Published in the August/September 2021 Issue of Memento Mori 

By Bruce Tulgan 

How can anybody succeed in today’s increasingly demanding and uncertain world of work? How do you navigate through constantly shifting priorities and unclear lines of authority? How should you think and conduct yourself when there are so many factors outside your control? 

When boom goes to bust or bust goes back to boom, who is still indispensable? Who will keep adding value, no matter what? 

It is those I call “go-to” people. They are the people I’ve been studying for decades now. They are the true indispensables in every workplace, those upon whom you should look to model yourself—in the best of times—and especially in challenging of times.  

What truly sets apart those truly indispensable go-to people?  

There are as many different styles and stories as there are go-to people. And there are many wannabes and plenty of imposters.  

You might think that the indispensable person is the person who is the technical expert who has a relative monopoly on vital skills for key tasks and responsibilities. 

Of course, your ability to do your job is of the utmost importance. But that’s just the price of entry. In fact, most people would much rather work with someone who may not be the greatest technical expert, but who is reliable and good to work with; someone who has a great attitude and takes personal responsibility for the role and what he or she can do to make the situation better now.  

Does that mean the indispensable person is the one who always says yes, yes, yes, to any request or proposition? No.  

I’ve seen hundreds of cases where the person who says yes, yes, yes, to please you up front, isn’t able to deliver on the back end. Their overpromising causes you more problems than you had to begin with. And I’ve seen hundreds of cases of people who say yes, yes, yes, who are indeed honorable, responsible, and capable, but become over committed; therefore, they start juggling too many competing priorities and inevitably start dropping the balls and getting burned out and overbooked. Most people prefer to work with somebody who makes promises they can keep over somebody who promises the world but doesn’t deliver. 

What It Is, What It Isn’t 

You might think the indispensable person is a steamroller who will get it done, no matter what—the person who can always find a work-around, who’s willing to break the rules, to bend the rules to get things done. No. Go-to people who stand the test of time are the ones who figure out how to work within the rules and the chain of command.  

Is it the person who is great at juggling competing priorities? No. It is the person who—no matter how long the to-do list and all the interruptions—has a relentless focus on next steps and finishes what he or she starts. 

You might think it is the person who is the best at personal rapport-building and internal politics. No. It is the person who is focused on continuously improving the working side—not the personal or political side—of working relationships. Being indispensable doesn’t have to mean being quadruple-booked all the time, never taking vacations, always being under-slept and over-tired, always overwhelmed and juggling competing priorities. In fact, the biggest mistake people make in trying to be indispensable is trying to do all that; and it is a set-up for failure and burnout. True go-to people—those indispensables, who stand the test of time—have a special way of thinking about collaboration and conducting themselves in workplace relationships: 

  • THE THINKING: They have a strong philosophical bias for service, which is precisely why they are not always available to everybody. 
  • THE CONDUCT: They treat other people’s needs with great respect, so they do not make commitments they cannot keep.  

How to Be the Go-To Person 

How do you do it? 

  • Ensure communication alignment— up, down, sideways, and diagonal—through regular ongoing structured dialogue. Use vertical alignment with your boss to set you up for success, working things out with colleagues on their own level. 
  • Know when to say no and how to say yes. Evaluate every opportunity—great and small—with real due diligence. Know what you can and cannot do; what you are allowed and not allowed to do; what you should or should not do. Know when to say no to free up room for better yeses; and never say yes without first knowing for sure you can deliver. That means every yes deserves a clear plan of action and focused execution. 
  • Work smart. Know what you want to be known for—and keep expanding. Professionalize everything you do by mastering best practices, repeatable solutions, and job aids. Specialize in what they do best. And keep expanding your repertoire of specialties. 
  • Finish what you start. No matter how long your to-do list, execute one concrete result after another. Eat every elephant one bite at a time. Break up your work into smaller chunks (bite, chew, and swallow) and set aside bigger chunks of “do not disturb” time for focused execution time. 
  • Keep getting better and better at working together. Channel finger-pointing into continuous improvement. Make authentic, extreme gratitude one of your signatures. And look around the corner with your colleagues to try to plan ahead for the next opportunity to work together. 
  • The more valuable you make yourself to others, the more they will truly want to work with you, want to make good use of your time, want to do things for you too, and really, truly want you to succeed.  

That’s what it means to be indispensable. 

Bruce Tulgan of Rainmaker Thinking, Inc. based this article on his new book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work, (Harvard Business Review Press). He is the CEO of Rainmaker Thinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world.