“The indispensable employee brings humanity and connection and art to her organization. She is the key player, the one who’s difficult to live without, the person you can build something around.” – Seth Godin, Linchpin
A friend of mine performs data analytics. She’s amazing with it. As much as anyone can be amazing in the exciting field of data analytics. She’s also a tremendous electrical engineer. And her software development abilities are a mystery to me. But none of these areas make her indispensable.
And she is indispensable. She can learn and break down complex technical concepts in a timeframe that makes my head spin. Data analytics, electrical engineering, and software development are just products. Evidence where she’s applied her skills to the benefit of the company.
If our company wanted to replace her, we could find someone with comparable technical skills. Maybe not all in one person, but it’s becoming ever easier to outsource this level of responsibility. So I’m sure multiple freelancers could replicate her data analytics work. Or her engineering analysis. Or her software development.
But it’s much more difficult to replace someone who quickly analyzes problems, develops solutions, and teaches her methods to others. What would that job description say?
That’s why she’s indispensable.
What’s Your Job Description?
Jerry Seinfeld: Oh right, the new job, how is it?
George Costanza: I love it. New office, new salary. I’m the new Wilhelm.
Jerry: So who’s the new you?
George: They got a new intern from Francis Louis High. His name is Keith. He comes in Mondays after school.
– Seinfeld, The Muffin Tops
If your company wanted to replace you, what would they look for? Would it be difficult or could they pull in anyone off the street?
What about the job description? Could your worth be documented with a standard list of credentials? Or would it be nearly impossible to capture the value you bring each day on a sheet of paper?
If we’re only meeting a job description, what makes us unique? What will make us difficult to replace?
It’s a fairly straightforward process to find someone who’s main skill is to follow instructions. It’s much more difficult to replace someone who solves problems that we didn’t know were there. Or takes opportunities to add value that we didn’t see.
Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton established the theory of job crafting to demonstrate how people redesign their responsibilities to instill a greater sense of meaning in their work. Research consistently showed that job crafters who went beyond the standard expectations delivered significantly greater service to the organization and consistently derived more value from their work.
In one example, hospital cleaners expanded their typical responsibilities to connect and better care for patients and visitors. Cleaners actively spent more time with patients that had less visitors that day, looking to brighten their day. Another cleaner rearranged art prints in comatose patients’ rooms, hoping that a shift in the environment could help spark a recovery in some way. When they asked her if this was part of her job description, she said, “That’s not part of my job, but that’s part of me.”
Why Do People Choose to be Generic?
“The traits that define great work are rare and valuable. Supply and demand says that if you want these traits you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return.” – Cal Newport,So Good They Can’t Ignore You
Most companies seem designed to make employees generic. Standardized training programs. Step-by-step operating procedures. Bureaucratic reviews and approvals. Systems designed to reduce risk through consistency. But it also leads to conformity. And then mediocrity.
Going through our days on autopilot further constrains us. Responding to emails doesn’t create unique skills. There’s nothing valuable about mindlessly following procedures. Or taking up space in a bureaucratic chain.
Just doing our jobs in not unique. Everyone does this. It’s the basic expectation of employment. The company no doubt appreciates our reliability and willingness to follow orders. But reliability and an interest in doing what we’re told are not particularly unique skills.
None of this should be surprising. If the default career path made us unique, then by definition it would stop being unique.
If everyone can do something, doing that thing isn’t a valuable skill. It’s just something everyone can do. So how then, do we do things that are valuable?
Value Comes from Solving Problems
“Major breakthroughs come from the correct mind-set. It’s an attitude—an opportunistic attitude. People who make breakthroughs are always opportunity-focused.” – Jay Abraham, Getting Everything You Can Out of All You’ve Got
It’s not that difficult to avoid this trap. We don’t need to generate Newtonian ideas. We just need to look for unique ways to add value.
There’s no shortage of opportunities. We just need to become more adept at recognizing them. We need to adopt the opportunistic attitude that Jay Abraham refers to.
Unique value comes from solving unique problems. What are our pain points? And what can we do about them?
A resource bottleneck usually indicates a lack of depth in a critical role. An overly burdened expert is the same liability. Pending retirements bring niche knowledge gaps.
Ask questions. Look for problems. Find opportunities.
- What knowledge can we develop to put ourselves in these critical roles?
- What new technology has our company not embraced because it doesn’t yet have a champion?
- What additional service could we provide, but currently don’t based on a lack of expertise?
- What markets are we currently not exploring due to a lack of knowledge and relationships?
- Where do we have gaps in our culture? What blindspots does this create and how can we generate new perspectives?
- Where have our processes become stagnant or overly burdensome and how can we advocate positive changes?
- Where do we want to be in five or ten years? And where are we going to fall short if we continue on our current path?
- How can I further demonstrate our company’s mission and deliver a better overall experience?
Someone will eventually fill these roles. Whether at our company or a competitor. The market will demand it. So we can watch as others act and benefit or we can seize this value for ourselves. And start the process of becoming indispensable.
Value Comes from being Appreciated
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
Our company’s mail room employees were good at their jobs. Reliable and efficient, never any issues with the quality of their work. But no one looked forward to dealing with them.
The entire department was filled with angry people. I’m not sure whether they actively hired angry people or if they trained them to be that way.
Then one day our company decided to subcontract all their jobs. Everyone in the department was let go.
And no one pushed back or argued against the move. No one stood up and said, “But they do a great job.” Or, “Wait, they’re part of this family.”
And they were good at their job. No doubt about that. But no level of mail-sorting skill could overcome the anger and negativity that came with it.
Sooner or later, we’ll take performance for granted. We’ll make the level of quality the new standard. And then the expectation.
But we always remember how people make us feel. When we can help others feel appreciated, they’re more likely to appreciate us in turn. And see our contributions as unique.
Start Being Indispensable Today
A lot of well-meaning career advice will say to write your own job description. To document the value that you want to deliver and use that as a target.
I’d say that the second you document this, it should become obsolete. We should all be striving to push beyond these descriptions. To make them irrelevant as we find new ways to make connections. New ways to add value. New ways to solve problems.
So don’t write your job description. Make your contribution impossible to document. And be indispensable.