There's a lot of career advice out there that tells you to work hard, follow your dreams and be nice if you want to get ahead in your career. It's nice, but not always the most useful strategy.
In times of economic uncertainty and layoffs, it's important to know your worth and demonstrate it to others if you want to be indispensable.
Whether you’re at a medium-sized company, giant corporate or a small startup, your career path will be defined by how often you go the extra mile. This is about becoming an important, valuable asset to management and your co-workers – without having to slog through overtime or play office politics.
What does it mean to be indispensable at work?
Being indispensable at work means that you’re a vital and integral part of your team.
Being indispensable means you’re the go-to person for a certain thing – the first person that people think of for a certain speciality or particular skill.
Not only are you relied upon and respected, but you’re the first to offer solutions and help others as a real team player. You’re a fountain of knowledge, up-to-date with all the industry trends, and are constantly adding value to the organisation’s culture and bottom line.
The work environment is all the better for having you around, and senior managers know it. Because of this, you've got better career prospects and job security than almost anyone.
Getting to this point doesn't require studying for expensive qualifications or working silly overtime hours. You just have to be smart about it and have a decent work ethic.
This is all about being really, really, really useful.
Be so good they can't ignore you
This idea originates from Cal Newport's book, So Good They Can't Ignore You. Cal's theory is that chasing things you're passionate about in your career isn't a guaranteed way to be successful:
“If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (‘what can the world offer me?’) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (‘what can I offer the world?’)”
It's all about getting better over time by building 'career capital' - the intangible advantages that you can use to grow your career. Here are four ways you can become an indispensable employee: so good they can't ignore you.
1 ) Use data to your advantage
There are two big ways you should be making data work for you in your quest to become indispensable. The first is to record your wins.
Being able to back up your successes at work means you'll always have ammunition when you need to fight your corner. During 1-2-1s or annual reviews, you can't rely on your boss or your own memory to provide proof of your actions.
Make a habit of recording occasions when things go well - whether that's hitting targets or receiving praise. Not only does it act as a 'smile file' - a collection of things that make you proud, for when you're having a bad day - but it serves as a database to reference when you need to show your effectiveness.
The second is about using the data around you within the workplace.
What is it that fellow team members really struggle with in the company? What do they need help with? Figure this out by observing office chatter and asking questions when problems come up. Can you help with things that are outside your comfort zone or stretch the limits of your skillset? If so, they’re probably worth doing.
Designing systems, workflows and processes that take work off people's hands can make you very popular indeed. Approach it like a science experiment - if the data shows a bottleneck, is there anything you can do to remove it?
2 ) Become an internal influencer
Becoming a ‘thought leader’ is a sure-fire way to increase your influence in the workplace. That doesn't always come naturally, but it's actually something you can brush up on with research and practice.
It may seem a little devious at first, but there's nothing wrong with improving your communication skills. No matter how equitable and friendly your company culture is, it's always part of your task to influence people. And much of that involves persuading people of the value of your ideas.
Robert Greene's books are a goldmine for learning the art of charm. In The Laws of Human Nature, he explains how to stay on people's good side:
There are three qualities to people's self-opinion that are nearly universal: "I am autonomous, acting of my own free will"; "I am intelligent in my own way"; and "I am basically good and decent."
You can actively confirm their self-opinion. When you do this, you are fulfilling one of people's greatest emotional needs. In a harsh and competitive world in which we are all prone to continual self-doubt, we almost never get this validation that we crave.
When you validate people's self-opinion, they are more likely to open up and relax. They'll listen to your ideas and like having you around.
By improving your people skills with strategies like these, you'll be able to build a personal network of folks that like you and will vouch for you. Don't approach your interactions as 'networking', because people can sense your intentions. Just be a good person to be around, bringing positive energy that lifts everyone up - and you won't be forgotten.
3 ) Build company culture (even if it's not your job)
Even if it's not officially your job to foster a positive, creative company culture - do it anyway.
In a way, this is all about being a positive role model. It means acting in accordance with the values you believe in. And if your company calls itself creative, collaborative, pioneering or that kind of thing, lean into it. This is an especially powerful way to make an impact when starting a new role.
When you're an employee who doesn't have a stake in the company other than your monthly salary, you might not be completely on-board with mission statements and values. You might see them pinned on the wall or stated on the company website, but they might not mean much to you personally.
Sure, some buzzwords are meaningless - 'innovation' is pretty much a necessity in any business, yet many say it's their key advantage as though no other company innovates. But if you dig deeper and really look at what your company wants to be, helping it realise those ambitions can massively work in your favour.
'Intrapreneurship' is all about being proactive and creative within your job role. While you'll have a set place in the hierarchy of your workplace, you can still start special projects and new initiatives by sharing your ideas and making them happen. You might have to be a bit annoying and pester decision-makers for permission sometimes, but showing ambition and executing on ideas is an amazing way to open up new opportunities for yourself while inspiring others to do the same.
If your company wants to be a leader in sustainability and you come up with better ideas for it than your management, your reputation will grow. And if you can inspire others to do the same, you'll be seen as an important asset.
4 ) Become a go-to expert
There's a computer programming language called COBOL that first appeared in the 1960s. It's responsible for the mainframe operations of government and banking systems around the world and is super important for the smooth running of modern finance. The trouble is, hardly anyone knows how it works, and the number of those that do in the workforce is shrinking - the average age of a COBOL programmer is over 60.
This means that the small number of software engineers able to troubleshoot issues with its systems are in high demand - contractors can charge day rates of £750 and above, depending on how critical the issue is. And it looks like they're set to become even more valuable.
With that in mind, is there anything you can do that others can't? It's not an excuse to scheme your way into learning things your colleagues can't, but it'll certainly give you an advantage in negotiating your own promotions and so on.
Being known as the one person who knows how to make an Excel pivot table means you're pretty difficult to get rid of. It doesn't make you invulnerable to company shake-ups of course. But spending 5-10 hours learning a useful specialism like this might make a crucial difference for your career prospects.
By making use of these strategies, your reputation should start to do the work for you. Whether that manifests in more invitations to collaborate, job offers and promotions, or just a healthy social life at work - you should find yourself in high demand with the freedom and leverage to make your career work for you. And that's something that should open a lot of doors.