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How to Make Yourself Indispensable at Work

How to Make Yourself Indispensable at Work

This is a scary time in the job market. Unemployment is high. So is underemployment. And even if you have a job and are happy with it, rapid change can make you wonder if your position is secure. It can be scary.

Is job security possible today? Is there a way to dramatically lower your risk of job loss? And what about a promotion? Is that even conceivable?

I would answer each question with an emphatic, “Yes.”

Whether your goal is a promotion or simply job security, the key to achieving both is the same:

Make yourself indispensable.

By indispensable I mean that you bring more value to your company than what you’re currently being paid. As Seth Godin wrote:

“The only way to get what you’re worth is to stand out, to exert emotional labor, to be seen as indispensable, and to produce interactions that organizations and people care deeply about.” From Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? 10 Ways to Become a Key Player on Your Team

Let me offer 10 ways you can become an essential member of your team.

  • Learn what keeps your boss awake at night and find a solution. Be a problem-solver. At any given time, your boss has dozens of issues that he’s wrestling with. Things that need to be changed, improved upon, or scrapped and replaced with something else. Your job is to identify one of those problems and find a solution for it. More often than not you’ll learn the issues by simply listening closely.
  • Think like an owner not an employee. Owners are always thinking of ways to please customers. Unfortunately, most employees think primarily about their own circumstances instead. How many times have you been at a mall five minutes before a store opens and you see employees milling around behind the security gate waiting for opening time? And there you stand outside the gate — waiting to spend money in the store — and the clerks pretend not to even see you. Contrast that with an experience I had just last week. I walked into a restaurant for lunch. There were no other patrons in the restaurant. “Are you closed?” I asked. The owner — a wonderful man from Albania — said, “Yes, we’re closed on Mondays, but what would you like?” I told him I didn’t want to cause him trouble, that I’d gladly come back tomorrow. But he insisted. “You drove all the way out here and you probably have a limited amount of time for lunch. I would be pleased to serve you.” That’s how an owner treats a customer. Go out of your way to serve your company’s customers and fellow employees. I promise it’ll be noticed.
  • Do things that aren’t in your job description. Not at the expense of your specific job duties, though. Nevertheless, this is the way you bring real value to your company. Think of it as an equation:  Your Compensation + Additional Value You Offer = Your True Worth.
  • Disagree with your boss. There are a few bosses who surround themselves with “yes men.” But they are rare. You have a perspective on your company that is different from your superior’s. So, if she decides to move in a direction that — from your vantage point — you believe wouldn’t be in the company’s best interest, speak up. Disagree respectfully, of course, and accept her decision as final. She’ll appreciate you for thinking deeply about company goals regardless of whether or not she heeds your advice.
  • Be productive, not just busy. There are parts of every job that aren’t fun. That’s why they call it “work.” Often, we busy ourselves with less productive activities rather than focus on the truly important ones. Author Tim Ferris said it this way in his outstanding book, The Four Hour Work Week:  “Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.” So, dive into the difficult but important work first.
  • Dress slightly better than the dress code. There are those who might disagree with me on this. But I believe if you want to stand out from your colleagues then dress the part. Don’t be too drastic. If you wear a suit when everyone else is dressed casually, you’ll look out-of-place. But if your coworkers are in jeans, tennis shoes, and t-shirts then you might want to wear slacks or a dressy pair of jeans. Ditch the sneakers in favor of casual shoes, and wear a nice casual shirt rather than a t-shirt.
  • Work with joy. Be upbeat. Don’t gossip. Be welcoming to customers and coworkers. Smile. Laugh easily, especially at yourself. I once met a Bosnian immigrant who worked in a store. She radiated warmth and humor. I asked her why she was so happy. Her reply was priceless: “I have seen so much war in my life that any day I can just come to work is cause for joy.” We would all do well by adopting her attitude.
  • Keep learning. If you receive ongoing training at work, soak it up and apply it. If not, then take it upon yourself to keep learning. Take classes at the local university or stay current on trade journals and books in your field. Imagine how impressive it’d be if you spoke intelligently on a subject that is not in your immediate job description. Powerful.
  • Come in early and stay a little late. Even if you’re paid hourly and can’t punch in until the official start time, come in 15 minutes early anyway. Use the time to plan your day or do some reading. If possible, be at your desk when your boss arrives. And when quitting time comes, don’t bolt for the door if you’re in the middle of a project. Find a reasonable stopping point, even if it means staying a little late.
  • Do the right thing. Always. It is tempting to play office politics or cut corners in order to get ahead. Tempting because it sometimes works…but usually only in the short term. Working with integrity is — in the end — the best career advice I can offer. Sometimes that means admitting failure. As a former boss once told me, “Give me good news quickly. But give me bad news more quickly.” We all fail occasionally. Better to own up to it and explain what you’ve learned than wait until it’s been discovered. It may also mean publicly commending someone with whom you have an adversarial relationship. Do it anyway. If you work at a company where integrity is a liability that prevents you from moving forward then perhaps its time to find another job. Don’t put a price tag on your character.

The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Frost once said, “By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day.” Although it smacks of the truth, I’m sure he smiled and winked when he said it.

You may not yearn to be the boss, and that’s fine. At the very least, though, each of us should follow the sage advice that the Old Man on Pawn Stars said to one of his employees: “Chumley, do something for God & country and go back to work.”

Questions: What do you do to become indispensable at work? If you’re a supervisor, what traits do you see in your best employees? Leave a comment below.


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