Becoming Invaluable: Gaining Freedom and Better Work By Providing Value
At a previous employer, I had approximately a dozen staff that reported to me. The nature of the work was that we were often cycling through new staff, often temporary hires or contract employees, and we were typically attempting to get them up to speed as quickly as possible about our team and operations. One of the things which I did during this on-boarding process was to provide them with a packet of information which they were to review and then we would discuss one-on-one. Included within that packet was a printout from several key sections of this book:
I attempted to be very clear with new staff that, from my perspective, the highest form of value that they could provide during their employment with the organization was the following: Don’t Just Do What I Tell You; Do What Needs to be Done. In fact, if they did this consistently they would quickly find themselves to be invaluable to the organization.
It may sound self-evident: we see a need, we address the need, but it’s not practiced. Many of our work environments operate on an unwritten mindset of command + control, i.e. “I’ll address it when my boss tells me to.” We have work order systems, prescriptive routines, job descriptions that are restrictive and occasionally even enforced. We work within artificially specialized organizational silos, even while most organizations and teams are experiencing a great need for generalists to help problem solve and get things done. Both organizations (and life) require, and reward, those who are willing to take initiative and search for solutions. Those are the people who “get lucky” and seem to “always be in the right place at the right time”; they’ve positioned themselves to be invaluable and influential.
Do What Needs To Be Done
We see this same hesitation with children. We exhort them to take initiative in their spheres of influence: clean up their room, set the table, get ready for bed, do their homework, etc. We say all these things under the presupposition that they should be addressing these same things without our constant reminder. How frustrating it is when it seems that our vigilant reminder is required to gain any forward momentum in their work. The secret’s out: your supervisor likely feels the same way. (Or you do if you are the supervisor). We need to keep that in mind as we go about our duties and tasks at work, reminding ourselves that there are opportunities to stand out and help solve frustrating problems for our supervisor and the organization, simply by applying an incremental amount of additional effort.
Reframing The Statement
At my former employer, to make sure that my new team members understood the expectations I was describing, I would slightly re-frame the statement to “Do what needs to be done…without waiting to be asked.” I wanted to be very clear that they had my permission to take initiative and tackle things, regardless of job description, experience level, or seniority. If they had a new idea or new solution to an aggravation point on the team, they were fully empowered to have at it; ask me if you’re unsure but if you think you can handle it please proceed and tell me how it’s shaking out.
There’s a common phrase in our era of hyper-vigilant security: If you see something, say something. The same mindset can be applied to our work: if you see something, do something. Don’t just stare at the issue, the mess, the problem to be solved; jump in and start working on a solution or resolution. All these various little mental cues take up space in our head. Every time you pass the overflowing trash bin and do not pause to empty it or you notice that the customer has been waiting for longer than normal expecting to be helped, and you don’t approach them; all of these types of situations form a mental residue of unresolved items in your head. They take up a mental volume that’s better used on higher value problem-solving.
In his book, “Getting Things Done“, author and business consultant David Allen has a threshold for these residual minor things: if you can take care of it in less than two minutes then you should just take care of it and stop thinking about it.* That way the minor task is not holding your head hostage, it’s accomplished and you are on to something of (hopefully) higher value with a greater amount of concentration available.
*The trick is to make sure you’re not filling up your whole day with an assemblage of other people’s two-minute tasks; which is easy enough to do in an organization. But at the same time, we need to recognize that you can get a lot of stuff accomplished, while en route to somewhere or something else.
Not waiting to be asked deals with initiative and as I used to tell my new staff: initiative covers a multitude of mistakes. Mistakes can be addressed and skills can be trained and honed for future use; but laziness, disinterest, and waiting around for someone to spell it all out for you (which realistically won’t happen) cannot be fixed by anyone except you.
Why Bother Being Invaluable?
Taking the initiative, becoming invaluable, applying additional effort above the minimum expectations; all of these can be difficult, take time, and require work. Is it worth it? Should we even bother? It might take some time to see any results….we don’t need to do it to keep our job right?…and there’s so much email to get through….
In Seth Godin’s book “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?” (a great read, I recommend), he describes how an individual can, and should, make themselves into a workplace linchpin for their employer; the strongest link in the chain of operations. Once the required knowledge, skill sets, and relationships are established where the employee is an integral and critically necessary part of the best functioning of the organization or team, the pain of parting will be too much for the employer and the employee now possesses a great deal of bargaining power. In Godin’s view, it’s the highest form of job security and leads to greater external and intrinsic rewards over time. The extrinsic reward is in the form of higher compensation and professional opportunities; intrinsic reward can be found by being increasingly tasked with more interesting and rewarding work of that employee’s choosing.
Being A Linchpin Is More Fun
Being invaluable at work is flat out more enjoyable and providing value is intrinsically more interesting. If we are pursuing a life well lived, we need to recognize that it’s a comprehensive endeavor. We cannot be slackers and disinterested for 8 hours a day at work, and then suddenly turn on the Motivation-Maker to get us fired up at 5 pm for whatever other projects or interests we may have. Healthy people may be able to compartmentalize their time and attention, but not their deep traits such as their mindset and work habits. This will inevitably spill over into all areas of their lives because they are fundamental to how one sees the world. If we want to dynamic and ambitious with our hobbies or personal projects, we should start showing that same initiative in our professional work. The momentum will spill over.
The greater skill set that one acquires typically leads to more interesting work, involvement with projects and initiatives that are not run of the mill and require deliberate consideration and problem-solving. It’s more fun to be involved with such work. All of us likely daydream about a day when the interruptions and annoyances that come by way of working within an organization suddenly stop, and we can simply “get to work”, wistfully dreaming of the bliss of productive solitude. But that’s a bit of a pipe dream: most of us have our work, and our opportunities, for the very reason that we are part of a larger organization. Dealing with the people that make up that organization will not go away. We can strive to become invaluable within such environments, not attempt to disregard them entirely.
When an individual possesses the required experience and skill sets to start truly bargaining at the table, the negotiations actually become more enjoyable, because the employee has less to lose. They know that they are providing more value to their employer, and that value is likely increasing every day. They recognize that their work and efforts have coalesced to a point where they are in the position to legitimately ask for more from their employer because they have demonstrated a present and future value which the organization desperately needs. All of this goes back to doing what needs to be done, without waiting to be asked. One has to be willing to put in the effort before the reward, toiling along and look for opportunities without the express guarantee of reimbursement or recognition. It’s a calculated risk, but one which we should be willing to take.
Stewardship and Skills
We should be willing to take such a risk because regardless of extrinsic reward, we can always be rewarding internally. We know our own efforts, we know the level of excellence that we desire, we know the time that we have put in. If nothing else, we can be satisfied that we have been good stewards of the abilities and opportunities we have been entrusted with. When we learn new skills, we voluntarily encounter new situations. We increase not only our knowledge but also our competence, confidence, and usefulness. All of these are powerful motivators and rewards for the extra effort required. And once you start consistently taking the initiative and doing what needs to be done, after a period of time that simply becomes how you steward your work. It’s your new normal and its miles ahead of the average.
As we mentioned earlier, if we work on cultivating within ourselves an attitude and outlook of problem-solving and addressing issues in the workplace, it will inevitably spill over into our personal lives as well. Capacity that you did not previously know you had can become available to you. We can become even more impactful in our own lives because we are developing and cultivating an attitude of initiative and momentum.
Don’t just do what you’re told, do what needs to be done. It is its own reward.
Have you made deliberate attempts to become invaluable in certain areas of your life?
Have you ever considered Godin’s idea of the professional linchpin and how you could become one?
Originally published at fjwriting.com on August 7, 2018.