When I wrote The Art of Being Indispensable at Work, I never intended it to be a career guide for the post-pandemic world. But it might as well be.
It’s about how to succeed in the midst of change and uncertainty. It’s about navigating shifting priorities and unclear lines of authority. It’s about how to focus on the one thing you can control when so much is outside your control—yourself.
The world of work has already become more complex and uncertain than ever before, even before the global pandemic. But now, of course, that complexity and uncertainty has been magnified by new and unexpected challenges. A lot of the problems to be solved are new. But a lot more of them have been faced and managed by those I call the “indispensables”—the go-to people who stand the test of time—whom I’ve been studying as best I know how in my 27 years at RainmakerThinking.
Let me be clear: nothing in The Art of Being Indispensable at Work speaks directly to handwashing, social distancing, or remote videoconferencing. But we know for these things for sure about the post-pandemic era: You and your colleagues will have to rely on one another even more than before—with no end in sight. That’s a huge responsibility. It’s not just your job or your reputation on the line. The stakes are now much higher, for everyone involved.
With such high stakes, it will be tempting to say “yes” to everyone. Of course, you don’t want to let anybody down. If you’re like most, you will want to prove yourself to be a truly indispensable, go-to person, even under pressure. You’ll often be asked to go the extra mile. But the challenge is to do all this while avoiding overcommitment and burnout.
If you try to do everything for everybody, you’ll end up doing nothing for anybody. So, how do you make yourself a go-to person—one of the true indispensables who stand the test of time? What makes it seem impossible is also the key to the solution. You must first fight and beat overcommitment syndrome.
The mindset and techniques in The Art of Being Indispensable at Work were not specifically designed for a post-pandemic world, but they might as well have been:
Understand the peculiar mathematics of real influence. Gain real influence by building a reputation on serving others in ways that matter. That way, when you inevitably need something from them, they’ll be much more likely to want to work with you, make good use of your time, and contribute to your successful outcomes.
Lead from wherever you are. Start always from what’s required and what’s allowed. Align yourself and your people up and down the chain of command. You have to go vertical before you can go sideways or diagonal. Then, drive alignment with everyone involved through regular, ongoing, structured communication.
Know when to say no and how to say yes. You cannot do everything, so you need to do the right things for the right reasons. Take other people’s needs seriously by tuning in to every ask and giving it your real due diligence. Every good no is about freeing you up for a better yes. Yes is where all the action is. Yes is your chance to add value and build the relationship. Don’t waste it! Every yes deserves a plan of action and focused execution.
Work smart. Sure, but what does it mean? It means NOT trying to only work in your area of passion and strength because that’s just not realistic. It means, whatever you do, professionalize it. That means learning best practices, repeatable solutions and creating job aids. So that anything you do becomes one of your “specialties.”
Finish what you start. Of course, your to-do list is ever growing and never ending. The key is NOT learning how to juggle better! If you are always juggling, eventually, you’re bound to drop the ball. How do you become the person who gets things done? Break work into smaller chunks and make your “do not disturb” zones larger. That’s it. Smaller chunks of work and bigger chunks of focused execution time. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Yes. But remember, for every bite, you need time to chew and swallow. Bite, chew, swallow. How much of the elephant can you eat in each sitting?
Get better and better at working together. Complications are bound to arise. Things might not necessarily go according to plan (no matter how well you plan.) Resist the urge to point fingers and blame. And remember to light a big fire under every thank you. Make it a habit to celebrate every single contribution, do after-action reviews about how to improve together (instead of pointing fingers), and look around the corner together to plan ahead and make the next opportunity to work together go even better.
Promote go-to-ism in your organization… or keep it a secret… but you won’t be able to… because people will notice. Be a go-to person. People will notice. Find go-to people wherever you need them by being an amazing customer and being the best at helping people help you. And build up new people whenever you have the chance. Invest in people. Invest in relationships. That’s how you build real influence, the power you have when other people want you to succeed because you help them succeed. And upward the spiral goes.
It is the way of the go-to person. I call it go-to-ism. Who knows? Maybe it will become a movement.
Connection is the key. Don’t allow the uncertainty to close you off. Don’t put up your defenses. We all need one another, now more than ever. Build authentic working relationships based on a service mindset steeped in real authority. That’s how to ensure we all get through this together, and generate momentum for great things to come.
The Art of Being Indispensable at Work will be available from Harvard Business Review Press on July 21. You can pre-order your copy now from the following retailers: