Business Essentials

Wednesday, February 1, 2012 - 12:37

Can you really be the person people can't live without? Gerard McManus inspects some of the best thinking on indispensability.

First, let's clear up a few fallacies. Popularist strategies on how to make yourself indispensable in the workplace include: placing yourself strategically besides the photocopying machine so when the contraption breaks down, you are the ready expert; becoming the office IT expert; the social co-ordinator (who could possibly dismiss the person who organises Christmas parties?); the crisis manager (what do we do if something goes really wrong?) or simply by ingratiating yourself with the boss or upper management.

In larger, more sophisticated organisations this supposed building of an impregnable force field of "must-have" would be the equivalent of becoming chief operating officer, chief information officer, head of human resources or being attached to these positions of power and influence.

In short, conventional advice on indispensability is a combination of blending in to corporate culture, embedding yourself into an organisation at the highest level, or hiding.

But the idea of turning yourself into an octopus, a chameleon, a limpet or a ghost is not good long-term strategy.

The fact is, no one is indispensable. Check your pay slip to verify.

Nevertheless, in the current climate where uncertainty is the norm and business outlook is unpredictable, indispensability is something upon which people at various levels of an organisation place great value.

Beyond pop advice there are constructive ways of thinking about your role from a higher level, which will increase the odds in your favour.

They will give you not only a better perspective, but also make your career more satisfying in the long-term.

Warning on terminal uniqueness 

Understanding this concept is a first step towards making yourself a more valued commodity to your organisation.

As Seth Godin, a thinker who has spent a lot of time researching this topic, says: "Someone can always do your job a little better or faster or cheaper than you can." In his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (Portfolio/Penguin) Godin also warns that trying to take out insurance may even be counter-productive.

"If you are deliberately trying to create a future that feels safe, you will wilfully ignore the future that is likely."

Furthermore, organisationally speaking, indispensability is actually a risk factor and the idea of systems design is to eliminate this particular risk. In other words, anyone whose function is ultimately not replaceable is a potential cost to that organisation should that person leave or be dismissed. Any good internal auditor will tell you they look for people seen as indispensable and increase risk weighting in their areas.

And the reality is, even in worst-case scenarios where someone has buried all particular knowledge or data or procedures which are valuable to an organisation and is removed from their job, the resultant dust storm is likely to be days or weeks rather than months.

Building on strengths

A 2006 Harvard Business Review article titled "Making Yourself Indispensable" has been one of the journal's 10 most popular articles over the past decade. It still sells and you can buy it online for $6.95.

However, before you do, it is worth noting there is nothing specific in the article about making yourself indispensable.

Rather, its authors, John H. Zenger, Joseph R. Folkman and Scott K. Edinger, analysed the challenges of building on strengths as against fixing weaknesses.

It is a technique identified by Peter Drucker four decades ago and acknowledged and updated by the authors.

"Unless an executive looks for strength and works at making strength productive, he will only get the impact of what a man cannot do, of his lacks, his weakness, his impediments to performance and effectiveness," Drucker wrote in The Effective Executive. "To staff from what there is not and to focus on weakness is wasteful - a misuse, if not abuse, of the human resources."

In one key suggestion the HBR authors suggest "cross-training" for leadership skills including the following:

  • Identify your strengths;
  • Choose a strength to focus on according to its importance to the organisation;
  • Select a complementary behavior;
  • Develop it in a linear way.

Role model understanding

This is achieved by gaining a handle on who and where you are in relation to everybody else inside an organisation. In other words, you need to either have or develop the ability to understand your role in the broader business. Second, you need to gain the ability to effectively communicate that understanding well. In practice, this means not only getting known inside an organisation and embedding your role, but communicating well at any layer.

An example of this is the arrival of a delegation of Japanese business people. The communication of that delegation might include everyone from the cleaners who have to put in a special effort for the event, to the presenters who know the Japanese are coming but don't know the required impact of the presentation. Think about the difference between those who focus solely on the impact of the delegation to their area versus those who understand its broader purpose and are able to effectively and appropriately communicate that understanding. If you can see that difference, you're starting to grasp indispensability.

Understanding and communicating your role in an organisation is about spreading yourself over several tiers of that organisation.

Importantly, it is about looking backwards as well as looking forwards. People moving through an organisation are mostly looking upward when it is still important to stay connected and involved with former colleagues and sections of an organisation. It takes a certain quality and wherewithal to keep in touch with sections of an organisation and be able to call on people for help, back-up or understanding of a particular problem.

In addition to crossing tiers of the organisation and thereby increasing your knowledge base, through staying connected you are more likely to make your knowledge of corporate history known and felt.

Years ago organisations were filled with people with decades of service. Today, however, those who hold genuine corporate history, and are able to communicate it well, can be extremely valuable commodities.

Managing the manager

The most important person in any organisation as far as personal survival is concerned is your manager, not your aloof boss or your colleagues.

Your own manager or the person directly responsible for your work is the most critical person to your ongoing success in the workplace. Their success is directly linked to your success, which is why it is in your interest to make them successful if you want to move upwards. The same goes for more senior people who answer to a CEO or a board.

Of course, your manager can assume credit for all your good work and selfishly fail to acknowledge you, but counter-intuitively they will also depend on you even more.

This relationship should also be seen as professional rather than personal - because ultimately personal friendships are also extraneous to an organisation.

Logically ensuring their success is also the best possible training for doing their job, because you understand your own role objectively better as well as gain insights and understanding of their role. But don't forget, they may not be indispensable either.