Why Being Indispensable is Killing Your Career (and What to Do Instead)
Have you been trying to make yourself indispensable in your job? Maybe you’ve even become that “go to” person the department can’t live without?
While this may seem like a great thing in the near term, longer term it’s a problem for your career. I’ve even seen it turn a “star” into a “has been” (more on that in a moment).
It’s easy to fall into the trap of being indispensable.
On the surface, making yourself indispensable makes sense. If they need you around, you’ll have greater job security. Maybe you’ll even be a star. And “make yourself indispensable” is advice that’s probably been drummed into you by people you know, love and respect.
It’s also flattering. Hearing from managers and colleagues how mission critical you are is the kind of positive reinforcement that leads you to keep doing what you’re doing.
Soon, being seen as indispensable in your job becomes part of your work identity. And that’s when you’re deep in the danger zone without even realizing it.
So if all your positive feedback is about the job you do extraordinarily well, take a step back and consider whether you’ve fallen into the trap.
Why Being Indispensable is Killing Your Career
Being indispensable can kill your career in one of three ways.
1. You get stuck
When you’re indispensable in a particular role or to a specific manager, you’re at risk of being pigeonholed. You shine so brightly in that one role that most people can’t imagine you doing anything else. And your manager relies on you so much that they won’t part with you.
I remember being in a management discussion of how we could backfill a role that was about to be open when we promoted someone. Another manager suggested Steven, but his boss jumped in and said, “don’t touch Steven – I need him right where he is!”
None of us dared suggest Steven for other roles after that. Steven was about to be stuck in his role for a while without knowing it. One day he would look back and wonder how he went from being a star to being passed over for better roles.
Could that be happening to you right now?
2. You stop developing
When you’re indispensable, you’re probably doing the same things you’ve always done. Or you’re making incremental improvements to an already-successful formula. As they say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Ultimately this will limit your future horizons. The longer you stay in your comfort zone, the less opportunities you’ll have to learn, stretch and develop new capabilities. And the less attractive you’ll be to people looking for the right person to take on that next level role and lead the team in a different direction.
To what extent are you developing yourself?
3. You narrow your network
When you’re doing the same job in the same way for a long time, you get into a groove in terms of who you hang out with and what kind of people you have a reason to reach out to. That leads to a narrower group of people in your network.
Unless you’re one of those highly motivated networkers, the natural gravitational pull of your work circles will keep you from building out a broader network – the kind you need in order to move upward and onward in your career.
How are you investing in your broader network of relationships?
What to Do Instead
So, how do you avoid the trap of being indispensable in your current role, or free yourself if you’re already in the trap?
The key is this: become indispensable for what you can become, and not for what you currently do. And here are four ways to do that.
1. Show you can learn and grow
Once you’ve gotten your job under control, it’s time to show you can learn and grow. That you have the interest and potential to do more.
You can this by asking for and taking on new challenges. Don’t wait for others to tap you on the shoulder. And sometimes you don’t even need permission.
The new challenge could be a side project or additional responsibility rather than a whole new role. Anything that allows you to demonstrate your openness to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and innovative ways of doing things. These capabilities will set you apart in an environment of constant change.
How are you expressing your flexibility to do things a different way? The agility to change course when things don’t go as planned? The ability to improvise and “dance in the moment” to improve outcomes?
2. Disrupt yourself
When you get too comfortable or even bored, it’s time to shake up your thinking and reimagine what and who you can become. That’s what it means to disrupt yourself.
For example, how could you take a new approach to your role to deliver outcomes at the next level? How would it change your thinking about what’s possible if your department’s budget was suddenly tripled? What could you accomplish with those extra funds?
What if you had your pick of any role in the organization? What would you choose and why? What if your CEO gave you the power to create any job you wanted – what would you choose to do? And how could you begin to reach for some of those elements from where you sit now?
This kind of thinking will prime the pump for disrupting yourself and generating innovative ideas about the work you’re doing as well as the career direction you want to take.
3. Prepare for the next role
When you can demonstrate some of the skills and attitudes necessary at the next level, you improve your chances of being seen as ready for that next move.
The best way to do this is to continually invest in yourself and your development. Make time to learn new things. Identify the experiences and skills you want to have. Talk to others about what it takes and the things they wished they’d done to prepare themselves. Then go explore how you can do those things.
If your limiting factor is time and energy, see how you can change your priorities or adopt the “SEO strategy” (as in simplify, eliminate and outsource) to create the time and energy you’ll need. In my experience, learning something new often brings renewed energy.
If money is the limiting factor, don’t let that stop you. Ask your manager or human resources contacts if they will consider funding you or get creative about how you could fund it yourself.
Asking serves a purpose because it shows you have aspirations. If the answer is yes, that’s terrific. If it’s a no, that may give you some clues about the way the organization views you. Either way, you’ll end up with something useful. And you still have the self-funded option to consider.
When Dorothy found out she hadn’t been selected for the “high potential” group, which came with a company-sponsored executive coaching program, she hired her own executive coach to help her develop and make the group in the future.
Her thinking was, “I don’t want to lose this year when everyone else is improving. I have to make the investment even if the firm doesn’t. Otherwise I’ll be falling farther behind.”
Indeed, you can’t afford to wait for someone else’s timetable because as time goes by, the expectations of you will rise. If you’re not keeping up, you risk stunting your own career growth.
Remember, your skills and experiences are portable – they travel with you no matter where you work and who you work for. That’s why it pays to invest in yourself, even if you have to pay for it yourself.
In what ways do you need to take matters into your own hands and how would that enhance your career?
4. Build your bench
To move to the next level in your career, you’ll need to demonstrate that you can be moved. And that means building a bench of talent beneath you. Yes, as in training people who can replace you!
While it’s natural to worry about putting yourself out of a job by preparing others to take over your role, recognize that this is the kind of “zero sum” thinking that will keep you from being the best leader you can be… which in turn will limit you in your career opportunities.
It’s the same kind of thinking that says your best career strategy is to be indispensable, which we know can backfire on you.
Instead, adopt an “abundance mindset” where opportunities are plentiful – you just need to know how to create opportunities and continue to invest in yourself so you’re ready to take them on.
Building your bench beneath you is the best way to ensure that senior managers feel comfortable moving you to the next level position you aspire to.
Become Indispensable for the Right Reason
Don’t risk killing your career by being so indispensable in your current role that you can’t move onward and upward when you want to.
Instead, take these steps to be seen as indispensable for the right reason… that is, for what you can become:
- Show you can learn and grow
- Disrupt your thinking
- Invest in yourself
- Build the bench beneath you
Show others you can evolve. That makes you someone worth backing for the longer-term.
Which of these steps would most help you become indispensable for what you can become?
Leave a comment – I’d love to know!
Great post, May!
I have been kind of indispensable the last 12 years. However, there still were “new” things to the role with new projects. But those results were also put onto my pile so more reasons to keep me in the position where I was.
As I have resigned and starting a new role in a few month I will take your poins into consideration. I do not think there is a best one of those points but would try to follow all of them as good as possible.
Congratulations on your new role, Hein! How exciting. Sounds like you have a great opportunity to be indispensable for the right reasons going forward. Wishing you well, and I’m rooting for your success!
Very valid perspective May! Thanks for sharing. Long back my mentor gave me similar advice and i can vouch for their effectiveness.
How wonderful that you’ve had a great mentor, and thanks for your vouching for the advice, Shalumanan!
I totally agree with the premise. No one is (or should be) indispensable, i.e. “what if you got hit by a bus”. Neither management, leadership nor individual contributors should value or aspire to be indispensable. When you find yourself in a position of unique value or attributes, share. By sharing, you do build the bench. And open yourself to further growth and opportunity. And being “indispensable” is sourced through an external perspective and validation, which is always a path for disappointment — value and self-worth ultimately needs to be driven from within.
Beautifully said, Don. Thank you for sharing these wise words!
I fully agree on that, Don. Sharing is valuable in many directions.
However, in some industries this is just not possible due to shortage of people or time. We have to take more and more responsibilities and projects, with less and less people.
Additionally, new people (especially younger) leave after few years for new ventures and to reduce the stress.
Hoping your new workplace has a better set up than what you’ve described here, Hein.
May, I would say “Disrupt your thinking”. When I get bored ( and at times I do) with my job new ideas begin to flow. It is at that time I really sit down and assess where I am and where I would like to be. It is, however, not that easy in the organisation I work but possible.
Wonderful that you’re able to get those new ideas to flow, Gail.
As long as there are possibilities, you’re in good shape. And possibilities can turn into probabilities…keep going!
Thank you for sharing this post. I have learned in my career and still follow, “If you can’t be replaced, then you can’t be promoted.” That is why I try to develop the people around me so that my work does not stop when I am not working.
Great saying, Howard. Sounds like you’re a wonderful boss…keep going!
Excellent post!!! The advice is great, and even though I am not working in an office right now, I feel these points are extremely valid!
Thank you, Ann!
Great Post.. I’ve been teaching my job hunters the improper use of the term “indispensable”. It makes sense that a person could get stuck and miss opportunities. Why stop with one -Show that You Can Learn and Grow-when I can master them all.. Slowly, deliberately and methodically.
Sound advice Anthony! Your job hunters are fortunate to have your guidance.
Great post! Thank you!
I am currently paying the cost of having become indispensable for years in my position.
Even tough, I manage to open up, get new skills and work on new projects not limited to my position, it remains very hard to get people to understand that I want my career to move on, especially in an global environment full of uncertainty.
You are not alone Maurice. And it’s great that you are taking steps now to communicate your aspirations. Keep going, and keep looking for ways to create options for yourself.