Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Indispensable Employee

Fifteen Tips for Being the Indispensable Employee
Robert A. Hall, CAE

Some employees are more valuable than others. And in this time of economic dislocation, the more valuable you are as an employee, the more likely you are to be retained.

Sorry if I’ve hurt your self-esteem and bruised your feelings. It hurts my feelings that the New England Patriots pay Tom Brady millions and won’t even give me a try-out. Okay, so I’m a LOT older than Brady, in lousy shape compared to him, and lettered in chess in college. Every human being is unique and equally valuable, right?

No. Tom Brady fills the stands and puts millions of fans in front of the TV on Sunday, providing an excellent return on investment for his large salary. The only entertainment value I’d provide would be for the lynch mob of fans hunting me after my first appearance on the field.

However valuable you may be to your family and friends, that doesn’t make you valuable to an employer.

All employers need employees who provide value. Those who provide the most value are the least likely to be cut in a downsizing, and the most likely to receive raises and promotions, because the powers-that-be want to keep them around.

That’s obvious, right? Then how come so many employees act like their job is a right, and that they must be catered to?

The really successful and valuable employees are always trying to make themselves indispensable. Here are fifteen tips on becoming the indispensable employee.

1. Commit yourself to constant improvement. Perfection doesn’t exist, but every organization and every individual can be better tomorrow then they are today. Look at your job every Friday and ask yourself, “How can I do a better job next week?” Then do it.

2. Commit yourself to life-long learning. Takes courses and read books and journals that will help you do better in your area of specialty. But, equally important, expand your horizon. Read widely in other areas as well. Study the field that your employer operates in, so you understand the customers/clients and their problems. Study the jobs of your colleagues, so you understand—and perhaps can help with—their problems. And study trends outside your industry that may impact the organization and the customers. Yes, you can’t read or know everything. But you can always read and know more.

3. Banish, “That’s not my job” from your vocabulary. Everything that helps advance the mission is your job. The more you contribute in other areas, the move valuable you will be.

4. Banish, “We’ve always done it that way” from your vocabulary. Nothing is more constant than change. I was ten years into my professional career before I had a computer, fifteen for a fax, over twenty for e-mail and the Internet. If I was still doing things the way I’d done them then, I’d be unemployable.

5. Avoid gossip, drama and back-biting with your colleagues. It seems like every office has a Drama Queen or King, who is constantly involved in small feuds, has problems with colleagues, and is generally high maintenance. “You know who” has to be tiptoed around. And the boss is dreaming about how nice life would be if only that person could be moved on. Don’t let it be you.

6. Pitch in. Look for areas where you can help your colleagues with their challenges. Do more than your share, especially of the unpleasant tasks, the “dirty jobs,” that are present in every employment situation. Don’t work in a silo.

7. Banish Busy Work. Look for ways to be more efficient, so that time-consuming, repetitive work can be eliminated from your schedule. Can data-entry be computerized directly from the Web, or out-sourced overseas? Having lots of busy work to do doesn’t make you valuable; it makes your job fungible. There is always more valuable work available to fulfill the organization’s mission. Getting rid of busy work will allow the boss to assign you more valuable work.

8. Make the boss’s life easier. What skills can you apply, what can you learn, what can you take on that will solve a problem for your supervisor? Solving a couple of the boss’s problems every year will make you seem pretty indispensable.

9. Be the “Go To” employee. If there’s a problem, and they think first of getting you to work on it, they won’t think first of you if staff census needs to be cut.

10. Keep a cheerful attitude. Sure, we all have problems. But people don’t like to work with those whose hobby seems to be whining and complaining. Your boss doesn’t either.

11. Go the extra mile for the customers. Don’t have to be pushed to do what needs to be done to keep the customer happy. When you provide out-standing customer service, the customers will mention it to your boss, who will appreciate you all the more.

12. Share the credit. When your supervisor says you did a great job on a project, saying, “Well, I couldn’t have done it without Mary’s research” reflects well on you, and makes you a star for Mary. Sincere compliments cost you nothing and mean a lot to your colleagues.

13. Don’t try to outshine your colleagues. Say you have a great idea as to how the sales department could increase return sales. At a staff meeting, in front of everyone, you could pipe up and say, “Well, I think sales could have increased return sales by….” Or you can go to the Director of Sales privately and say, “I have an idea I was wondering if you’d thought about, that might help our return sales rate….” Which will serve you better in the long run?

14. It’s your organization too. Yes, we are fond of saying, “it’s the owner’s business.” But it’s also your business. And not just your little piece. Take ownership. If your area is doing well, but your company is floundering…your area is NOT doing well. It’s like folks on the Titanic saying, “Well, the BOW may have hit an iceberg, but we’re nice and dry here in the STERN!”

15. Be the most dependable person around. Under-promise and over-perform. If you say you will do something, your supervisor should be comfortable forgetting about it, because she knows it will be done well, on time.

If you noticed, there is nothing on this list that you and I cannot do as well as Tom Brady. And following these rules will make you an indispensable association employee.

Robert A. Hall, MEd, CAE, has been a non-profit executive since 1982. Prior to entering the profession, he served five terms in the Massachusetts state senate.


  1. Good advice.

    My husband does all these things in his job as a delivery driver for Dairygold in Washington State. Though he's had his current job less than a year his boss has already discussed making him his new assitant when the current assistant moves on to a new position, in spite of my husband's being the most recent hire at the job.

  2. Excellent advice. I would recommend a book "Now Discover Your Strengths" written by a group from the Gallup organization. Based upon studying thousands of individuals, they recognize that there are 33 core characteristics and all individuals have them to some degree. These are characteristics which are hard wired into you; they are part of your DNA. The key is to find out which are your key characteristics, and focus on strengthening them. If you are not naturally a strategizer and you focus on strengthening that skill, you may get better at it it, but you'll never EXCEL at it. Find out what your strengths are, work on them, and you will EXCEL in those areas. Just like Tom Brady.

  3. Excellent advice and I'm living proof of it! I did most all those things as I matured in the business world (retired Accountant). Following those simple guidelines will ensure gainful employment for nearly everyone. I hope many take this to heart so that they will be valuable employees and citizens also. ♥ ∞

  4. Fisher Ames, one of the Founding Fathers (a forgotten one), spoke of the relative value of men in the earliest days of this country. When Thomas Jefferson declared All Men Are Created Equal, Ames shot back with But Differ Greatly In The Sequel.

    Which is not much different than the point you make about employees, but Ames was speaking of the citizen in general terms. He was something of a misanthrope, more prone to sarcasm than his contemporaries.

  5. March 25, 2009 9:17 p.m.
    Response to I'm Tired"
    Thank you for tell things just as they are. I fear for the future of my children and eleven grandchildren. Our children all work hard and have good educations. They have all been taught to be proud of their achievements. My husband is a Board Certified Family Practioner in a small town in Alabma where he has practiced for
    since 1964. A few weeks ago he received a letter from our government concerning Medicaid patients. If he continues to see Medicaid patients he is expected to be on call 24 hours a day and any problems must be addressed within 36 hours. His response was "thanks but no thanks" I asked him what would happen to his Medicaid patients, and he said he would continue to treat them. His response, "they pay me a dime on the dollar now, won't be much less". If America doesn't wake up and do something about this terrible situation our children and grandchildren will never know this great land as we have known it. Some accept late term abortions and allow babies to die who would be viable outside the womb. (I call this murder). Some want embroyo's to be used in stem cell research when cord blood is an effective alternative. We have given years of our lives to make things better for those who will follow our generation. This year my husband will have been a medical director for a Camp for children with type 1 diabetes for the past 50 years. He has volunteered one to three weeks of his summer, and often our families vacation, to give these young people the experience of learning they are no different from any other child, they just have to take care of themselves through proper diet, medication and exercise. Maybe our present President and much of our Congress could learn a thing or two by such an experience. I admire your service to our great nation and hope you continue to express yourself without reservation.
    God Bless America Carol in Alabama

  6. Frankly, I think you're tiresome. You call yourself "Old". I agree. You have no faith in America or Americans. You have a very negative outlook and you put out alot of self-pitty spin.
    President Obama ran on a platform of Hope. He never said he was a miracle worker. Since the republicans never even came to the table to help work out a recovery plan they have no business complaining about anything.
    You and your buddys such as Rush Limbaugh are great! You are pulling the republican party down further every day and I thank you.

  7. With tears in my eyes I read this wonderful account of a Doc who cares. Should we all be so lucky to have him be our doc.

    We need to all do something about those in power now, and prepare to take care of ourselves, as the people in DC have no idea how to work for the good of the country.