There has been much written on the subject of becoming indispensable at work. Many of these articles cite building personal brand, high work performance, flexibility around hours, being mobile concerning work location, and generating visibility in both the workplace and media space(s) as integral components of becoming a department – or even company – linchpin.
I believe this is all great advice, but today I want to focus on a less discussed element of job indispensability – job content.
As I’ve very briefly touched on before, the best roles to be in at any company are generally commercial or operations (as opposed to support). If an employee is in a position where he is either a major revenue/profit center (i.e. a rainmaker) or else key creator (of products/intellectual property etc.) his value is exponentially greater to the business than that of someone in support (i.e. groups like Accounting/Communications/Finance/HR/IT etc.), which are 1. Of course, professionals in support functions generally have more skill transfer-ability at higher levels. One can be a Compensation Director or Labor Relations Vice President for any U.S. company. On the other hand, becoming a Business Unit Manager for a food company if one has spent his whole career moving up the commercial or operations ranks of a technology company is an altogether different matter.typically cost centers. 1
Rightly or wrongly, the contributions of support functions are not as highly valued as those of employees in operations and commercial groups. Part of this is that it’s difficult to quantify the cost savings that any given support function represents on the P&L. The other part of this is simply a reflection of reality – support functions only exist because the commercial and operations groups do. People don’t go to McDonalds to speak with the HR Manager (most of the time) – they go because they want some fries.
When one gets right own to it, no matter how much value a support group provides to its business, the product is the reason everyone has a job.
With that said, where does this leave an employee working in a function perceived as adding minimal value? Being a prime target for layoffs during tough times (and in a lower pay grade than commercial/operations colleagues in equivalent cross functional roles) is certainly not an attractive position to be in.
I see one of two options:
1. Become the “go to” person for a critical task/role within one’s team.
Nothing makes a support person (or any employee, really) more valuable than being the only person on the team that can do a critical job or task.
I’m actually not a huge advocate of this approach, however, as I believe every organization should have an effective knowledge transfer process in place as part of its succession planning.
Additionally, if an employee becomes the only person in a department that can do his job then his opportunities for advancement are severely limited. If the team *needs* said employee in order to function, then it can’t very well afford to have him take another role within the company.
With that said, becoming the go to person is a great way to move to the top of one’s pay grade. If an organization can’t afford to lose an employee they will pay whatever they have to in order to keep him.
One can also always…
2. Move into a space where one’s work generates revenue.
Almost every support function has a revenue generating equivalent. Companies that don’t want to have an internal team for communications/recruiting/compensation etc. farm these roles out to 3rd party vendors – and the top performing employees working for these vendors are often “rainmakers” for their respective company, as future client business is contingent on their labor.
Of course, moving into this space carries its own set of challenges, namely that the firm one works for is likely to be smaller, and big companies pay better. Further, when working at smaller firms there tends to be a greater reliance on a few large clients for the bulk of revenues… and when a major client is lost even some high performers are severed.
My take? Ultimately life is full of risk, and while job security is great it shouldn’t be the sole governing factor in selecting an employer (or job role).
A better way of approaching work might be to focus on developing in demand skills and the ability to articulate why those skills are valuable. This won’t make one indispensable to his or her employer… but it’s a great way to ensure continued employment throughout one’s career.
As always, please share your thoughts below.
If you have questions about something you’ve read here (or simply want to connect) you can reach me at any of the following addresses:
SomethingDifferentHR@gmail.com OR firstname.lastname@example.org