How Indispensable Are You?

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The economy is still pretty sucky.

Even as certain industries and sectors claw their way back to some sort of semblance of normalcy, some of your peers are still being laid off, budgets are being slashed and businesses are still grappling with how to do more with less.

In all of this, those individuals still on top of their game seem to be doing just fine. Some have even been thriving.

When the recession was in full throttle, I found myself in a conversation with one of the head talent recruiters for an exclusive fashion retail chain. As we were discussing the economy and its impact on the luxury industry, I asked how it was affecting staffing and if it was hard to see so many people being let go from the team. The individual took a deep breath, looked me in the eyes and said: "The top performers are doing just fine. Their jobs were never in jeopardy. They’re still making lots of money and performing exceedingly well."

Here’s a translation of that: people who make themselves indispensable are indispensable.

The challenge is in making the statement tangible and actionable. The truth behind that message is that not everyone has the strategy, tools and tactics to get themselves to the point where they are indispensable – until now.

Seth Godin was making himself indispensable long before he earned his MBA in marketing from Stanford Business School in the mid-’80s. Along with a track record that includes stints as an entrepreneur who sold one of his companies to Yahoo!, where he became vice- president of direct marketing, he is also known as one of the top-rated marketing presenters on the speaking circuit and a best-selling author. From his classic, Permission Marketing to All Marketers Are Liars, Godin’s work is rooted in simple messages that every businessperson can relate to.

His latest book, Linchpin – Are You Indispensable? (Portfolio), came out in late January.

Already a New York Times best-seller, the book is about individuals who have made themselves "linchpins" – people an organization can’t be without. Linchpin could well be the definitive book on career management (even life management). In his seminal book, Purple Cow – Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (Portfolio, 2003), Godin pleaded with businesses to not produce and distribute mediocre products and services. Godin describes Linchpin as, "Purple Cow for people."

"There used to be a gatekeeper. A legitimate, real keeper of a real gate," Godin said in a recent interview. "If you wanted to get a job at Ford, the gatekeeper needed to let you in. If you wanted to get a job at a newspaper, the gatekeeper let you in. Either you were ‘out’ or you were ‘in.’ We organized our schools and businesses around this dichotomy of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ I am trying to teach people that these gatekeepers are now all gone. If you want to make something in China and sell it at your local store, all you need is an email account and you’re ‘in.’ If you want to be a blogger, all you need is a computer and you’re ‘in.’ This means that you can be ‘in’ something in about a day or less. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be good or successful at it, it just means that you’re in it. Once we have a world like that, it raises the bar for what it means to be good, because there are so many people who are in it. There are lots of things you can do now. Go ahead and pick one … just do it."

And while that may come off as "easier said than done," Godin believes we don’t have the choice anymore. You can’t just sit back and go about your job hoping others will take you to your personal promised land. The evolution of technology, connectivity and the economy have changed everything. Individuals are using these changes to their personal advantage and growth.

"You don’t win by being more average than other people in your industry," Godin continues. "You don’t win by being more compliant than your fellow co-workers. Being more obedient at what you do every day is not going to make you more indispensable. What makes someone indispensable is that they do something that other people can’t do. …We go to work every day trying to not do that. We go to work trying to be just like everyone else, because that feels safe. In today’s economy, and for the foreseeable future, that’s the riskiest thing we can do."

Godin pushes the linchpin concept even farther, encouraging individuals to explore what their "art" is. "(It) has nothing to do with oil paint or marble. Art is what we’re doing when we do our best work."

When was the last time you defined yourself as an artist when it comes to describing your work?

"It’s the people who aren’t like everybody else that always do better," Godin concludes.

If that doesn’t get you thinking about your career, where it’s headed and how to become a linchpin, what will?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post the article here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

Montreal Gazette – Making yourself indispensable at work is, yes, indispensable

Vancouver Sun – In this shaky economy, you must make yourself indispensable.


  1. I completely agree. In my culture it has been instilled in many of us that we have to conform to what everyone else is doing if not you are going to fail.
    On my part I have been always trying to seek those opportunities which many feel are risky. I have had great returns and great losses but in every occasion I try something out of the Box I learn a great deal more than if I would have conformed to everyone else’s behavior.
    In agree with Seth currently we have to go seek for new opportunities and not wait for them to arrive.
    Great post!

  2. You’re right. And you’ve offered something to chew on. But hasn’t it always been the the case that, as Godin says, “It’s the people who aren’t like everybody else that always do better.” ? Our technology age hasn’t changed that principle at all.
    Read Malcom Gladwell’s book, The Outliers, and it’s quite apparent that the most successful people in our culture are/were extrodinary either in their ability to practise their “thing” or in the opportunities that they took full advantage of. Most people don’t do that. Intrinsic motivation is rare.
    It is frustrating though, to be “not like everybody else.” Average thinkers sometimes try to bring you down to average. “Gettin’ too big fer yer britches,” comes to mind.

  3. Excellent – it’s about distinguishing yourself from the crowd whilst sill adding value for your clients.
    But wait, isn’t that a re-interpretation of the old philosophy about finding your USP and putting your customer at the centre of everything? As somebody who is 50+, I find it reassuring that although the tools available to us do change, the core philosophies don’t!

  4. This is truly an amazingly personal book. It feels as if Seth if whispering in your ear through much of it. There’s a good history lessen of how we got here, from hunters to farmers to the industrialization of everything. A key point was the invention of interchangeable parts, for the next step was interchangeable people. What we have witnessed over the last 10 years is exactly what Seth stated “If you can write a spec for it, I can get it done/made cheaper somewhere else.” There is no option – if you want to survive you have to become your own artist.

  5. I have this friend who does office leasing. He recently told me that he felt he was in a recession proof industry. This did not make any sense to me and I asked him to explain.
    His response was: When times are good people want bigger office spaces AND when times are bad people want to downsize their office spaces. Either way, they have to come to me for their office space.
    And, this friend walks-the-talk on what I said above. He truly believes he helps his customers in both good times and during bad times. And this carries over in to how he acts with his customers.
    My friend had made himself indespensible to his customers, even during bad times.
    Perhaps a lot of what making yourself indespensible is about is “perspective”.

  6. Very nice article. This is something that shots you right through the heart and make you think and evaluate. This is all so true. There are no more gatekeepers nowadays and because of this, we really need to excel and do everything we can to be above the rest and to be different. Living the internet life today is certainly a challenge.

  7. funny story– my father calls me the other day and says “there’s this article in the Gazette I think you would like…”
    ok well you probably know the rest of the story. 😉

  8. I have to agree with Seth…WOW: what a fabulous and motivating piece!
    I’m newly discovering my Purple Cow / Linchpin; of being a Corporate Trainer. I was always good at whatever was given to me (both in school and professionally) but nothing ever stood out like a soar thumb, so I did what I was told at work (pushing the limits here and there as that is my nature in essence) but truly never standing out in a crowd – until recently.
    I now realize what my calling in life is and what I’m meant to do – my passion, my love, MY ART and boy does it ever come natural. I’ve always had a niche to faciliate, teach, revere documentation & translation but I kept quiet about it for years only bringing it to the surface when my boss would ask me to train etc…
    Now, I’m allowed to explore my creative side in the work environment, and let me tell you: it’s shear excitement, confidence and pure artsy (unconventional if you may)…
    I get to take MY gift/my added value and exploit it in such a way to win the buy in of my current company. That’s BRANDING MY EQUITY!!! I have pitched a new role in my company and have truly ‘owned’ making it mines, backed by research that is fact based. I’m proud to say my purple cow is now moo-ing whereby I’m piloting the new role in one area of the business but with great confidence it will roll out on the Corporate level within the next year or so…
    I am bring forth my brand equity and standing out in the crowd to mark my spot and inevitably be the indispensable character referred to in Seth’s article, as opposed to following the crowd!
    Kudos to YOU!

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