Try being indispensable

I’m not trying to make this a Seth Godin tribute blog; really I’m not.  But then Rogue Polymath tweeted about Amber Naslund’s Indispensable vs Irreplaceable post. She mixes two of my favorites–new terms and Godin’s Linchpin–so I can’t resist sharing her post with you.

Amber writes:

Being indispensable is about delivering massive impact no matter where you are. It’s much more of a characteristic – a mindset wrapped with skills and attributes – rather than the details and functions in a role. Indispensable people are the types that you can hand any project, put in nearly any role, issue a challenge to, and they simply make things happen by understanding what needs to get done and adapting their skills accordingly.

Being irreplaceable is the opposite. It’s about being locked into a role because you’re harboring finite knowledge, skills, or information that you can’t or aren’t willing to share with anyone else. Sometimes that’s borne from insecurity. Other times it’s a false sense that if you protect your sandbox so that only you know its secrets, you have job security for life.

Knowing the difference between irreplaceable and indispensable made me wonder:

How do you know whether your organization is based on irreplaceable or indispensable people?

Have you ever heard someone in your organization say,  “Bob is the new Bruce (and he’s no Bruce)” ? If you have, you’re in an organization of irreplaceable people.

Sadly–and I’d guess unknowingly–organizations have ensured their future failures by maintaining their systems of irreplaceable people.  Irreplaceable people systems fail because they tie their worth–and then the inevitable loss of their worth– directly to the passing of time.  As an engineer, I have a hard time believing anyone would knowingly tie their organization’s success to the passing of time–a variable so manifestly outside the organization’s control.

Organizations full of irreplaceable people are seemingly shocked to find their organizations built up by the dutiful and time consuming accumulations of horded knowledge then abruptly crippled by each irreplaceable person’s departure.  These organizations lament retirement rates and their losses of corporate knowledge, yet their predicament was entirely predictable.

They put articles in their newsletters about the decades or centuries of knowledge that left with their retirees last month, mourning the retiree-shaped holes that pockmark the metaphorical field of the organization into a scarred bombing range.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  An organization can wrestle control from the passage of time if the organization selects, rewards and sustains indispensable people.

You may be in an organization of indispensable people if in reference to someone taking a new job, you hear your organization’s leaders emphasizing the attributes that made the current person excellent for the job as the job is today and most especially as it is projected to be in the future.  You may hear something like, “Jenna brings her unique talents that the organization needs to win today and triumph tomorrow.”  (Okay so maybe I got a little carried away with that one.)

There does exist a middle ground between an organization locked in the irreplaceable and a utopia of value to the indispensable.   In my career, I’ve gotten to this middle ground by either taking jobs that no one has ever done before (no irreplaceable personality or qualifications to live up to) or doing the job in a way no one else has ever considered (erasing as fast as possible the hole left by the last person so that all they see is me in the job).

Those of you who’ve been asking me how you get a job like mine, now you know my secret: be indispensable regardless of what the organization is asking for.

Be indispensable by driving change.

Be indispensable by storing up your value in the achievement of the future, not the glory of the past (though the past is fun to study to help you succeed in the future).

Be indispensable by taking the best of what worked and joyfully making it better.

Be indispensable by leverage yourself for the situation, instead of forcing the situation to meet your past, or even your current, expectations or skills.

Be indispensable and bring about the organization of tomorrow.

Be indispensable because that’s what your organization needs today.

Why not try being indispensable?

Trust me; it’s a lot of fun.


Bonus question:  Does the organization want you to be irreplaceable or indispensable when it says it is “opening more opportunities for career growth and providing a working environment that will broaden experiences and prepare our employees for higher-level duties.”? [Source:  NAVSEA On Watch 2010]

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