How to make yourself indispensable at work

The best piece of career advice we’ve ever received is this: “Make yourself indispensable.” If you want to keep your job – and climb the management ladder – you need to be irreplaceable, mission critical, core to the operation – you get the idea. But how do you do that?

Our Power Up C-Suite Circle convened on this pressing topic, and here’s what we think. It’s a two-step process.

First, ask yourself two simple questions:

1. Are you incredibly good at your current role, or only OK? This has to be an honest self-evaluation, based on objective data: your performance evaluation, feedback from your boss, peers and subordinates, the trajectory of your compensation, and any other indisputable evidence of how your company thinks you’re doing in your current role. Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 based on your performance (if you give yourself an 8 or higher, you should be able to produce proof that you’re considered to be in the top 20% of your peer group).

2. Are you really high-maintenance, or extremely easy to manage? Again, be brutally honest: does your boss, team, or peer group view you as difficult in any way? Hyper-sensitive, prickly, unorganized, emotional, flaky, or in constant need of praise? Look in the mirror. Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 based on your required level of maintenance at work.

Second, based on those ratings, place yourself in one of these four categories:

A. High Performer (>8) – High Maintenance (>8). The Diva. You are incredibly talented, best-of-breed, even. Your performance in your current role is stellar, and people gravitate to you because of your talent and track record. But you’re difficult – you need a lot of stoking, praise and bespoke treatment at the office. Or you’re ornery. You have sharp elbows. You’re moody. Or arrogant. You talk too much. Or you’re a recluse. To be indispensable, you need to: be vigilant that your stellar performance doesn’t flag (if it does, you’re toast) and also be sure that your demands and temperament don’t ever cross a line into the abusive, the unethical, the illegal or the intolerable (if it does, you’re definitely toast).

B. High Performer (>8) – Low Maintenance (<4). The Dream. You, dear reader, are the employee that everyone dreams of. You are already indispensable. Keep up the great work!

C. Average Performer (5-7) – Low Maintenance (<4). The Backbone. You acknowledge that your performance in your role is not earth-shattering. But you’re good at what you do, and you’re really easy to work with – dependable, no temper tantrums, no crazy expectations about your compensation. You’re a person to whom others gravitate because you’re level-headed, sensible, and steady. You have institutional memory. And you have a calming influence on the more high-strung people around you. You are the backbone on which every organization is built, and upon which bosses rely. To be indispensable, you need to: hold in place, and decide if you want to aim higher. Are there things you know you should do to up your performance? If so, quietly set about getting those things done. You might be surprised by how far you can go.

D. Average Performer (5-7) – High Maintenance (>8). The Nightmare. Dear reader, if you are in this category, or even hovering near it, you need to take immediate action, because you are definitely high on the list for termination at the next opportunity. Whether you think it’s fair or not, you’re draining a lot of energy with your demands, and you’re not delivering results that make you a good long-term investment for your boss and your team. To be indispensable, you need to: Immediately reduce your maintenance requirements. As one boss told a team member who was in this category “you need to act as if you’re running for mayor.” Be accommodating, team-spirited and generous. Bring doughnuts if you have to. Before it’s too late. After that, you can work on upping your performance – it’s never too late to live the dream.

It goes without saying that if your performance is below average, you’re not indispensable. If that’s your issue, you know what you need to do first.

The great news about becoming indispensable, by the way? It’s the perfect time to ask for a raise, or a promotion, or a new project. Do what you have to do to get there, and the world is yours. Just promise us that once you’ve arrived, you’ll use your powers wisely.

And for a weekly dose of career insights and ideas, sign up for our newsletter, Power Up, here.

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