The Art of Being Indispensable at Work

By Bruce Tulgan

Do you want to be indispensable at work? Do you want to be that ‘go-to’ person who is depended upon by so many of your colleagues? Do you want to be somebody who adds value consistently? Somebody who gets things done?

How do you do that without making yourself hopelessly overcommitted?

If you are overcommitted, then you are always in danger of dropping the ball… And no matter how much value you may deliver along the way, every time you drop the ball, you damage your track record of success and your reputation for getting things done.

That’s why becoming indispensable at work is truly an art, especially these days.

And that’s precisely the problem I was trying to solve in writing my new book, THE ART OF BEING INDISPENSABLE AT WORK, published by Harvard Business Review Press.

There is so much pressure to get things done, right now, amidst so much uncertainty and with so many working relationships in which the lines of authority are not very clear. The art of being indispensable at work these days absolutely cannot be about trying to do everything for everybody. It’s just not possible. If you want to win real influence today, the kind of influence that makes other people want to go to you, and want to do things for you, you have to beat overcommitment. But you still have to get things done: The key is getting the right things done for the right reasons at the right time.

Based on 27 years of research, including more than a half a million people from more than four hundred organizations, what is the solution?

It starts with learning the peculiar mathematics of real influence. Real influence is not about “using influence” to try to get people to do what you want: that’s false influence. Your real influence comes from your reputation — And that comes from how you conduct yourself and how you treat people.

Step one: Learn to lead from wherever you are. That doesn’t mean pretending to have authority you don’t have… or asserting your agenda regardless of authority… Rather it means, aligning with your boss and aligning with your direct reports — every step of the way — so that everybody is better prepared to “work things out” at their own level. Vertical alignment is the anchor that empowers you to collaborate successfully with people up, down, sideways, and diagonal.

Step two. Learn when to say no and how to say yes. ‘Yes’ is where all the action is, so you better not waste your yeses. Build a great track record and reputation for making really good decisions so that more and more people trust you with the power to make more and more decisions. It all starts with really tuning in to other people’s needs. That means paying really close attention to every ask. Ask questions and take notes. Then make a great decision: Say no at the right times for the right reasons. And learn to say yes in all the right ways: Every ‘yes’ deserves a plan of action, time for focused execution, and a plan for staying in dialogue through regular structured communication.

Step three. Work smart. You’ve got to work hard, of course. But the harder you work, the more important it is to work smart. Working smart is not just about using good tools and techniques — taking short cuts and avoiding long-cuts and unnecessary errors — and working in your areas of passion and greatest strengths. Working smart means professionalizing everything you do, turning every task and responsibility into one of your specialties. Then make sure you are known for your specialties —- and continually build up your repertoire of specialties.

Step four. Finish what you start. If you are always juggling, you are going to eventually drop the ball. To handle an ever-growing to-do list, EVERY DAY you need DO LIST, what are those chunks of work you are going to DO, in those chunks of time for focused execution. Bigger chunks of time; smaller chunks of work. Finish one chunk at a time.

Step five. Get better and better at working together. Being indispensable is really in the eye of the beholder. That means the real questions are: 1/ To whom are you making yourself indispensable at work? And 2/ Who is making themselves indispensable to you? It’s all about relationships. But don’t get the wrong idea. The best strategy is not playing politics or making friends with the right people.  It turns out the best relationship strategy at work is to make sure the work doesn’t go wrong. When the work gets better, the relationships go better.

So, then… What is the art of being indispensable at work? Really, it is all about how you show up, how you conduct yourself, and how you treat people. It is all about practicing being the person you are trying to become.

Can everybody on your team be an indispensable go-to person? Why not? You don’t want to be the only go-to person, right? You want to be part of a great team — made up of go-to people.

Don’t just make yourself a go-to person. Find go-to people wherever you need them. Build up new go-to people whenever you have the chance. And your network will grow and grow. Everybody is welcome as long as they step in and step up and do their part. It’s the way of the go-to person. I call it go-to-ism.

It’s the art of being indispensable at work.


Bruce has written for Today’s Insurance Professionals in the past, and recently released a new book on the topic of generational issues and management in the workplace, Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent.

You can read some of Bruce’s recently posted articles on his LinkedIn profile and at Huffington Post.

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