How To Be Indispensable

Five behaviors for excellence at work

The era of long-term security ladled out from corporation or government has passed. Now, we are responsible for our own lives. This is both empowering and terrifying.

The essence of thriving in this new world is becoming indispensable - to be worth more than you’re being paid. Here are five ways to ensure you’re always in demand.



1: Know Your Stuff

Scarcity drives value - it makes precious metals, precious. Competence is a diamond in the workplace and rare indeed. If you take the time to know your domain, you will be light years ahead of most people. For bonus points, move beyond understanding today’s reality and have a clear, reasoned perspective on where things are headed.

If you aren’t yet an expert in something, that’s ok, all it takes is some elbow grease. Become a student again - read voraciously and ask questions of the experts until you are the one providing accurate answers. You’re on the right track when people start coming to you with the really tough problems.

Litmus Test: Most often, when questions arise, do you produce a competent response on your own, or do you, out of necessity, lean on others?



2: Be a Creator

The larger the company, the easier it is to thrive on “makework” and pretend it is the only work to do. Makework is meetings, process and spreadsheets that a customer never sees - these should be side dishes and not the main course. Makework is an invention of the large industrial organization and is noise to the creators.

Find the potholes in the road and where the paint is peeling off the walls. Don’t catalog it, report it, or track it - fix it. Pick up a shovel or grab a brush. Every day, create something that matters to those that keep the lights on - your customers.

Litmus TestWhat have you produced in the last week that a customer has directly seen or used?



3: Represent the Customer

Organizations exist to serve customers. However, as a company grows, so does the distance between an employee and the customer. If you’re not careful, you can squander an entire career and never talk to a real customer.

Without frequent customer interactions, your understanding of where your solution fits in their world will be fuzzy and incomplete.

A genuine understanding and respect of your customer is a required precursor to excellence. Absent real empathy, decisions are made based on a narrow world view, or worse, internal criteria like org charts and press releases.

Once you are living in your customer’s world you may have insight, but you also need fortitude to keep their interests front and center. It takes guts to place customer interests first, but fight for them - play the long game. Their success is your company’s only insurance policy, and as importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

Litmus TestHow many customers have you spoken to this week? Alternatively, how many hours have you spent using your own product?



4: Be Nice

A job is rarely done in blissful isolation. Work is mostly about working with others. Like in any relationship, we will have moments of passionate discord. The point is that even in disagreement, being agreeable will serve you well.

With people, fast is slow and slow is fast.
— Stephen R. Covey

Digital tools heighten this challenge - they enable a brisk coarseness of communication that familiarity only amplifies. One word emails and signing off with only an electronic signature is all too common. Efficient, but not effective.

In email, adding a “thank you for the note” or “does this work for you” goes a long way towards humanizing the medium. Consider adopting the please and thank you of the digital world - it’s just good manners.

Litmus TestReview the last five emails sent to a subordinate (or peer if you don’t have direct reports). Compare the tone to the last five emails you sent to a customer (or your manager).



5: Make and Keep Promises

Every day we make contracts - promises to deliver. Big or small, these contracts are the core of every relationship. Trust is built up or eroded by our actual delivery over time.

In a world of finite resources, we must be careful what we promise. We must treat the contract as sacred - because we know we must deliver. Of course, this is a balance, promising the world is as bad as never committing anything to anyone.

Everyone falls short now and again, but these are the moments that test one’s character. Be honest, apologize if needed. People would rather be disappointed and adjust than to be surprised. Some of my best customer relationships have been where I delivered bad news with integrity and empathy.

Litmus TestDo others have to remind you of your tasks, resend emails over and over, or track you on your cell phone for attendance in meetings? Perhaps you are so far gone they have stopped inviting you altogether?

Author’s note. The five are aspirational. They are a reminder of the work I have to do, and how far I have yet to go - a compass to course correct as I veer from side to side on the journey towards character and competence.

Originally published June 19, 2013 on Medium