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The Boomer Bulletin - 2014
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Becoming Indispensable

Posted By Jon Hubbard, Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Are you an indispensable employee? There are many people who would answer yes as they consider their credentials, work history, knowledge, or simply the quantity of work that they complete. But what really makes an employee indispensable? This is an important question because the desire to be indispensable influences how we compare ourselves to others, how we view our professional worth, our career plans and even our attitude and commitment. Merriam Webster defines the adjective indispensable as, "absolutely necessary.” To attain such a lofty goal requires a two part approach: mastery of your tasks and continual development of your professional skills. 

Mastery of Your Tasks

Your tasks are the day to day items that define your job. For example, you may be required to complete a project, write reports, enter data into a system, make a specific number of client calls per week, or generate a specific amount of revenue. These are the things that you must do to be successful at your job. The problem is that many employees feel that mastery of their tasks alone is what makes them indispensable and this can present the following challenges:

Stunted growth. Only focusing on tasks can limit the ability to grow professionally.  Resources and energy are put into crossing items off a task list while professional development is overlooked. This can lead to limited opportunities for promotion because additional learning opportunities are missed. Complacency can also set in as tasks become routine.

Inability to see the bigger picture. When you only focus on growing your ability to complete tasks and projects, it becomes difficult to see the bigger picture. It is easy to develop a self-absorbed perspective where you only see things from your view. There is a risk of becoming disconnected from the firm’s vision as you work in a silo. 

Lack of collaboration. People who are more task-oriented can become possessive about their position. It is difficult to collaborate when your top priority is to be the best at the tasks on your list. This results in information hoarding, lack of process documentation, refusal to accept help and ultimately burnout as you feel like you are the only one who can do your job. 

Resistance to change. Once you have worked so hard to master your tasks it can be hard to transition when circumstances change. There is a high level of emotional and personal investment that limits the ability to adapt and be flexible.  

False sense of security. Only being a master of your tasks can lead to false sense of job security as you rely on the value of your tasks. As technology changes job functions and roles, tasks are becoming fluid and not expanding your skill set can be detrimental if the tasks change or are eliminated.

Professional Skills Development

Being truly indispensable requires you to be more than just task oriented. In the book Linchpin, author Seth Godin says, "The indispensable employee brings humanity and connection and art to [their] organization. [They are] the key player, the one who’s difficult to live without, the person you can build something around.” This can be accomplished by developing your professional skills. The Harvard Business Review article, Making Yourself Indispensable, advises that it is best to "develop skills that complement what you already do best.” The article goes on to list five main categories for professional development with corresponding competencies: 

  1. Character: Displays honesty and integrity.
  2. Personal Capability: Exhibits technical/professional expertise; solves problems and analyzes issues; innovates; practices self-development. 
  3. Getting Results: Focuses on results; establishes stretch goals; takes initiative.
  4. Interpersonal Skills: Communicates powerfully and broadly; inspires and motivates others; builds relationships; develops others; collaborates and fosters teamwork.
  5. Leading change: Develops strategic perspective; champions change; connects the group to the outside world. 

In order to become indispensable, it is important to identify two to three competencies that will complement the mastery of your tasks. This process is best achieved with an accountability partner. Solicit the help of a person that you trust to give you honest feedback about your professional performance. This can be a supervisor, peer or mentor. Ask them to list your strengths and the list of areas to improve. Take their list and separate the tasks from the professional skills. First, make the decision to continue to excel at the tasks. Next, compare the professional skills to the list above to find similarities, and then narrow the list down to two or three competencies. Finally, turn your focus to intentionally expanding and developing the professional skills. 

There are many ways to work toward developing these skills. Here a few suggested strategies: 

Collaborate with your team members. Skills are refined and knowledge is attained when you work with others. You can learn from other people’s strengths and find new opportunities to improve on your weaknesses. This also provides a way to build relationships and increase your exposure. 

Get out of your comfort zone. In the wise words of Henry Ford, "If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Developing your skills requires a willingness to explore new areas and to welcome change. Look for the appropriate opportunities to accept new challenges. Don’t be afraid to fail or be wrong because that is how you learn. 

Meet regularly with your accountability partner. Set up quarterly meetings with your accountability partner to gauge your progress. Review what has been going well and where you have run into obstacles. Solicit constructive criticism. This will keep you on track to achieving your goals. 

Remember that this is a continual ongoing process. As Seth Godin explains about the linchpin (his name for the indispensable employee), "Becoming a linchpin is a stepwise process, a path in which you develop the attributes that make you indispensable. You can train yourself to matter. The first step is the most difficult, the step where you acknowledge that this is a skill and like all skills, you can (and will) get better at it. Every day, if you focus on the gifts, art, and connections that characterize the linchpin, you’ll become a little more indispensable.”

You are always working to be indispensable and the ultimate goal is progress, not perfection. As you continue to master your tasks and develop your professional skills your value will increase exponentially.

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