The Indispensables

stairsI’d just finished presenting a project to my boss. My work had been adequate, but I could tell that it hadn’t exactly blown his socks off.

“What’s next?” I said. I was in full order-taker mode.

He looked at me, thought a bit, and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know how to respond.

“Look, you can put in the time, collect a paycheck, and survive until something better comes along,” my employer said. “Or, you can grow in the company, take on additional responsibility, and have a leadership role. To do that, though, you need to be committed, and you need to make yourself indispensable.”

I learned that making myself indispensable wasn’t about ‘kissing up’ or pandering (as some itinerant colleagues suggested), nor did it have much to do with job titles or formal areas of responsibility. The indispensable employee, I learned, took on assignments that others avoided, and created new work for themselves that helped move the company forward. I learned that, in great companies, employees deemed essential were rarely laid off in bad times and were the first to be promoted when opportunities arose.

When you build a reputation for successfully taking on the tough jobs, you attract those jobs like a magnet. You telegraph that you’re a problem-solver, a relationship-builder, and a revenue-generator. Do that and you’ll likely never need to ask for a raise or apply for a promotion.

There are five paths to becoming one of the indispensables in your organization:

  1. Find projects that build revenue. There’s value in most any work, but the person who brings cash though the door – or who makes it easier for someone else to do so – is a hero.
  2. Develop micro-niche knowledge. Collect knowledge and skills like some people collect refrigerator magnets. You don’t need a doctorate to have more skill in an area than 99% of the rest of us. Explore free online courses in esoteric subjects, read trade magazines on diverse topics (also free, online). The more you know, the more you grow. Be alert, and this pool of ‘useless’ knowledge will prove invaluable time after time.
  3. Bring 24/7 focus. In the wild, animals spend the vast majority of their waking time either looking for food or avoiding becoming some other beast’s lunch. They are focused on survival. Bring that same 24/7 focus to your work. We are bombarded by ideas every day – in the media, in the streets, in shops. Think of how you can apply bits of what you read, see and hear to your business. Often, a couple of ideas can be combined to create a new and useful solution to a problem.        
  4. Add value to everything. Fast-food restaurants add value to a dining experience with free refills and airlines add value through frequent flyer schemes. Do more and give more: Look for ways to enhance your work with extras like useful insight, more data, better analysis, and expanded service; develop new applications or streamline delivery; find new business, serve existing customers more efficiently, or enhance the customer experience.
  5. Be a fountain of ideas. Open your mind and ask, “What if?” Engage in stream-of-consciousness blue-sky thinking that creates new ideas with the rapidity of an auctioneer’s staccato patter. Blend ideas, adding and subtracting elements with ease. Don’t worry about whether an idea is good, or whether it will work. Ideas are rarely born in finished form; they need to be honed. Creativity can be learned, and is perhaps the most highly valued skill of all.

Most of us will dedicate up to a third of our lives to performing some type of remunerative labor. If we must work, we may as well have fun and enjoy success, as opposed to merely marking time. What better use of that time than becoming the person others rely upon for answers, inspiration, and ideas?


Scott H. Lewis is managing director for Ukraine and the CIS for Signature Europe. A former journalist and public relations counselor, he has provided crisis, public speaking and presentation training to senior executives across Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. He is the author of “60 Seconds to ‘Wow!’,” a book on presentation skills. An American, he has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine for more than a decade.

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