How to be Indispensable

Deconstruct every great achievement and you will find a linchpin at the center; that one indispensable person with the vision and the skills to make the dream real.

Many of their names are familiar. Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk and Melinda Gates are household names. But every undertaking, no matter how big or small has a linchpin.

It’s true that “Nobody is irreplaceable,” but Linchpins are essential, unique and valuable.

Seth Godin, in his eponymous book, likens them to an artist. Uncommonly happy people who choose emotional work. They may lead, but they may just as easily be a front liner with the attitude, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it that matters.”

The indispensable define the ideal of a corporate culture. They personify it, radiate it. The world around them comes to associate the brand with who they are.

Every effective endeavor is held together by linchpins. If a critical mass pull out of the organization, it can fall apart. Jim Collins addresses this in Good to Great. His Level V Leader fosters a climate where the culture can survive the comings and goings of the individuals associated with it. In fact, the very characteristics that define a Level V Leader parallel a linchpin, “a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will.”

Great leaders look for and populate their teams with linchpins. They create systems to identify and attract them. And they build a work environment that nurtures and rewards them.

But many may be way down the food chain. They lead through influence. The quality of their work and the attitude they bring to the job radiate outward. They tend to be the go-to people for input on processes, tactics and even strategy. They have a wide field of view, a clear understanding of the mission and a passion for contributing in their own way.

Smart leaders empower them, give them resources, support and the freedom to innovate.

During my time as a corporate executive there were a number of occasions where linchpins helped me transform the business. In one instance a front line supervisor came to me with an idea to dramatically cut costly repeat service calls and bring his team members closer to the customer.

Given freedom and flexibility, linchpins will innovate.

We worked through the processes he proposed, let him figure out the financial resources he needed and settled on a timeline for implementation that included flexibility for mid-course corrections. His idea turned out to be wildly successful, improving both employee and customer satisfaction and allowing us to re-purpose the savings connected to the lower service call volume toward maintenance programs that strengthened the technical underpinnings of the operation.

They also have another trait in common: The ability to fail forward.

“The ability of agility,” was what we called it. In a place where the fear of failure is removed, new ideas can be more quickly tested and abandoned if they don’t work out.

Fast failures lead to better solutions.

When a team member’s idea to tighten our bad debt timeline actually increased the number of people who were unable to pay promptly, he tossed it aside, realizing that what we once thought were marginal customers were willing to pay us extra to come out and personally collect their balance owed. Bad debt went down and our customer base went up among a market segment that focus groups told us were our heaviest users.

Can you teach yourself to become a linchpin? Absolutely.

1) Seek ways to add more value: We return to the value proposition conversation all the time for good reason. Adding value always generates a return on investment. Whatever you do now can be done better – must be done better in the future. Few are more knowledgeable than you are about the current definition of what you do. Work to redefine it. Make it better. Make it more efficient. Seek to innovate.

2) Become a world-class performer: Seth calls this, “making great art”. That usually is found where passion, talent and purpose intersect. What’s your personal mission statement? Is it in sync with what you are currently doing? Those who can find a situation where they can earn a living doing something they enjoy naturally vector towards getting better at it.

3) Study the bigger picture: The world looks different from 10,000 feet. Zoom out and ponder how what you do impacts the broader world. That’s how Henry Ford envisioned his automobile and how NASA practiced for a moon landing 238,855 miles from the stage where it actually took place.

4) Feel the fear and do it anyway: Resistance is a constant companion. We second guess ourselves and always seem to think about the worst possible outcomes, if what we do blows up. Finding the courage to do what is right, rather than what is easy is one key commonality associated with every breakthrough idea.

5) Make other Linchpins: Mike Myatt, writing in Forbes, rightly points out that depending on a few key players can be a disaster if they suddenly leave or lose their mojo. Linchpins often come wired with a teacher’s mind. They encourage others to follow in their footsteps, are patient during the learning process and realize that it’s the journey and not the destination where the real magic happens.

Being a linchpin is really nothing more than a mindset. It’s the desire to contribute effectively with calm confidence, developing a broad field of view to seek out new ideas and the realization that there can be great satisfaction in simply doing the job well, whatever that job may be.