” is better than “perfect.”
- Keep getting better and better at working together. Relationships are the key, but focus your relationship building on the “yes” work, not politicking or socializing. Celebrate successes with a big “thank-you,” and redirect potential finger pointing into lessons for continuous improvement. Plan ahead for the next opportunity to work together better.
- Promote collaboration throughout the organization. In addition to being a “go-to” person, you need to create new “go-to” people out of every “yes,” as well as find and use “go-to” people yourself. Foster a culture upward spiral where serving others is what being indispensable is all about. Other organizations will notice and emulate your lead.
In fact, the strategies outlined here are a win-win for both you and your organization. You get more recognition as an indispensable employee, and the company gets more of the right things done, greater team productivity, and more success in the longer term. You might even find that your work is fun and satisfying for a change. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant surprise?